No Impact Man

Just watched the documentary “No Impact Man” by Colin Beavan. It’s about a family in Manhattan, New York City, that try to reduce their impact on the environment for a whole year. They do a pretty good job really. They split “the project” in to several phase. Firstly to try and reduce their consumption, then one by one replace or eliminate other items in their life.

Initially to reduce their consumption they stop eating out, using transport other than walking or cycling, and stop using elevators, air conditioning, and heating. They also try and replace items they buy with those without packaging. So instead of buying cheese or meat wrapped in plastic that are transported for hundreds of miles they instead go to their local market and buy produce from farms nearby to the city. They wrap these in fabric or don’t ask for bags for the food. They also give up meat.

There were quite a few interesting things they found out. Firstly, they reduce their weekly garbage (aka rubbish, trash) from a full bin to just a couple of plastic pots. Imagine the impact if everyone did just this step? it would massively reduce land fill and oil consumption through packaging and transport of waste.

They also visited farms that sold produce on their local market. They visited one dairy farm where the farmer took great pride in his cows. They were all named and well looked after. Colin asked the farmer why their produce wasn’t marked as Organic. Apparently they can only be labelled organic not just because of the way they are fed, but also because the cows can’t be given any antibiotics. The farmer wasn’t willing to sacrifice the welfare of an individual cow in order to gain the Organic mark. That was the single only reason though – the quality of the produce was exactly the same. So you can either have excellent welfare, or organic food. Choose one. Shocking reality really that I bet no one has thought of.

Colin decided that during the project he would go to the extremes to see what can be done. Not because he’s a crazy hippy, but rather so he could see what was easy to give up, what the consequences of each would be, so that others could see what could be done. They tried pretty much everything. Using fabric nappies (diapers) rather than disposables, using two pots, sand and water instead of a fridge (apparently a Nigerian technique), and getting rid of the TV and toilet paper! Annoyingly all the press featured in the film seemed to fixate on the toilet paper part and missed the key message really.

I really liked the fact that he tried everything rather than the classic mistake of many environmentalist wannabes and just say “use energy saving lightbulbs, buy a prius, and you’re done”. I found myself thinking “I could do that” or “hell no!”, but that’s the point. It’s not about going back to the dark ages, it’s about reducing consumption whilst still being happy. Quality of life versus consumerism.

You could tell form watching that the project had a profound affect on the family’s outlook on life. Removing the television helped them rediscover spending time with their daughter. Having friends over resulted in fun interactive games of charades rather than sitting in front of a TV with the occasional comment. Colin’s partner, Michelle, discovered about food rather than just eating it. She even learnt to prepare and cook all the vegetables too, something she’d never done before. They got on their bikes and discovered fantastic beaches within a ride of the city.

The project wasn’t just an exercise in vanity by an author looking for a new subject of a book, or a political statement, or the hypocritical pronouncements of someone who saves 2 watts of energy only to fly to their next gig. There were real practical and social outcomes for everyone involved. A really refreshing approach – let’s just try it and see what happens.

Of course I’m not advocating we each do this ourselves. There are plenty of things in there I wouldn’t do. There are some things that actually increase production of carbon. Eliminating electricity then burning candles for instance which another documentary says actually consumes 100 times the energy of electricity used for lighting. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t do it. How many of us actually need to keep every room lit all night? Could we in fact build homes that were built to take advantage of natural light instead? Of course we could.

I like the idea that there are some things we can do now, and there are things we should think about when we continue to develop in the future. There is a temptation as Al Gore said to go from realising there is a problem straight to dispare that nothing can be done, and skip the bit in the middle – actually trying to do something.

What did I take away from the documentary? I certainly think that when I finally finish the garden (not holding my breath) that I’ll plant a few vegetables and herbs and try to do this so I have at least some food I need rather than relying on Supermarkets for everything. Watching this film co-incides with me going on a diet and changing my eating habits. I’m now three weeks in and actually enjoying making my own fresh salads each day. I vary the content slightly to keep interested and trying new flavours. This beats having the same couple of sandwiches each day from the local shop. I use one lettuce and one carrot each week for my daily salads. I could easily grow this myself during the year. The difficult bit will be giving up by turkey I use in it. Perhaps I can source that from the local farm as a half way solution?

I hardly use the heating at home. I’m thinking of using solar heating. Unfortunately my house is east-west, but the garage is north-south, and more easily accessible. Probably a no go for heating but PV should be possible. Or maybe I could create a naturally heated and lit green house? It certainly gets you thinking. In the film Colin used a small solar panel to get enough electricity to power his laptop and internet feed. I think he missed a trick by not using a leisure battery to store extra charge then use this for evening lighting though. This would give more flexibility.

At the moment solar pv is not economically viable. Unfortunately the large power companies have bought the next gen solar cell technology. I would imagine they will sit on it for a good few years yet. They certainly aren’t using the purchased techniques to produce new panels. Perhaps this is why the UK government is reducing the solar pv funding? After all why fund a business that is really just profiteering from the current desire to be seen to do good, rather than do the maximum good?

I may have a look in to the economic and practical viability of individual ideas and see if there are any obviously beneficial ones. My Dad is really a pioneer here. Pretty good going for an ex-Steelworker – he’s now collecting rain water and using this for flushing the toilets and doing the washing. Reducing his water bills and helping the environment.

All in all I would definitely recommend this documentary. Even if you have no interest in doing the same thing, it’s an interesting look in to not just the ideas, but the lives and effects doing this for a year has on the family themselves.


About adamfowleruk
Sales Engineer and Author

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