Being a conscientious consumer in the modern world means being made acutely aware, time and again, of your own hypocrisy. You can use paper instead of plastic, dutifully maintain your recycling bin, buy organic and locally produced foods when possible, replace all the bulbs in your house with energy-efficient fluorescents, and still leave a massive carbon footprint from food packaging, new clothes, diapers, electricity, paper, transportation, and the hundreds of pounds of trash every person generates annually. The value of No Impact Man, a compelling and suitably exasperating documentary about one family’s attempt to not harm the environment for a year, is that it forces viewers to reflect on their own casual consumption and waste. The experiment is inevitably compromised—and as a self-promotional venture, it just spreads more waste—but that only makes the film more engaging and provocative.
Like a literary Morgan Spurlock, author Colin Beavan devised his “No Impact Man” persona as a high-concept hook for a blog and a book about his family’s attempt at spartan living in the middle of New York City. The conditions, instituted in carefully plotted phases, range from minor inconveniences like no television, no transportation beyond a bike and a scooter, and cloth diapers for their 2-year-old girl (sans washing machines, mind) to serious hardships like no toilet paper, no electricity (meaning no refrigerated food), a diet of seasonal local produce and dairy only (meaning root vegetables in the winter—yum!), and no trash. That last goal requires them to keep a worm compost in their apartment, which creates its own set of problems.
The press blitz that accompanies Beavan’s project—including a New York Times piece, appearances on The Colbert Report and Good Morning America, and ink in innumerable other outlets—makes the “no impact” equation more difficult to quantify. Then there’s his strained relationship with his reluctant (but intrepid and supportive) wife, who naturally feels hijacked by the project at times; in that sense, No Impact Man is as much about the sustainability of marriage as it is about the sustainability of environmental resources. The film, like Beavan himself, leaves an unholy mess of contradictions in its wake, but most productively, a great deal of those contradictions are our own.