I just finished reading Colin Beavan’s No Impact Man and loved it. It’s a very inspiring account of his and his family’s attempts to drastically reduce their environmental impact and at the same time live a better, more fulfilling life.
I wouldn’t call myself an environmentalist per se, however, I think there are many ways one can reach the same kind of conclusions about needing to protect the environment and living more sustainably. As a Christian, for instance, you could look at it as conserving God’s creation that man has been appointed the steward of, not its exploiter. As an economist, you would want markets to function properly, meaning that there shouldn’t be any externalities and prices should reflect the true cost of things to society (something I am certain they don’t right now in the case of air-travel, gasoline and hamburgers, for instance). As a technologist it should be a nice challenge to improve the energy efficiency of one’s products an generally do more with less. As a business man or researcher, there are plenty of opportunities to make money out of developing green technologies to be developed and capitalized on once we arrive at a market and regulatory system where environmental impact is properly included in the prices of goods and services. Or if you’re a family man, you would want children and grand-children to enjoy this planet and its beauties they same way you have enjoyed.
What I already do and still need to be doing
Anyway, there are a lot of good reasons to think about one’s impact on the environment and also why we want the things we want. I’ve written before, about how I have been looking into ways to reduce the clutter and overall amount of stuff in my live, and what I am doing to live more eco-friendly. To summarize, I am already:
- Using public transportation or trains for almost all my transportation needs (In the past three years I have taken a cab only twice to get to the train station at 4:00am when no other public transportation was available);
- Getting my electricity from 100% renewable sources from Naturstrom and encouraging the people around me to do the same;
- In a couple of days, having at least 20% of my natural gas made up of biogas, also from Naturstrom;
- Buying carbon offsets from Atmosfair to offset air travel that I can’t avoid;
- Using mostly compact fluorescent light bulbs, except in the bathroom where it’s extremely impractical that these bulbs take so long to reach their full brightness, though I’m looking into installing energy efficient LEDs there to replace my old halogen lamps;
- Trying not to be wasteful by turning off devices I don’t use, in the winter heating only the one room I’m in, having only one light on at a time and not buying more groceries than I know I will eat over the coming days;
- Brining my own bag or back-pack when I go grocery shopping to avoid using plastic bags and when I do need to use plastic bags for certain items, reusing them as garbage bags;
- Separating paper, glass, plastic and other trash so that as much of it as possible can be recycled;
- Taking the stairs to walk up to my office on the third floor instead of riding the elevator (it’s not only a nice bit of exercise every day, but especially around lunchtime it’s even the faster mode of transport);
- Using virtual goods such as MP3 and movie downloads instead of physical products that need to be manufactured and are hard to recycle such as CDs;
- Having no TV and trying to steer clear of many forms of advertising that want to convince me to buy more stuff.
Regardless of what one is already doing, this book has shown me that there is so much more that could be done. I could, for instance, be more conscious about what kind of food I’m buying, seeing from how far it has been shipped and making sure I don’t buy things that were grown in energy-intensive greenhouses. At the moment, I just buy whatever food I feel like eating, as I have no idea what vegetables are currently in season. Obviously, doing some research to find this out could go a long way to make more responsible purchasing decisions.
Also, there are so many things we buy each day that produce a ridiculous amount of trash because of their packaging. Like the candy bars I like to pick up in the afternoon to get me through the rest of a long day of work. Or Mini Babybel cheese, which I love, but does each one of them have to be wrapped in plastic individually. I mean, of course, I put the plastic in the recycle bin, but wouldn’t it be much better if this type of waste could be avoided in the first place?
What I can’t see myself doing
However, there are a couple of things in the book that I can’t see myself doing. Such as giving up my dish-washer, washing machine, electric light or heating. Or making my own bread. I don’t even find the time to make myself a cup of tea in the morning, let alone bake.
Time is a good point, because from reading the book, I get the feeling that one would need a lot of it to do what the author did as No Impact Man. For instance, without a fridge, one can only store fresh food for so long, so he needed to go to grocery shopping several times a week, while I can pick up all I need once a week and then keep it refrigerated for the next seven days. This is something I would not want to miss.
It’s not about pure asceticism
But letting go of all conveniences of modern life is not what this book is about. While the author was certain testing the limits of how “low one can go” in terms of environmental impact, I think the most interesting part is in the epilogue where her discusses what aspects of the no impact lifestyle he kept after the end of the project. Thus living a life that has less (though more than none) environmental impact by giving up certain things or rather freeing himself of these things thereby making his life more fulfilling at the same time.
I mean, for me and some other people I know, part of the fun of getting rid of stuff was the idea of just being different from the rest of this consumer culture we live in, denying oneself certain things for the sake of it, in a way challenging ourselves to make do without certain things even though we could afford them. I can see, though, how this isn’t for anybody, which is why I think the point about asceticism Beavan is making is an important one, noting when used right it is a tool that “might just educate some of us well in regard to what is and what is not necessary, needed, or even truly desired” (p. 149).
I think the “key learning” here is that everyone who isn’t living in poverty (an important exception discussed in the book as well), but has more than he or she needs for their subsistence, needs to take a good look at their lives and the stuff in it. Trying to figure out which makes us really happy and which is just dead weight, or actively getting on the way of making us happy. I firmly believe that we can be as happy or even more happy if we just chose to live differently in certain ways, for instance by buying groceries that are currently in season instead of buying raspberries in the winter (as I admit to having done a couple of weeks ago). I myself will seek to improve on the things I am already doing and do some research into how I can become a more conscious shopper.
There are a number of other important things mentioned in the book that I probably forgot, so why not go get a copy. It has a great collection of resources in the appendix, if you want to know what you can do yourself to make a difference. Or if you are not into reading, there is even a No Impact Man movie.