The blog formerly known as   Fake Plastic Fish

September 21, 2009

In which I run into No Impact Man again, and nothing happens…

… you know, because of that chemistry accident several years ago while he was working late at the lab so that now things just slide right through him instead of creating an imp… Oh, forget it. That was the scenario Michael created tonight after we saw the No Impact Man movie again and heard Colin Beavan, the No Impact Man himself, answer questions at the Shattuck movie theatre in Berkeley with our friends Nancy and David. I’m guessing Michael has seen Watchmen one too many times.

Anyway, while the movie is a great gateway into the No Impact Project (in fact, it’s powerful enough to make some bloggers cry), the No Impact Man book is the hard stuff, the thing your parents warned you about. And I think it’s about time to start discussing! (Disclosure: If you purchase via the link on this page, My Plastic-Free Life earns a small percentage.)  Don’t worry. If you don’t have the book yet, you can still play. The book is simply a springboard for the important questions I want to ask. Still, I highly recommend reading this book. You’ll be glad you did.

Brown is actually green

First let’s start with the outside of the book before we get into the local organic waste-free goodness inside. The book looks pretty eco-friendly, with its brown cardboard cover and library binding. But is it? I checked inside the cover page for information on the materials, which is where that kind of information usually appears. Couldn’t find it. Turns out, there is a whole page devoted to explaining the choice of materials in the “Note on Production” immediately after the epilogue.

After considering various options for producing this book, Colin and the publisher finally decided on 100% postconsumer recycled paper and cardboard, processed without chlorine. “Additionally, the paper was manufactured using energy generated from biogas.”

Question 1: Are the materials from which a book is produced a deciding factor for you in whether or not to purchase it? Or is the information inside worth some of the environmental cost? Would you still rather borrow from the library? Or how about downloading to a Kindle or listening to an audiobook, saving paper altogether?

My answer? I’m really enjoying carrying this book around with me and savoring it at my own pace without worrying about getting it back to the library on time or having to pay attention to audio, even if it is Colin reading his own words. I’m happy the book is so eco-friendly and feel like the message is important enough to justify use of some resources. What do you think?

The first of many parables

Colin Beavan likes to tell stories. He’s kind of like Jesus in that way. Oh, don’t get mad. I’m just saying that they both like(d) to use stories to illustrate their points. So before we even get into Colin’s own story, we are presented with the first of many parables:

Our sages taught:
A man should not move stones from his ground to public ground.
A certain man was moving stones from his ground onto public ground when a pious man found him doing so and said to him,
“Fool, why do you move stones from ground which is not yours to ground which is yours?”
The man laughed at him.
Some days later, the man had to sell his field, and when he was walking on that public ground he stumbled over those stones.
He then said, “How well did that pious man say to me, ‘Why do you move stones from ground which is not yours to ground which is yours?'”
–Talmud Bavli, Masekhet Bava Kama 50b

Very deep. But what does it mean?

Question 2: Living on this planet, how do we determine what land, or materials of this earth, are ours and which belong to everyone? Does anything ultimately belong to us as individuals? And what is the limit of our responsibility? Do we have a stewardship to the world outside the walls and fences of our own homes? Our own minds?

Obviously, I think the simple answer is yes or I wouldn’t be doing this blog. On the other hand, can’t we get too involved trying to change other people and the external world and forget about starting right where we live? How do we find the balance between making personal changes in our own lives and reaching out to have a positive impact in the rest of the world? Or is the example we set with our own personal changes enough?

Confronting one’s own smugness (Chapter 1)

As background, Colin starts out by telling a story about how he basically guilt-tripped his wife Michelle into not wearing fur. That’s the short summary. His description is actually very funny (which is why you should read the book) and makes you both laugh and want to hit him. Because he basically realizes that he is all about getting other people to change their ways without looking at his own behavior. He’s walked a mile in his own leather shoes without realizing that his choices too contribute to animal suffering.

He then goes on to explain how he loved to blame George Bush for our problems, all the while blasting two air conditioners at the same time so he wouldn’t have to wait for his apartment to cool down. Colin felt helpless to fix the problems in the world and was sick of waiting around for someone else to do it. Finally, his big realization:

Am I really helpless? Is it true that a guy like me can’t make a difference? Or am I just too lazy or frightened to try?

Question 3: How often do we blame or try to change other people before looking inside ourselves first and confronting our own demons? How often do we grumble about situations we wish were different, waiting for someone else to come along and fix it for us, instead of taking action ourselves?

One of my friends from Green Sangha forwarded a message from The Daily Om the other day that addresses this very question. Although not specifically about environmental issues, it’s relevant to any situation in which we are frustrated in other peoples’ seemingly unenlightened behavior. I’ll share part of it with you:

You may be someone who understands the true nature of reality, perceiving deeply that we all emanate from the same source, that we are all essentially one, and that we are here on earth to love one another. To understand this is to be awakened to the true nature of the self, and it is a blessing. Nevertheless, people who just don’t get it are seemingly everywhere and, often, in positions of power. It can be frustrating and painful to watch them behave unconsciously.


When dealing with people who seem very unconscious, it helps to remember that every one must find their own way to awakening and that the experiences they are having are an essential part of their process. Holding them in the light of our own energy may be the best way to awaken theirs. At the same time, we are inspired by their example to look within and shed light on our own unconscious places, sacrificing the urge to judge and surrendering instead to humble self-inquiry.

Man, it is so easy to look at the world and give up in despair. As you know, I’ve had my own moments of feeling helpless under the weight of our consumer-oriented culture. What helps is to look inside myself first and root out the places where I am just as acquisitive as the biggest shop-a-holic. No, I don’t care about buying new things. But I get caught in other places… wanting more approval, wanting more blog readers and more comments on the blog, measuring my worth not by how much money I have in the bank but by how many other bloggers link to me or forward my tweets.

Aren’t there ways in which all of us are helpless over addictions and obsessions and desires for more, more more! How can we possibly change the world without first changing ourselves?

The No Impact Project

For the rest of the chapter, Colin explains how he came up with the No Impact Project and the stages that he and his family would move through in getting to zero negative impact on the planet. Stage one: making no trash; stage two: zero emission travel; stage three: food choices; and further stages involving consumer purchases, heat and electricity (they turned it off), water use and pollution, and then giving back to the community in a positive way to balance out the negative impact they couldn’t avoid.

Colin told me that he started with trash because it is the most visible, and at the time, he thought it would be the easiest step to begin with.

Question 4: What was your first step in lowering your ecological footprint? What was the gateway for you? Changing lightbulbs? Eating locally or organically? Generating less waste? Driving less? Simply making sure you recycled properly? What was the moment you realized you could personally make a difference and how far have you progressed from there?

I’ve written here before that my “Aha!” moment came after reading Colin’s blog and following links to the article, Plastic Ocean, and realizing that all the tiny plastic pieces inside the carcass of a dead albatross chick could have come from my own lifestyle. That was the moment I woke up to a fraction of my own impact on the planet. Plastic was my gateway. And plastic has lead me to take so many other steps: from wanting to generate no plastic waste to wanting to generate no waste at all; from realizing chemicals from plastic could leach into my food to buying local and organic to avoid all the other chemicals in my food; from the desire to protect wildlife from plastic pollution to an understanding of the many other ways our lifestyle causes harm to living things.

Plastic has been a door and a lens through which I view my own impact on the planet. What’s been yours?

So, okay, I think that’s enough for now. It gets us through Chapter 1. Like I said, I’m enjoying reading this book slowly and savoring it. How often would you like to discuss future chapters and how many chapters would you like to cover at a time?

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heather w

After decades of book collecting, I am trying to reverse the trend and now only buy books I expect to reread multiple times. Which means I almost always borrow from a library first to gauge the reread potential, as I did with No Impact Man. However, I implemented this strategy while living in a city where the public library had a very generous renewal policy. My new PL only allows one (ONE!) renewal and that will take some getting used to. But to answer your question, no — although I’m pleased when books are made from recycled and/or acid-free paper,… Read more »


#1 – i generally can't afford to buy books, though on rare occasions i'll buy used online. nor will i ever be able to afford a kindle. i think it's great that the book's made how it is – the more books like that, the better – we surely have enough paper being recycled to supply for books like these. also, i use the library. #2 – that's a big question. i just finished reading 'the fifth sacred thing' in which air, water, fire, earth are all sacred and not able to be owned. of course, that's opposite of american… Read more »

Karen Moser-Booth

Beth, this is a wonderful post and it really hit home for me. So much so that I've bookmarked it. We all evolve, and we do so at our own paces. If you judge others for the place they are in, you give up your own influence … and rightly so.

Thanks for the link, too. :)


beth- i really like the idea of one chapter at a time and a discussion following. #1- i usually prefer to borrow books from the library. sometimes they are unavailable or a really long wait in which case i often purchase a used copy, then donate that to the recirculation room in the library. i admire the low impact nature of books like colin's but i would have bought it anyway because i consider the message worth the impact in some cases. some books are fine on audio or kindle, but for books i know i'll return to reread selections,… Read more »


My response to your comment turned into a ridiculously long comment. So I will email you the comment :)


Thanks for welcoming me to the conversation.

You asked if I'd seen the movie. No, it hasn't been here yet (I live in an out-of-the-way place) and, besides I read many more pages than I see scenes.

So, I'm going off some interviews and reviews (plus remembering that other guy who took his family to live with Simple People on a farm)

I'm really glad to read that Colin is suggesting group action.

Beth Terry

@Erin — I think Colin is very fortunate to have been able to have a say in what materials were used to produce his book. It's my understanding that most authors don't have that kind of power and so green authors often end up with their books printed in less eco-friendly ways than they'd have liked. I think once you're in the New York Times and regularly appear on TV, you probably have a certain amount of leverage in that department. They KNOW your book is going to sell. I love your comment about water rights. That is why I… Read more »

Beth Terry

@Clif — I love the idea of the Bed Buddy, and I would love it even more if it ever got hot enough here to need one. We were supposed to have some super hot days this week, and they changed their mind and visited someone else instead. @underbelly — When we have family and friends who don't share our values, should we just lead by example and then focus our activism on people who are ready to come on board? I wrestle with this question myself, thinking if I just say the right thing, they will listen. But maybe… Read more »


Wow, fabulous interview! We should all think about those questions, they are wonderful.

1 year. 2 people. 365 changes.

kale for sale

There is so much here. It's fabulous. #1 It's a love thing or an impulse thing if I buy a book. Generally if I see the author I'll buy their book but more and more I use the library. And if I own a book it eventually gets passed around, given away or donated. Or its one of the few I love forever on the shelf. I've never paid attention to how the book was made as they've all seemed to be made the same way. #2 I'm always questioning the balance between the blog, making jam, friends, family, work.… Read more »


Opening the Door:I grew up camping and then backpacking. When my Dad straightened out his diet,saying "in the mountains I eat a hunk of cheese and few crackers, so why do I take two corned beef sandwiches to the office?", I began thinking about home and town life as not as nice as backpacking. No Impact Man: seems to me the author sees life in black and white, since he might have given up the elevator without giving up electricity entirely. But then, I live in a dark place and don't actually want to sleep 10 hours tonight (and longer… Read more »

knutty knitter

I didn't have an aha moment either because I've always lived like that and so did my parents and that was half a century ago!

On the other hand, its been nice to find a group of peeps that I can communicate with and get new ideas from. Otherwise I would probably still feel like some sort of freak :)

viv in nz

Erin aka Conscious Shopper

Question #1 – I try not to buy books at all because we have a tiny house, so even if a book is made out of "eco" materials, it wouldn't convince me to buy it. But I am more likely to read a book made out of eco or alternate materials. When I found out that "Cradle to Cradle" was made out of plastic, I was intrigued and immediately wanted to read it. Also, since this is a book about saving the planet, I'm glad that Colin was able to get it printed on something besides virgin paper. That bothered… Read more »


I rarely buy books anymore I have a good library system. But sometimes I buy one that is on hold for forever (I get inpatient) or one not available at the library–they usually get passed on to friends, family when finished. I care more about where I buy my book (used, local, independent when possible) than materials. I still don't get the name of Colin's project. No Impact Man just bugs me when it is so clearly a family project and from what I've read of his blog something his wife was equally involved in even if her struggles to… Read more »


I've been vaguely aware of environmentalism and trying to be more sustainable for quite a while but for a long time my only response was to sign petitions that came in my e-mail. Since discovering your blog, I tried to do the Week of Plastic, and I did collect every piece of plastic I used, but then the follow-up with looking up where it's all from became so overwhelming that I just gave up and recycled what I could and threw out the rest. Since then, I've simply tried to be as sustainable as I can and to make conscious… Read more »


Re book — I do buy books, more for contents than content, but I do appreciate the publisher/author's efforts to minimize impacts. I read a lot of Colin's blog; I would probably read his book from the library but it's not a big priority.Re lowering impact — probably the first step for me was many many years ago when I decided not to get a car and bike everywhere, not a common choice in the rural midwest where I then lived. These days, we've spent the last several years on localizing/fair trading our food and reducing energy useage in our… Read more »

axelle fortier

This is a WOW post for me.

Aside from that, I always enjoy hearing what Michael has to say as well as seeing Soots & Arya involved with your work.


Oh my first step was plastic actually. In about 2005 or 2006. I don't think there were any blogs addressing that topic at the time. It was very, very hard for me. I believe the trigger was the albatross picture, but I can't be certain. I gave up after a few months because I couldn't figure out alternatives. I found Envirowoman's blog later and began eliminating plastic methodically and slowly. I then found your blog and your dedication was very inspiring. Plus I love the graphs and numbers :) I started my blog to track numbers. I knew Miranda… Read more »


I probably won't buy the book. I generally don't buy books because it just adds to the general clutter and since we move so often, books often wind up being the biggest pain. I will read it though from the library and do plan on watching the documentary next month when it comes to San Diego. Although Colin would be my personal entry point character in the documentary, I'm glad his wife Michelle is the way she is and will serve as an entry point for others who are like she used to be. —I do through periods of despair… Read more »


I don't think I've considered the materials that a book is produced from. At least, not yet. I do love to read and I do often buy books, because I am a slow reader at the best of times and with 2 little ones underfoot it can take me months to finish. It makes the library impractical. I do buy second-hand when I can, and I love the idea of a Kindle but sadly they're not available in Canada. :( As for my first step, it would be eating locally. It just feels so much better to me. Getting rid… Read more »


My foot in the door came rather strangely–a facebook friend I went on a study abroad trip with (but I don't really talk to him anymore) randomly posted a link to Plastic Ocean on his profile. I read it and was horrified. I started googling for the North Pacific Gyre and found Captain Moore's Ted Talk. I googled some more and found your blog. I haven't been able to look at plastic the same way since. As I try to reduce my plastic, it's frustrating that my (republican) family stays completely oblivious, drinking from their water bottles that came in… Read more »


Great idea to do this with the book. It will stimulate people to think about their own efforts. I've got one to contribute that I thought of when turning on air conditioners to cool off quickly was mentioned. I have a great little item called the Bed Buddy that I keep in the freezer. It's simply a tube of silica gel – the same stuff that comes in little packets to keep things dry. You take it out of the freezer when you come in hot and sweaty and put it around the back of your neck. Instant relief –… Read more »