15 November 2011

No Impact Man

I don't do a whole lot of "green" reading, but I just finished 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 (whew, that was a mouthful) by Colin Beavan. No Impact Man is one of a bunch of books lately where the author undertakes to do something for a year -- in this case, to eliminate from his life all products and activities that have any carbon footprint or environmental impact. (Which got me thinking just how long a year is -- could I stand to do anything bookworthy for that long?)

When I began reading the book, I thought I knew what it meant to be a "guilty liberal" in the context of green living. I did not anticipate that Beavan would be the kind of guy who, in the four days before he began the project, would amass 90 gallons of garbage because he and his wife didn't recycle at all (plus there were all of the disposable diapers). But sure enough -- he started at zero, first ceasing to buy anything that came with any packaging so he wouldn't make any garbage. (It wasn't enough, apparently, simply to stop using anything that can't be recycled.) In the beginning he was satisfied to buy whatever he could put in his own containers from the bulk section of the grocery store, but later he decided to limit himself to food that came from within 250 miles of his home (New York City). As he added rules over the months, he stopped using all fossil-fuel-powered transportation, stopped buying anything new (with an exception for socks and underwear), and even turned off the electricity at his home (although he continued to work at a common space for writers that had fancy amenities like air conditioning and lights).

As someone who tries to be conscious of the environment but is also basically lazy, I do what is easiest to incorporate into my life. (Putting recyclables into a different bin from garbage takes minimal effort; researching and tracking down local foods is a lot of work, so which do you think I do?) Given that the author couldn't even be bothered to recycle before he started his project, I was struck by the ridiculousness of some of his efforts. Why couldn't he, for instance, ride a bus that was going from his house to his office anyway? I suppose the answer is that the book is more interesting that way. But the most interesting part of the book was probably the cold, hard data that Beavan peppered in among his crazy tales. I'm not very educated about how quickly the ice caps are melting, how many barrels of oil we use in a day/month/year, or just how much plastic is floating in the ocean, but the book included lots of information to underscore the importance of taking care of our world. (Did you know that a single round-trip cross-country plane trip spews as much carbon dioxide into the atmosphere as a year of the average American's driving?) Although most readers of this book would be of the "preaching to the choir" variety, Beavan's data effectively illustrates the need for some kind of measures to cut back our use of natural resources.

By the way, the book itself has a cardboard cover, and the author included a note about his search for a no (or minimal) impact method of production of the book. But with so many online resources, as well as the Kindle and its friends, how "no impact" is it really to print up books at all? (I got my copy from the library.)



The verdict? No Impact Man is based on a silly, sometimes illogical premise, but it tells an interesting story and is full of good information, and the appendix is packed with enough other resources on the topics addressed in the book to almost make me forget how preachy the end of the book was. A good read. B+.

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