In May of 2007, I listened to a radio program that changed my life. The show was To The Best Of Our Knowledge’s Going Green episode, and the interviewee was Colin Beavan, self-described No Impact Man. His efforts to live sustainably caught my imagination. He and his family were attempting to live for one year generating zero environmental impact, while living in their ninth floor New York City apartment. I think maybe I related to him as a fellow urbanite. I realized I didn’t have to move to the country and live off the grid in order to lower my ecological footprint. But there was something else, too. Something in his voice that let me know here was someone who wasn’t blaming everyone else for the state of the earth but had decided to see what he himself and his family could do about their share of the mess we’re in.
Several weeks later, I managed to look up his web site, and it was through following links from the No Impact Man blog that I arrived at the article “Plastic Ocean” that opened my eyes to my own devastating impact on the planet. I didn’t own a car. I didn’t own a house. But plastic. That was something I could control. That was where I could do my part. I sure used a lot of it.
Later, I learned that Beavan, like me, was a meditator and someone for whom environmental work is all about knowing that there is no separation between us and anything else on this planet. Of course we want to take care of Mother Earth and all her creatures. They are us!
But in the last few months, I think I’ve been losing the feeling of connection and oneness that I seemed to experience all the time back then. I’ve become overwhelmed with the immensity of the challenges we face. My preoccupation with end results has sometimes blinded me to the beautiful world that is before us every single moment we are alive. An attachment to outcomes rather than the here and now.
So it is with utter gratitude that I share with you some choice morsels from my meeting with Colin Beavan on Tuesday, before a screening of his new documentary, No Impact Man (not to be confused with the book No Impact Man, which just came out today, and which is awesome, and of which I’m giving away a copy, and about which I’ll tell you more further down this post.)
I met up with Colin and one other blogger at the office of his PR firm in downtown San Francisco. The first thing I did when I saw him standing there in his 350.org T-shirt? Jumped up and gave him a great big hug. I couldn’t help myself. Then, we retired to the interview room where I and blogger Cat Lincoln from Tonic proceeded to pump him with questions, while Colin sat back and munched on nuts from a mason jar.
Beth: A question I’ve been asking lately is whether personal change is enough. How far can we get with personal changes and what else has to happen? What is the significance of personal change and how do we get beyond that?
Colin: It’s interesting, I was just talking to a gentleman whose father-in-law is a stalwart Republican conservative, but they have in their family… the niece or someone… is a lesbian. He is Republican across the board but he’s voting FOR gay marriage. The reason why he’s voting for gay marriage is because he has skin in the game. He has skin in the game, right?
Individual action, if we can encourage people to change their lives, they have skin in the game. Once you take action in your individual life, you have skin in the game like the guy I was just talking about. So in other words, your habit change causes value change. You have skin in the game and now you insist that your politicians enable you to live the way that you want to live.
The other thing about individual action is Americans emit five times the carbon of the average Chinese person, right? We have habits that really, really don’t work. So, even if we get 80% of our energy renewably produced, we’re still gonna be using too much energy. We just have to learn to live differently. We don’t get to all have three jet skis in our garage. You can’t change the culture through regulation. You change the culture by changing the way you live. So that’s another reason why individual action is important.
But it’s not to say that there’s individual action instead of collective action. That’s a completely fallacious division. It’s individual action as well as collective action and I believe that if one person were to embody both then what we have is a model of completely engaged citizenship.
Beth: Do you ever get overwhelmed with the immensity of the problem? Do you ever feel like it’s just too much?
Colin: So you’re a Buddhist, Beth. So what’s the problem right now?
[Note: I don’t actually label myself as such, but for purposes of this discussion, I’ll go with it.]
Beth: (laughing) I’m asking you. Okay, I’ll tell you the reason for this question. I actually answered this question on your blog and it was something like, you know, avoiding feeling overwhelmed by living in the present and focusing…
Colin: One foot in front of the other…
Beth: Right. That’s right. And then there was a guy, a reader of your blog, who totally disagreed with my answer, and he actually sent me this huge essay he had written about overwhelm and how it’s important to actually allow ourselves to feel that sense of overwhelm…. I had an experience recently, and I don’t want to get into it too much, where I did feel completely overwhelmed…
Colin: Do I feel overwhelmed? What you’re talking about there is so interesting between letting the feelings in and not. There’s such a thing as being overwhelmed and feeling the feelings, and also putting one foot in front of the other, right? At the same time.
So the important thing about being overwhelmed is not to be overwhelmed to the point of incapacity.
There’s a story about a woman who’s a layperson, and she’s a Zen adept and she gets to be a grandmother. And all her life she’s been a lay preacher. And her granddaughter dies. And she’s sobbing her eyes out. And all the people are so surprised, and they say to her, “Don’t you understand that everything is just like this? Everything is one. Everything is just the way it’s always been. Do you not understand the point?”
And she stops crying and says to them, “Don’t you understand that my tears save my granddaughter and all beings?” So that is to say my compassion, my sadness for the human condition is what makes me human. So, that in itself is a great story, right? But the really important part of that story is that she stops crying. In other words, she’s overwhelmed with sadness, but when somebody comes to her who needs to be taught, she puts one foot in front of the other. She stops crying and she teaches. So, we have to accept that the problem is overwhelming and immense and at the same time just get on with it.
Cat: What do you recommend people do if they want to emulate in some small or large way what you’ve done, and two, how do you keep going when you [have that] feeling of being overwhelmed?
Colin: Okay, first thing, what can people do? It’s important to say before I start that there’s a meme that goes like this: If we all just do one little bit, everything will be okay. That is actually not true, and it’s dangerous. Because if we don’t stop burning coal within the next eight years we’ll hit a tipping point and the planet itself will start to warm itself up. So this meme that’s out there about if we just all do one little bit, it’s false. We actually have to look at substantial lifestyle changes. That is not to say that everybody has to be No Impact Man over night. It is to say that the changes that we make should be meaningful, right?
So, I’ve identified a bunch of things that I think are meaningful on “No Impact Man’s Top 10 Eco Tips”. First, stop eating beef. Because beef production actually is the second largest cause of climate change. That is your individual action tip, as it were.
My collective action tip is on October 24, get out with 350.org and participate in this International Day of Action where we’re going to demonstrate to our leaders that we care. Because the special interests have the money on their side. But if we can show the politicians that they have the people behind them, they’ll fight the special interests.
Cat: The second part is how do you find something to help you get from being overwhelmed to taking steps?
Colin: The big problems that we have in this world have to do with our institutions. So we can get overwhelmed and say that the human race is terrible, we’re doing terrible things. But actually, if you look very closely at the people around you, you find that most people are doing the right thing. They’re holding doors for each other, they’re helping each other across the street. They’re smiling at little kids ’cause little kids are fun. They’re joking with each other. I would say watch like the UPS man. Watch what’s happening on the street. People are joking with each other. People are lovely. Right?
Unfortunately for us, that loveliness is not reflected in our institutions. So that’s where we get overwhelmed because the loveliness is not reflected in our institutions. But never forget that people are lovely, right? And then for me that takes the overwhelmingness away. Even when I’m talking to somebody that doesn’t believe in global warming, I know they love their children. And I know that they believe that by not believing in global warming, they’re doing right by their children.
Beth: So, now that you’ve done your year, what have you gone back to and what changes have you kept?
Colin: Beth, do you know this expression, “I’m teaching my grandmother to suck eggs?” It’s a British expression. You know like when you don’t have any teeth and you’re like that (mimics gumming food) it’s like sucking eggs. So if you teach your grandmother to suck eggs, you’re teaching your grandmother to do something she already knows how to do? So when I say this to you, you already know this…
There’s no antagonism between living happily and living environmentally.
When there is antagonism it’s because the systems are screwed up and we have to go against the systems. So, for example, we had no air conditioner, and what we would do because it was so hot on some summer nights, as it is now because we still have no air conditioner, is instead of trying to go to bed in the heat, we would take Isabella and go to Washington Square Park, and we’d all go play in the fountain with our neighbors.
It’s so funny because yesterday I was talking to this old lady who said, “You know, we had no air conditioners because they didn’t exist, and on hot nights, what we would do is we would all go sit out on the stoop, you know, through the night, with our neighbors and just everybody. And some of my happiest memories of summer are those nights because we were just out with our neighbors.”
So, first of all, there’s something about our resource use that’s keeping us apart from each other, that’s causing us to be isolated. And we found that a lot in the No Impact Project. So, in terms of what we kept when the No Impact Project was over was basically, you know we kept what made us happier and what made us healthier.
So we choose to eat food that’s good for us and that’s fresh and nutritious, which means we continue to eat local food. It’s not that we adhere to the rules in the same way that we used to, but we eat local foods in a way that is practical for us as a family. We enjoy the prospect of getting our daily exercise without having to go to the gym, so we continue to walk and bike everywhere. We like saving $1200 a year on electricity, so we gave our air conditioners away. On the other hand, you know what? Washing clothes by hand sucks. So we use the laundry machine.
Beth: I want to know who your heroes are. What human beings have inspired you?
Colin: One of my contemporary heroes is Van Jones. And then like our typical leaders of movements are heroes: Gandhi is a particular hero of mine; Martin Luther King is a hero of mine; Betty Friedan is a hero of mine. These are people who led popular movements. They were grassroots movements. But on the other side of the coin, maybe the heroes are the people who are on my blog that we never ever ever ever will hear about who have changed their lives, and we’re never ever going to hear their names.
Beth: And don’t you get emails every once in a while from people who tell you what they’ve done because of you? Isn’t that just the most amazing thing?
Colin: It’s just so humbling. It’s totally humbling. And sometimes I talk about the straw that breaks the camel’s back. We talk about the straw that breaks the camel’s back because it’s the last straw. The straw that we remember, right? But nobody talks about the fact that in order to break that camel’s back, there are already 10,000 straws on the back of the camel, right? They weighed just as much. They just didn’t happen to be the last one. I think maybe those are heroes too. More so. The blog readers are heroes.
Cat: See, that’s why I think the small things… even though a small thing doesn’t count much, it does get the momentum going.
Colin: Yeah, yeah, yeah. But the meme is not small things. The meme is if we all just do something little, it will be fine. That’s the meme I object to. It’s not true.
Cat: You can get started with something small…
Colin: Put one foot in front of the other. Just don’t stop with something small. That’s all. Um… by the way, the reason why Gandhi and Martin Luther King and also Tolstoy are heroes of mine is because of the principle of non-violence. Because the idea is not to get angry at other people, it’s to love. That basically you love people into change. You don’t hate people into change.
I started reading No Impact Man on the BART train coming home from the movie Tuesday night. The movie, by the way, is very funny because, as it turns out, Colin is not actually the star. His wife Michelle and to a lesser extent daughter Isabella are the real stars. Without them, there wouldn’t be a movie. Because films require drama, tension. For Colin, it appears, all this earthy crunchy stuff comes pretty easily. He enjoys it. But for Michelle, who tells Isabella while watching Colin exult over his new worm bin, “Daddy likes nature. Mommy doesn’t like nature,” the process is much more of a struggle. While I’m not a shop-a-holic, I totally sympathized with her raging caffeine addiction and efforts at bargaining around said addiction. The film is very entertaining.
The book, too, is entertaining, but in a different way. It’s Colin’s voice, which at times can be very funny. But also earnest and sincere and questioning. Like, for example, the questions he asks while examining the ninety gallons (yeah, you read that right) of garbage his family generated the week before the project officially began. Here are a few gems:
“Do we work for and pay for all this convenience in order to live our lives, or do we live our lives in order to work for and pay for all this convenience?”
“You sit down with your trash and you see your life laid out before you on the floor, you see what an archaeologist would see when he studies your life a thousand years from now, and you wonder: If life begets life and death begets death, does waste beget waste? If my life begets waste, what does that say about my life? Is a waste of resources a sign of a waste of life?”
“So I wonder. Just a thought. But if I treated the resources that pass through my hands as though they were precious, might I also begin to feel that this very life — the one right under my feet right now and right this very moment — might be precious too?”
I’m only on page 66, and I keep reading slower and slower to savor the words. I’m wishing I had others with whom to share this book. Are any of you interested in reading No Impact Man with me and discussing it on this blog? If so, please leave a comment.