Q&A with No Impact Man Colin Beavan

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Colin Beavan with Isabella.

Author and self-proclaimed No Impact Man Colin Beavan is loved and hated with equal passion. In 2006, the New York City resident came up with an idea for a new book: He and his family, consisting of wife (and BusinessWeek writer) Michelle Conlin and toddler Isabella, would spend a year trying to make no impact on the environment (or at least as little as possible), and he'd write about the process. The clan subsequently gave up everything from TV to toilet paper as Beavan energetically publicized his efforts via regular appearances on Good Morning America and interviews with pretty much any media outlet that would provide him with a forum (and plenty did). Along the way, he was either celebrated as an ecological hero or savaged as a egomaniacal putz trying to ride a stunt to fame.

Today, Beavan remains in promotional mode. He's just published 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, and he's at the center of a No Impact Man, a documentary film that opens today at the Chez Artiste. Look below for an extended conversation with Beavan about both projects, during which he alternately defends himself from criticism and does his best to focus attention on what we can do to improve our lives and the planet -- his oft-stated goal.

Westword (Michael Roberts): Before you began the No Impact Man project, did you see yourself as an obsessive person?

Colin Beavan: (Laughs.) No, in some ways, I think the No Impact Man project turned me into an obsessive person. What was happening, and this was in 2006: Basically, I started to become obsessed with the fact that I was reading this news that said we were melting the planet, melting the icecaps. And I was looking at my friends and thinking that everybody was working so hard, and I really didn't think they were as happy as they could be. So it'd be one thing if we were trashing the place and having a party doing it. But I felt as though we weren't trashing the place. Not in the developed world, where everybody's suffering from anxiety and depression. And not in the developing world, where a billion people don't even have access to clean drinking water.

WW: As you set up the plan to document this year-long experiment, I'm sure you saw all kinds of ways in which you couldn't possibly have no impact, from the energy it took to keep your blog online to eventually writing a book that required as least as much paper as the toilet paper you didn't use during the year. How did you rationalize those kinds of things in the overall scheme?

CB: Just being alive is so full of contradictions. And here's the thing. I write books for a living, so resources get used when I publish a book. I changed my career; I used to write history books. And I changed my career in such a way that I hoped I'd attract a lot of attention to important issues having to do with our climate and our planet that need people to pay attention to them. So yes, I'm using resources. What I like to think in some sort of way is that I'm using resources for something good and worthwhile.

WW: At one point in the No Impact Man film, you see individually wrapped items at a farmers market, and you say to yourself, "How can I say this without seeming like a dick?" That struck me as one of the central questions in the movie. Did you see that issue coming? Or did you not anticipate that the way you talked about things would be just as important as what you said?

CB: I think the way I say things is... Basically, No Impact Man is the story of what I did with my own life. You never hear me saying, "Everybody should do what I do," or anything like that. So really, this is the story of one person who thinks carefully about their own lives. What I'm saying is, "I thought about my life this way. If you're interested, think about your life also. But if you're not, that's okay, too." One of the things I'm proud of is that it's not a finger-wagging documentary, and it's not a finger-wagging book. It's just about one little family trying to negotiate this strange intersection between the highly personal and the highly political.

WW: At the same time, though, a lot of the movie finds you wrestling with the response you're receiving, and wondering if the way you're going about it was the best way. Were you completely blindsided by the response, and by people's inability to see things as you just described them? As them not taking it as, "We're not telling you what to do, we're telling you what we're doing"?

CB: Oh, I understand your question better now. Yeah, I was surprised by that stuff. But one of the things that we didn't get to cover in the documentary so much is that meanwhile, I was receiving thousands of e-mails from people. Literally, over time, I've received thousands of e-mails from people saying that they've heard of the blog or they've heard of the book and they've decided to start working on changing their own lives, too. So even though there was a response from a certain sector where people felt challenged by what we were doing, there's also been a huge positive response, where people have decided that they wanted to make changes in their own lives, too.

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