‘No Impact Man’

Where does the poop go, and other burning questions


An important factor in “No Impact Man” the book is that the author reveals himself as having Zen Buddhist beliefs. What’s missing from “No Impact Man” the documentary is this bit of personal information. Charting a year in the lives of the book’s author, Colin Beavan, and his family — who decided to go from your average high-consumption New York lifestyle to quitting toilet paper and composting their own body waste (all the while staying in their Manhattan apartment) — “No Impact Man” takes the “why” out of the eco quest, and concentrates on the “how.”

Not that this is necessarily bad. But Japanese audiences coming out of a long, sweaty, power-saving summer may find it less instructional than expected. Walking everywhere? Buying local produce at the farmer’s market? Refraining from using elevators? Ah, been there, done that.

This is the thing: “No Impact Man” would have benefited from a dose of something extra, i.e., some philosophical pondering (which the book does with abundance). At the same time, it makes you realize how much the collective outlook has changed, post-March 11. Watching this family light candles instead of turning on the lights, stomping on their laundry in the bathtub while exchanging a kiss — these scenes seem cozy, tender and loving, instead of adventurous and revolutionary.

In short, “No Impact Man” — originally released Stateside in 2009 — comes out in Japan at a time of ambivalence: A year ago we would have been much more impressed. Now, the difficulty of changing anything for the better, whatever the degree of impact, comes at us like a gale-force wind.

In 2008, New York writer Colin Beavan decided to take a year off from his reality TV-addicted, espresso-guzzling, shopping-for-recreation lifestyle, to shift to a “no impact” way of living. The idea was to reduce his carbon footprint to zilch, and Beavan brought his wife, Michelle Conlin, and their 2-year-old daughter Isabelle on board. Beavan was enthused, bursting with plans and elated about quitting TV and caffeine. Conlin — a writer/editor for Businessweek who had just bought a pair of boots with a price tag that would have caused even Carrie “Sex and the City” Bradshaw a few palpitations at the counter — was not.

Conlin isn’t exactly the party pooper in this bravo-for-eco scenario, but she’s far from Mary Magdalene in going along with husband Beavan, who’s dead earnest about spreading the green news. In one memorable and hilarious scene, she snarls at Beavan from the doorway: “I’m going out for an iced espresso, maybe two, and no one’s gonna stop me!”

What culminates from “No Impact Man” is the obvious observation that this eco thing ain’t easy for a city-slicker American. On the other hand, this city-slicker American won’t quit. The summer before, Beavan’s family had the air-con turned to high and the windows closed — as soon as the project started, they turned everything off and started using the stairs instead of the elevator. And they live on the ninth floor.

Going about on foot for everything in New York sounds like fun, and doable. But going about with a toddler in tow, carrying everything by hand or on their backs and subsisting on locally grown veggies only (the self-imposed rule is that all their groceries must come from a distance no greater than 160 km) is less than glamorous.

Still, when Conlin comes home from work to a cold apartment, she has the pleasure of seeing her husband in the kitchen, heating up a plate of cabbage and potatoes (which looks amazingly good), candles lit and her daughter smiling. How many New Yorkers, or urban dwellers anywhere, can lay claims to such happiness?

The best thing you can take away from the “No Impact Man” experience is precisely this sense of happiness, or simple well-being. In the film, Beavan speaks repeatedly of having much less stress after kicking cable and Starbucks out of his life. Conlin, though she does lodge complaints from time to time, sticks by her man and she, too, says that life is sweeter.

A fortunate by-product is that the pair lose weight and, as a result of avoiding commercial shampoos, detergents and cosmetics, they look much healthier and generally more attractive. “I haven’t been to the gym in a year,” laughs Beavan, but he looks slimmer and sexier than the stressed-out guys hurrying to use the elliptical machine after a day at the office.

In an email interview, Beavan told The Japan Times that the No Impact lifestyle is his own choice, and that he would not wish to enforce it on anyone. Two years after the movie came out in the U.S., his journey continues.

As Beavan writes: “I have my own ways to give purpose and meaning to my suffering.” That’s exactly the kind of message the film never quite gets around to saying.