With the personal history I described in Part 1, our viewing of “No Impact Man” reflects both our urban past and our rural present: two very different worlds. Although we were never hyperconsumerist like Michelle, we certainly absorbed the message of that mindset. Growing up, we lived in a culture that gave very little thought to where its food or clothing came from. Even though I was already environmentally conscious, I was not aware of a single farmers market in New York City until shortly before we moved away, when I learned about the market in Union Square. I bought my veggies at a minuscule, locally owned, independent produce store that paid attention to freshness and quality; I even had a job there for a while.
New York City Is More Open to No Impact Lifestyle Now
On the other hand, New York City is one place where it’s considered normal not to have a car. And since our day, the city has evolved not only much more of a consciousness around local and green, but an infrastructure. Colin Beavan and Michelle’s Manhattan residence is walkable from the massive 4-times-a-week farmers market in Union Square (up to 140 vendors). The market was their major food supplier for their year of localism.And they could shop often enough that living without a refrigerator was not that big a problem (though there was at least one spoiled milk incident). When I lived in the city, the Union Square market actually did exist—it was founded in 1976)—but it was tiny, much less frequent, and not widely publicized. These days, there are at least 107 farmers markets in the city, 54 of them under the umbrella of GrowNYC.
Colin Beavan’s Choice
Colin Beavan, co-star with his wife, Michelle Conlin, of “No Impact Man,” decided to phase down most modern conveniences. No plastic packaging, no food from farther than 250 miles (goodbye, olive oil, coffee, chocolate, and black tea—and goodbye to nonlocal wheat, rice, and most other grains—though there is a small amount of wheat being grown here in Western Massachusetts, well within Colin’s 250-mile limit), no vehicles that had a carbon impact (so long, buses, cars, taxis, and even the subway), no elevator to their 9th-floor apartment, even no toilet paper (using washable cloth, instead). Eventually, no electricity in their apartment, except for a solar panel that charged Colin’s laptop. And somehow, he managed to convince Michelle, a self-described nature-loathing fast-food, designer fashion, and television addict, to go along.
Colin and Michelle (and their toddler, Isabella), changed pretty abruptly from total immersion to near-total withdrawal from the conveniences associated with the yuppie New York City professional lifestyle. But they didn’t withdraw from society. They still had their old friends—and made new friends through the farmers market, a community garden, and Colin’s volunteer work. And they got tons of press, with major features and appearances from the New York Times to Good Morning America and the Colbert Report. More importantly, they both found a deeper connection with the world around them, and to their daughter. The lifestyle that at first felt like a hardship actually became liberating—even to skeptical Michelle. And both noticed a health improvement, moving from a sedentary lifestyle to one involving a lot of walking and bicycling, and changing from processed industrial foods to a locavore vegetarian diet. Michelle even reversed a prediabetic condition, while Colin joked that the New York Times article, with its headline about giving up toilet paper, should have been called “How I Lost 20 Pounds Without Going to the Gym.”
My Bi-Cultural Perspective on the Experiment
I promised you that I’d bring my mixed NYC and rural perspective to analyzing this movie. And I will do so in Part 3, tomorrow, and actually conclude this series.