Tuesday, November 17, 2009

The impact of "No Impact Man"

This is a guest post by Penn State Environmental Society president, John Stevenson. John involves himself in the major sustainability and natural environmental justice initiatives at Penn State. He is also an extant member of 3E-COE. Enjoy


I think that No Impact Man by Colin Beavan is the most important environmental book of our generation.

Other books offer critiques of our current way of life, tackling the lack of community and active citizenship, the gospel of consumption or the way we work. Beavan writes with knowledge of these histories and focused studies, but I think he knew that we needed something else. We needed a personal, accessible, honest narrative about a different way to live, and that’s what he wrote. Upon starting the project, he was not an expert in anything environmental but simply a liberal who complained a lot and did little.

No Impact Man is not a how-to guide. There are other books out there on how to cook and find local food, reduce your waste and use low-carbon transportation. This is the story of a family’s journey towards reducing their impact on the world, one step at a time.

Beavan describes his personal strategy and experiences such as the frustration of washing clothes in their bathtub, getting his wife off coffee and having limited hours to work from solar electricity. He also recounts the joys of no-TV, the meditative benefits of bread baking, spending more time with his family and becoming a social hub for his friends. The Beavans break their own rules sometimes, deal with the guilt, and have family disputes, but these only add to their humanity and make it easier to identify with them.

Beavan also offers up concise descriptions of issues which involve all consumers. These essentially outline his motivation for various lifestyle changes and cover a number of key points about where the American herd is going. The most striking fact to me was that Americans spend 5 work-months per year either in their cars or paying for them. Is this love affair satisfying? Or worth that much time? He covers externalities, the urgency of the environmental crisis and questions the typical definitions of progress and growth, not in an academic way, but in a very tangible oh-my-god-we-need-to-change-the-status-quo-rapidly way.

I can’t emphasis enough how accessible and straight forward this book is compared to every other environmental or lifestyle book I’ve read. He recognizes complexities and difficult issues like nuclear power, political change and the job transition necessary in coal towns, but he doesn’t get bogged down in them. He goes straight for the heart in discussing the difficulty of individual behavior change and examining our life priorities. Beavan suggests that, “It feels better, we think, to go in the wrong direction than to feel we don't understand our true direction.”

I would highly-recommend this book to people at every stage of environmental awareness and action. It will teach you something, it’s well documented and it’s a good kick in the rear for us to take the world situation seriously and recognize our personal power. 25 pages of it are available for preview on Google Books. Check it out.

- John T. Stevenson

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