Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Thoughts on hypocrisy and "No Impact Man"

The current issue of The New Yorker has an article by Elizabeth Kolbert titled, "Green Like Me," that's a critique of the recent crop of confessional memoirs by people who are striving to live in more environmentally conscious ways. The article makes some good points, but I found the overall tone distasteful and counterproductive.

OK, the good points Kolbert makes:

1) Individual action and changes aren't enough to save the environment. Collective change is what is needed.

2) Sometimes eco-conscious people miss the forest for the trees, or focus on small changes while rationalizing the really big changes they aren't making. Kolbert cites Vanessa Farquharson, author of Sleeping Naked Is Green, as one example: Farquharson resolves to use no more toothpicks and to use natural lubricant instead of K-Y, while purchasing a new house and flying around the country to pursue relationships with various men (the problem there is the air travel).

The primary examples in Kolbert's article, however, are Henry David Thoreau and his somewhat modern counterpart, Colin Beavan of No Impact Man, and here's where I think her arguments really become unfair. For example, she writes:

A more honest title for Beavan’s book would have been “Low Impact Man,” and a truly honest title would have been “Not Quite So High Impact Man.” Even during the year that Beavan spent drinking out of a Mason jar, more than two billion people were, quite inadvertently, living lives of lower impact than his. Most of them were struggling to get by in the slums of Delhi or Rio or scratching out a living in rural Africa or South America. A few were sleeping in cardboard boxes on the street not far from Beavan’s Fifth Avenue apartment.

If she had spent any time reading Beavan's blog or book, she would know that he knows he's not living with no impact; no impact living is impossible for any living thing. The name is just a clever way to call attention to what he's trying to do. His goal is also to try to balance out his and his family's impact, by reducing their negative environmental impact as much as possible, while increasing their positive impact through environmental activism.

Second, it's also nearly impossible for anyone in a western developed nation to live with as little impact as people in the most impoverished parts in the world. That doesn't mean we should do nothing in response, or denigrate the efforts of those attempting to live more sustainably.

Kolbert ends the article with this statement:

What makes Beavan’s experiment noteworthy is that it is just that—a voluntary exercise conducted for a limited time only by a middle-class family. Beavan justifies writing about it on the ground that it will inspire others to examine their wasteful ways. ... [However] the real work of “saving the world” goes way beyond the sorts of action that “No Impact Man” is all about.

What’s required is perhaps a sequel. In one chapter, Beavan could take the elevator to visit other families in his apartment building. He could talk to them about how they all need to work together to install a more efficient heating system. In another, he could ride the subway to Penn Station and then get on a train to Albany. Once there, he could lobby state lawmakers for better mass transit. In a third chapter, Beavan could devote his blog to pushing for a carbon tax. Here’s a possible title for the book: “Impact Man.”

Again, although she's quoting from his book, I wonder how much of it she's read, or if she has visited his blog at all. Throughout the two years I've been following No Impact Man, I have read countless posts about times in which he has:

-- written about environmental issues on a local, national and international level. I especially appreciate that he has addressed issues of poverty while doing so;

-- called his representatives (and encouraged others to do the same) about local and national environmental issues;

-- visited some of his reps in person to address such topics as making the streets safer for cyclists and preventing the air pollution that makes New York City one of the worst places in the country for childhood asthma;

-- swum in a benefit swim meet to raise funds to clean up polluted waters, and he will soon participate in a Climate Ride for Change;

-- spoken to groups of students about how they can work together to address their own personal impacts as well as that of their schools;

-- and organized the No Impact project "with the goal of engaging citizens in our cultural response to the crises in our environment and our way of life."

In other words, Beavan's story has been anything but simply the limited personal journey of a middle class family. The family stuff is in there, because that's what makes it personal and relatable to most people. But Beavan's goals and actions go far beyond that, so I find The New Yorker's belittling attitude shameful.


  1. Couldn't agree with your arguments more. I was left with precisely the same feeling after reading Kolbert's piece. Colin's example is a personal inspiration and something that should be celebrated and widely understood. I'm glad they made it into a movie.

  2. It's a fairly classic strategy used to deny the worth of what people do, focusing on what they "should" have been doing instead. It happens on feminist blogs all the time. Someone comes along on a post about sexism in a movie and comments "You're wasting your time blogging about this, you should have been doing real activism on an issue that matters, like domestic violence." Never mind that the person writing the post is a volunteer with a domestic violence hotline and has written 4 times the number of posts on domestic violence as he or she has on movies.