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'No Impact Man,' First a Blog, Now a Movie and Book

"Those who are calling this movie a stunt are missing the point."

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Colin Beavan with his daughter Isabella. [Photographs: noimpactman.typepad.com]

Nearly two years ago, I logged into my website Eat Local Challenge to find a large spike in hits. An article had been published in the New York Times about Colin Beavan, aka "No Impact Man," and his New York-dwelling family. Beavan had embarked on a year-long journey to make no net impact on the earth. The family didn't use electricity, bought nothing new, and famously stopped using toilet paper. So why the spike on Eat Local Challenge? Beavan's blog had linked to mine in reference to his family's no-impact efforts to eat food from within 250 miles of Manhattan.

As someone who tries to persuade people to eat locally in an approachable manner, convincing them that everyone can eat at least a few things locally, Beavan's methods seemed too extreme and too unattainable. I was the one thinking "crazy people like you give us a bad name." I dismissed Beavan's challenge as a pointless activity that did nothing to help further the cause of environmentalism in general.

Fast forward two years, and a documentary has been produced about Beavan, his wife Michelle Conlin, and their daughter Isabella. Cameras followed the family throughout their challenge and the resultant film gave me a much more balanced view of the No Impact Challenge.

20090911-noimpactmanbook.jpgMake no mistake: What Beavan's family did was extreme. In the movie, we see them turning off their electricity, walking stairs instead of taking elevators (nine flights to their apartment), getting rid of "unnecessary" products such as Michelle's make-up, and not purchasing anything new for the year. Many called the entire No Impact Man phenomenon a stunt, and the initial New York Times article spoke of Beavan's casting about for a sellable book topic before deciding to put his family through a year of no impact.

But by watching the movie, I began to understand what Beavan was trying to do. It's as if he skewed the attempt to have a lighter footprint on the earth to the absolute extreme, just so that at the end of the year, he and his family could pull back and see which extremes were doable and which were not in a real-life situation.

I began to see the similarities between Beavan and myself. Every year, I ask people to try eating local food for a month. Some people, during that time, take the attempt to the farthest point possible—just to see if they can do it. By the end of the month, participants reevaluate and decide what they can eat locally in their regular lives, usually adding coffee back into their diets but eschewing out-of-season cherries.

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Those who are calling this movie a stunt are missing the point. Beavan is not asking us to do the same thing he did—rather, he is showing the extreme so that we can choose a comfortable place along the continuum between our reality and his challenge to himself.

The true hero of this story is Michelle Conlin, Colin Beavan's wife. While Beavan is ready to plunge into the challenge with both feet, Conlin is the reluctant participant. She joins because it's her husband's dream, and she wants to support it. Michelle is us. At one point she says to the camera, "This is easy for Colin, and it's like murder for me."

She questions Beavan every step of the way, and challenges his assertions that the family should give up coffee, vacation on a farm, and use a clay pot "refrigerator." At the end of the day, though, Conlin participates fully and stands by Beavan even as the New York Times article garners comments about how their child should be taken away and how the family is dirty and unhealthy. She's a questioner of the process while at the same time being completely supportive of Colin's dream.

Go see this movie. I think it will challenge you as it did me. I saw the movie about three weeks ago, and have considered its influence every day since.

Here is the film release schedule and Colin Beavan's appearance schedule. A No Impact Man book was also just released.

About the author: Jennifer Maiser writes about locally and sustainably grown food. She is the founder and editor of the Eat Local Challenge website and writes at Life Begins at 30, her personal weblog.

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