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Review: No Impact Man

By  · Published on September 13th, 2009

When New York author Colin Beaven launched the No Impact Man project in 2007, in which he and his family (wife Michelle and 2-year old daughter Isabella) would live in their Fifth Avenue co-op for a year without making any environmental impact, he did so with two motivations in mind. As a self-proclaimed activist, he wanted to live up to the values he preached by drawing public attention to the enormous amount of waste prevalent in an American culture rife with disposable goods. Secondly, he needed good material for his next book.

The entwinement of those classic dueling concerns lies at the heart of the project and the eponymous documentary by Laura Gabbert and Justin Schein that chronicles its unfolding. It’s also the root of a large degree of the distrust poured on Beaven once the national media got wind of his year without disposable items, non self-propelled transportation (i.e. not even mass transit) and, eventually, electricity as a whole. Yet, however one might view the man and his achievement, there’s no questioning its value as a provocation. In the often unfathomable details of the depths to which he and his surprisingly willing wife went to fulfill their mission, and the contentment they found therein, Beaven offers a stark reminder of just how plugged into consumerism we’ve become.

The vérité work of Gabbert and Schein presents the family with what appears to be an absence of embellishment and a minimal degree of selective editing. Distinct personalities emerge: the sincere, obsessed Colin contrasts nicely with the altogether more relatable Michelle, who cops to an addiction to caffeine and shopping, and seems to have a harder time adjusting to the “No Impact” standards. The film so thoroughly immerses itself in the details of their life together and the exploration of the ways the project impacts that shared existence that it functions as an affecting psychological drama in addition to promulgating Colin’s message. Here is a couple not unlike most others struggling with the challenge of reinvention and the best ways to instill the proper ideals in their young daughter.

The majority of the film turns on the spectacle of watching Colin and Michelle throw away every mundane convenience – the TV disappears, magazine subscriptions are canceled – and find new ways of daily living. This means lots of trips to a local farmer market, in keeping with the commitment to only eat locally, the incorporation of cloth diapers for Isabella, the disposal of every one of Michelle’s cosmetics, ample time spent in a community garden and a winter by candlelight. These adjustments often come across as miserable as they sound and the picture turns on a tangible sense of schadenfreude. When the family eats the various forms of vegetables that comprise their diet one feels a stirring sense of gratitude for the wonders of artificially enhanced food.

Yet, watching the family pursue the project with a full measure of intensity lets it achieve Colin’s primary goal. The “No Impact” year functions in the same fashion as any particularly effective attempt at a propagandist publicity stunt. The documentary makes clear that their work, a purposefully extreme attention grabber, enhanced the couple’s deep connection, better informed their future as parents and significantly reduced their carbon footprint. While copycats will be sparse and the environmental crisis has been spurred by far more deeply rooted problems than societal overuse of disposable goods, the “No Impact” project shows that sacrifice needn’t be painful and that sometimes the collective good matters most. At the very least, it inspires serious second thoughts the next time you leave the lights on, or your computer idling.

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