In Defense of Impact Men (and Women)

Full disclosure: I haven’t seen the new film documentary opening this weekend in LA and NY, “No Impact Man,” based on the nonfiction book of the same title, by Colin Beavan, that depicts his urban family of three trying — impossibly, of course — to shrink to nothing its environmental footprint, even going as far as to give up toilet paper.  But I did read, and love, a New Yorker piece by climate writer Elizabeth Kolbert critiquing the film and book, in part because Kolbert offers a stirring call for folks like Beavan to abstain less from using toilet paper (which makes for funny anecdotes) and engage more in the kind of work done and appreciated by the authors and readers of this blog (which, at least on good days, makes for lasting and widespread societal change).

Here are the damning last paragraphs of her piece, which should be pasted onto the office walls of environmental law and policy geeks everywhere.  Enjoy:

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. On the last page, he observes:

“Throughout this book I’ve tried to show how saving the world is up to me. I’ve tried hard not to lecture. Yes, it’s up to me. But after living for a year without toilet paper, I’ve earned the right to say one thing: It’s also up to you.  So, what are you going to do?”

If wiping were the issue, this would be a reasonable place to end. But, sadly—or perhaps happily—it isn’t. 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.”

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About Cara

Cara Horowitz is the co-executive director of the Emmett Institute on Climate Change and the Environment at UCLA School of Law. The Emmett Institute was founded as the f…

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