The blog formerly known as   Fake Plastic Fish

October 8, 2009

No Impact Man Book Discussion: Chapters 2 & 3

No Impact Man bookAs I mentioned before when discussing the first chapter of No Impact Man, the discussion questions are open to anyone, whether you have read the book or not. So please feel free to join in!

DAY 1: A Stuffed Up Nose

Chapter 2 begins with Colin, having decided to embark on the No Impact Project, waking up the morning of Day 1 unable to blow his nose.  See, Colin didn’t plan ahead of time what eco-friendly changes his family would make.  No, he chose more of a sink-or-swim method, figuring it out as he went along. As he writes,

The idea was not to become an environmental expert and then apply what I’d learned. The idea was to start from scratch — with not a clue about how to deal with our planetary emergency — and stumble forward. To see what I could find out. To see how I evolved.

And in fact, that’s exactly how I started Fake Plastic Fish. First, I wanted to see what my impact actually was (hence, collecting my plastic) and then find out what changes needed to be made from there. Why? Because if we don’t start where we are, most of us will never get started at all. Because procrastination is a powerful thing. And because perfectionism is the agent of procrastination. Or is it the other way around? Anyway, that’s my interpretation. No one will ever be perfect, we just have to get started.

So Colin wakes up that morning and can’t figure out how to blow his nose without destroying the planet. And then he can’t drink milk in a cardboard carton. He can’t figure out how to diaper is daughter or whether paper bags are better than plastic bags. In short, he has the Beginner’s Mind they talk about in Zen. He’s open and ready to learn.

Question: How many of us are willing to jump into a challenge without knowing the outcome ahead of time? How many of us are willing to have a No Impact Morning?

I’ve learned a lot in the over two years since I’ve been reducing my plastic consumption, but I had a feeling there was so much more about my environmental impact that I wasn’t noticing. So I decided to try having a No Impact Morning, like Colin’s, and see what I could learn. Here’s what happened:

8:30am — turn off cell phone alarm clock. Wonder about how much energy my cell phone uses while I sleep. Is it constantly “speaking” to the cell towers? How do cell phones work, anyway? And is the radiation killing my brain cells? And uh oh, now it needs to be charged. But I have this covered because I can plug it into my Solio solar charger.

8:30 – 8:35am — use toilet. Oh dear. We waste so much water in this country since we flush clean and dirty water all together in the same system. I wonder if my landlord would be into installing a grey water system. Probably not. At least my toilet paper is 100% recycled and comes in a cardboard box, not a plastic wrapper.  I am NOT using cloth.

8:35 – 8:40am — wash hands and brush teeth. Grey water ponderings. Local, handmade bar soap. Recycled plastic toothbrush. Tom’s of Maine toothpaste in recyclable aluminum tube. Natural mouth rinse in glass bottle. EcoDent floss. Not without their impacts, certainly, but less than new plastic and a ton of chemicals, right?

8:40am – 8:50am — Feed cats. Homemade cat food in glass containers. Stored in refrigerator. I wonder how much energy that uses. Next, scoop poop. Biodegradable corn litter. Corn — the troublesome crop. Darn you, kitties, refusing to use any other kind of litter.

8:50am – 9am — Make tea. Heat kettle. Electricity. And gas. Loose tea bought from bulk bin, stored in mason jar, steeped in metal tea ball. Tea comes from… where? Asia probably. That can’t be good for the planet.

9am – 11am — drink tea and eat fruit (local pears) while sitting at my computer. Oh dear. More electricity. Not just the power to run my machine, but the power running all the servers connected to the Internet.  The servers running our email and Twitter and Facebook and blogs.  Now I’m really making an impact! Must play with kitties before I give myself an eco-heart attack. Turn off computer when done. (Do NOT leave it on all day!)

11am – 12pm — Take shower (more grey water ponderings); wash hair with baking soda & water. What is the environmental impact of baking soda? Rinse with apple cider vinegar and water. I wonder where Trader Joe’s apple cider vinegar comes from. Wash with local handmade soap. Wonder where the ingredients come from. Dry off with cotton towel. Baking soda under arms instead of deodorant.  Put on clothes. Oh, who KNOWS where they came from!

By this time, you could drive yourself batty no matter how eco-knowledgeable you are. And I haven’t even left the house yet.  But this exercise is all about mindfulness, not mind games.  Guilt is not productive because it just leads to excuses.  I do know where my challenges lie:  reducing water and electricity consumption.  I’m working on it.  Getting the laundry rack was a start.  Making sure my computer is off when not in use is another.  And of course, the lights in the house.  Water is harder.  Will have to think.

What kinds of things would you learn during a No Impact Day?

The Psychology of Human Happiness

Colin goes on to explain that he does not want this project to be about deprivation.    He writes:

The coming year of my No Impact experiment, I realized, should have nothing to do with asceticism.  Asceticism has to do with renouncing worldly pleasures.  It means not eating when you’re hungry.  I means not blowing your nose when you need to. It means denying your human needs and longings.  To some people, it means accepting an implication that human desire and passion are bad.

But Colin’s idea is not to deprive himself and his family of pleasure, but instead to remove all the extra stuff that actually keeps them from enjoying life.  And to find enjoyment in simple pleasures, like splashing in the fountain on a hot day or eating a really delicious peach or playing Charades with friends. (Did you know that nowadays there are people who believe Charades comes in a box?)

Question:  What are your favorite ways to enjoy life that don’t come in a box or a bag or any type of package?  How can we fulfill the need for connection without succumbing to the urge to consume?

For me, it’s playing with Soots and Arya.  Rubbing their soft bellies, cuddling and chasing them.  Or hanging out with Michael and listening to his funny stories and ideas.  Taking a walk without bringing any money.  But the truth is that I find I spend an inordinate amount of time in front of the computer, using energy and not accomplishing much.  Or watching TV shows on DVD.  Or mindlessly consuming food.  Or playing games on my cell phone.  Looking for the next diversion.  What is it exactly that I need to be diverted from?  I wish I knew because it’s probably very important.

Waste Begets Waste

In Chapter 3, Colin tallies the week’s worth of trash his family collected before beginning the project, all 90 gallons of it, and has a melt-down.  What does all this waste say about life?  He writes:

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 feel like this idea, that waste begets waste and that we ought to value the materials that pass through our hands, is an important one. But honestly, sometimes it bogs me down. Sometimes I get so tied up in knots worrying about not wasting anything or finding the right place for each thing that I get completely overwhelmed by STUFF. Stuff that I don’t even know why I have. Is there such a thing as being too careful?

Question: How do we find the balance between caring for things and letting them go? How do we keep the flow of energy and materials moving so that we don’t get stuck?

Here’s an example: I have a pile of stuff on the floor by my desk. Oh yes, the same pile I wrote about here. Except it’s bigger. Why? Because I can’t bear to send anything to a landfill or have it damage the planet. Because I feel like since I have this stuff, it’s my responsibility to make sure it ends up in the right place. But I don’t have time to go through it all and make decisions about what to do with it.

Frugality is important. Not wasting is important. Simplifying is hella important. Right? So why do I feel the crazy urge to just chuck it all? (Not that I will!) But sometimes, truthfully, I envy other people with their big plastic trash bags and the ease with which they consume and toss out the materials of their lives. Except what I envy is not the tossing away, because we know there really is no “away”, but their blissful ignorance of the consequences of their actions.

So to repeat my last question: How can we find balance in an unbalanced world? That’s what I would love to know.

By the way, if you’re reading No Impact Man and have other insights or questions to share, please feel free! This post represents the places my mind goes while reading the book. Yours probably goes somewhere completely different.

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13 years ago

Just a small bit of info: I discovered recently that most mobile phones have the (hidden) option to wake you up even when turned off. Check the user manual as it’s really well concealed but mine is more than 2 years old and can do that. Cheers…

13 years ago

hey there,

i think you might enjoy this exclusive web short the colbert report did with
colin beaven. here is the link:

hope you like!


13 years ago

Enjoying life without consumption? That’s easy, and you don’t have to play charades. Make music, dance, go for a walk, write a story or a poem, construct a modernist sculpture out of kitchen utensils, act out a scene from your favorite play (or write a play yourself), explore the city you live in, learn a new language, … The list goes on and on. My entertainment of choice is playing the piano, which has fairly little impact on the environment.

heather w
13 years ago

regarding starting a challenge without knowing what we’re in for first: a timely question as I am at this very moment hesitating to sign up for the No Impact experiment until they’ve posted the guide for the week, to be sure I’m willing to do it all “right” — which is SO not the point!

13 years ago

Enjoy life with little consumption –
home grown music – I have a fiddle and I’m learning to play contra dance music. It’s a great way to spend a lot of time. Since I want to play the tunes fast, I ahve to memorize them and play them over and over. Once I have the tune in my head, I don’t even have to turn on a light, just take the fiddle and play it slowly.

Thanks for posting about these two chapters.

13 years ago

When we did our bike trip from PA to TX, I wanted to do it with little impact as possible. I wanted to cook as many meals as possible using raw ingredients picked up from the road side stands, farmers’ markets,etc.

I found that my biggest hangups are flush toilets and hot food. I can poop in a hole in the ground and leave no trace, but it is so damn difficult to do (esp. if I’m paranoid about bugs flying into inappropriate places, deer snorting and shuffling around close to me while I’m trying to do my business).

I also got really tired of eating cold foods. I like my food hot and steaming and spicy and curryfied. There is all sorts of impact in that desire of mine.

Besides those two things, I can give up pretty much everything.

My favorite way to enjoy life w/o consumption? A bicycle ride. I am so absurdly happy when I’m riding. I am enjoying riding up hills and the sense of accomplishment is so incredibly empowering.

Mary Kay
13 years ago

This isn’t related to the post, but I have a funny story that happened this week. I went to get a haircut and I was listening to a stylist trying to sell someone a bunch of products. Well, when I had my hair cut, the stylist kept going on and on about how great my hair felt and how healthy it was. I just smiled and nodded. The reason my hair is so healthy is that I stopped using stuff on it. I use a shampoo bar and that’s it (haven’t been brave enough for the no-poo). With the shampoo bar I don’t need any conditioner or styling products and my hair feels great. I didn’t realize before that products strip the hair of its natural oils and cause all of the problems that they are designed to solve. I never would have thought of changing my shampoo to do something for the environment. Thanks Beth!

13 years ago

My number one priority is to make things harder on my body than they need to be. Of course that is a funny word – need. What my body needs is exercise, not convenience, so I am doing what I truly need to do. Instead of loading up with groceries on a big trip by car to the grocery store (half a mile away), I deliberately get only what I can carry on my person. Ooops! Forgot something! No big deal, I’m off on another 1 mile walk.

By doing this regularly, physical things become effortless and enjoyable. I end up looking forward to walking anywhere and when there are stairs to climb – no problem.

Another good rule – slow down in everything and do only one thing at a time. No need for frantic exercise, jogging, going to a health club, just walk at a decent pace everywhere you can. I’m not punishing myself, I reward my walks with a can of Coke! Skip a meal – I skip lunch.

Don’t sweat the cellphone. Put all your energy worries aside other than those about using a car – the automobile is a giant sink for energy that stands head and shoulders above everything else we do, not just the operation of one but the production of one as well. If Americans have a giant environmental footprint it is in the form of the tread-mark of a tire. If you can avoid using a car (and I know you do), or better yet not own a car, Saint Peter, the environmentalist who stands at the Golden Gate to meet you when you die, will without a doubt admit you with a smile and a wave.

13 years ago

It’s such a hard transition to make, isn’t it? I can remember when I first started making green strides, my roommate was always frustrated that I would unplug EVERYTHING. My roomie had to get used to re-plugging in the TV or the coffee pot before trying to turn it on. But I start to kind of get crazy about it and before I could spell out the word environement, I was trying to grocery shop without purchasing anything shrink wrapped. It’s such a hard thing to find a happy medium between consumerism and total hippie.

“So to repeat my last question: How can we find balance in an unbalanced world? That’s what I would love to know.”

All I try to do is my best and keep my chin up while I’m at it. How can we do enough in our personal lives to make an impact on the marketplace and eventually the condition of the environment? It reminds me of the Red Queen in Alice in Wonderland, “Now, here, you see, it takes all the running you can do, to keep in the same place. If you want to get somewhere else, you must run at least twice as fast as that!”

13 years ago

Oh, how I can relate to your angst. I remember when I was a vegetarian years ago and got so tangled up in wondering if I was causing suffering to – say – carrots, by uprooting them from the ground, that I resolved to become a “fruitarian” and eat only food that was “freely offered” by plants. Hmmm – a person can starve to death that way when one lives in a northern climate where the growing season is only 2-3 months long. A person can drive him/herself crazy by getting tangled up in guilty thoughts.

We’re only human. We do the best that we can. Some days we do better than other days.

axelle fortier
13 years ago

This post is FakePlastic Fish in a nutshell. It’s got hope, fear, angst, romantic love, practicality, information, solutions, questions,hopelessness – it’s got everything except first aid,

“Hanging out with Michael and listening to his funny stories and ideas”: What an incredible thing to do with the person you’ve married! You are recycling love. You are making appropriate use of a natural resource, which in this case is Michaell and his unique way of thinking and seeing the world.

13 years ago

Man Beth, I wish I knew how to find balance in an unbalanced world. Lately I’ve been feeling more and more off balance. The more I know about how big the problems are, the more inadequate I feel to really do anything. The more helpless I feel, the more I wish I could just switch off and not care.

So half the time I’m feeling helpless and not caring, and the other half I’m berating myself for forgetting my tea cup and using a paper cup, or for getting the Earthbound organic pre-washed spinach in a plastic box when I know that’s bad on many levels.

If you figure out the balance thing, would you please tell me?

13 years ago

Marvelous post, Beth! More often than not this issues seem overwhelming to me —