Colin Beavan gave up lots of things during his year-long trial in urban asceticism, which resulted in the blog, book and recently-released movie "No Impact Man." And those things—like electricity, meat, carbon-based transportation and even toilet paper—are what have made the public and media continually fascinated with him, ever since his experiment in 2007. But to Beavan, it's not about what he gave up, it's about what he gained—and by that, he doesn't mean a book deal.
"What would be really great is if people don't talk about sacrifices. What we could talk about is enhancements to the quality of our life," said Beavan. "On a micro level, when we did the 'No Impact Man' project, we gave things up, but at the same time, we were your typical rush-around New York media people, stressed and anxious. We would get home, shovel take-out into our mouths while watching TV, and we'd wake up in the morning and do it all over again. When we got rid of the TV, and when we got rid of the take-out food and replaced it with local food, what happened was that we were sitting around a table, talking as a family, and before you knew it, friends started dropping by to eat with us. We ended up eating healthier food and having more friends and community."
Happiness through simpler, greener living is the aim of the No Impact Project, a new non-profit that Beavan has started as a companion to the book and film. One component, which will be making its debut later this fall, is a week-long No Impact experience for communities to try. The site will lead people through cutting back on waste, carbon-based transportation and meat, among other things, placing "a particular emphasis on monitoring how they feel," said Beavan, "so that at the end of the week they can say, 'I feel better, so I'll keep doing it.'"
Enhancement, not sacrifice, applies also to our environmental policy and economy, said Beavan. "To extend from the personal to the societal: Whether you believe in global warming or not, the rest of the world does. And they want to buy wind turbines and solar generators. We could stimulate a renewable energy industry and create hundreds of jobs and support an industry that doesn't give our children athsma and kill fish in our lakes. That's not sacrifice. That's not deprivation. That's an improvement in the quality of our life."
So, in the spirit of enhancement—not sacrifice or deprivation—Beavan shared with U.S. News a few things that he did without that actually made his life better—whether through money saved, better health, or more time enjoying his life. "All of us need to take responsibility for how we live, but that doesn't mean we need to make ourselves miserable," he said. "But we need to ask ourselves if the resources that we're using are actually making us happy. If they're not improving our quality of life, then that is a waste."
1. Television. In "No Impact Man," Beavan and his wife, Michelle Conlin, find that giving up their trashy reality TV habit gave them more time for their then-two-year-old daughter, Isabella. "From the beginning, even though we didn't turn off the electricity right away, Michelle said, 'I think we should stop watching TV too.' And I was like, 'Oh my, I know you will find this to be hard, and now you're making it harder,'" said Beavan. "Even though she was kind of a TV addict, she gave it up and immediately saw the benefits to our family—basically, that it made us better parents because we hung out with our little girl more." Air conditioning, too, had a similar effect. "What we would do when we were hot was go to the fountain with Isabella," said Beavan.
2. Carbon-based transportation. Beavan's family got around New York with bicycles, a scooter, and a tricycle, which helped them get exercise and lose weight, even reversing Conlin's pre-diabetic condition. Traveling to and from work without the subway was more enjoyable for both, said Beavan, who said his wife felt like her commute was the only time she got to herself all day.
3. ... Including airplanes, when possible. Beavan knows that air travel can be necessary for work, or to see family and friends. But he thinks that our lives would be better without as much time spent in airports, particularly for business travel. "Go half as often and stay twice as long," said Beavan. "Or think about ways we can save money for our companies by doing meetings through video conferencing."
4. Beef. "People have absolute control over how much beef they eat," said Beavan, whose family became vegetarians for the project, and only ate local food—two habits they've kept up. "They can look for sustainably produced beef, grass-fed cows and whatnot, or eat less beef. Beef production around the world is a larger contributor to climate change than the entire transportation sector, because of deforestation and the fact that cows themselves produce methane. Also, beef is one of the roots of our coronary problems." Beavan and his family enjoy spending time at their local farmer's market, where they purchase fresh vegetables as a family each week.
5. Bottled Water. Beavan and family live in New York City, home to some of the best tap water in the U.S. He drinks his tap water out of a jar. "Most of us at any time have a tap full of drinking water that is as clean as drinking water, and it costs 1,000 times less, and does better by the planet," said Beavan. "Carrying a reusable water bottle means that you can bring your water wherever you go." And it's basically free.
6. Doing anything, at all (for just one afternoon). Beavan's project started out as an experiment in green living, but ended up as a demonstration of how to live better on less. "In terms of choosing the lives that we want, try taking an afternoon, or day, or even an hour every week where you choose not to buy anything, not to go anywhere, not to turn anything on or off," said Beavan. "We call that an eco-sabbath— but you can also call it a rest. Have an afternoon of resting. It doesn't cost the planet anything."