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No Impact Man

No Impact Man

Colin Beavan, a 40ish writer, decided in 2008 that he wanted his wife, toddler daughter and himself to live for a year in Manhattan with a net zero environmental impact.  His book is the story of their discoveries, and the title, No Impact Man – The Adventures of a Guilty Liberal Who Attempts to Save the Planet and the Discoveries He Makes About Himself and Our Way of Life in the Process, summarizes the saga. It’s clearly impossible to live without impacting the environment, so Beavan’s formula was Negative Impact + Positive Impact = No Net Impact.

The Beavans’ story shows that it’s feasible to live in a crowded urban setting with much smaller tax on natural systems than we accept as normal.  Their lifestyle adjustments would challenge many of us; my wife rebelled at the thought of reusable handkerchiefs for blowing one’s nose.  She has a delicate stomach and, rationalizing, came up with reasons why disposable paper tissues were more efficient than cloth, such as being a superior barrier against spread of germs.  She did agree to the idea of putting used tissues into our compost heap for that type of recycling.  We did not get to the even more delicate question of using cloth diapers instead of the 4,000 plastic diapers an American child dirties by age two.

The journey of the Beavan family, chronicled with humor and fun, was not into an unknown country.  Many of us remember when life was possible without plastics because plastic consumer products didn’t exist.  No plastic diapers, no Styrofoam cups.   I was born on a central Texas farm with no plastics and where rainwater collected off the house roof sufficed for drinking, cooking, bathing and so forth.  You didn’t waste water, because you could run out of it.  You didn’t waste much of anything.  And life on that farm is still my emotional taproot.

They explored many trails, in a crowded Manhattan setting, that lead to reducing pressures on trees and other natural resources.   The family experienced what many of us know; that having less stuff does not necessarily mean less happiness.  But it is now Christmas season, and our culture’s pervasive and persistent message, to buy and consume more, is at its annual high tide.  Swimming against that tide is hard, and I believe that too few of us will do it to make enough difference.  The message that more is good is too strong; it is reinforced by most human history and by eons of other species’ survival and reproductive experiences.

To me, the better strategy is to use the market system to reduce our consumption of material goods by making them more expensive.  We can accomplish that by collecting the full costs, including damage to natural systems, of the fossil fuel energy and other natural resources we use.

If I were emperor, I would sharply lower federal income tax rates and instead fund government partly from a high carbon tax.  Such a tax system would admittedly be regressive.  Consumer prices would go up because producing and bringing goods to market requires burning hydrocarbons, and oil and other hydrocarbons would be more expensive.  Again as emperor, I would use negative tax rates to mitigate the hardships of lower-income families caused by higher consumer prices.  Instead of paying income taxes, low-income families would receive enough federal cash to pay for their basic necessities.   But when I ran for Congress last year, the position of emperor was not on the ballot.

Notes for Further Exploration:

No Impact Man Project

Film: No Impact Man (available for instant streaming on Netflix)

Colin Beavan’s blog.

Photo from film No Impact Man.

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Comments (2)

  1. Tom Manaugh Friday - 23 / 12 / 2011
    Your analysis and suggestions make a lot of sense. There are limits to growth. Unfortunately, that is not the belief most people operate on. Furthermore, all, or almost all, corporations seek continually to maximize profits by expanding their sales to consumers. Now that corporations have been bequeathed personhood by the US Supreme Court, it will be harder than ever to change our cultural practices away from excessive, sustainability-killing consumption.

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