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No Impact Man

Engrossing Environmentally Themed Documentary

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars.

Few documentaries are as enlightening, educational and engrossing as No Impact Man, a “fly-on-the-wall” documentary nimbly directed by Laura Gabbert and Justin Schein. No Impact Man follows environmentalist, activist, author, teacher, and blogger Colin Beavan as he takes radical steps to minimize or eliminate his impact on the environment over the course of an entire year. He hopes to “reduce, reuse, and recycle” his way to eliminating (or radically decreasing) his carbon footprint. His wife, Michelle Conlin, a writer for BusinessWeek and a self-professed shopaholic who favors designer brands, agreed to Beavan’s plans, but not without misgivings and some anxiety.

As a Manhattan resident, Beavan had several advantages (e.g., a mass transit system), but part of his “no impact” plan included walking or biking within the city, relying on mass transportation like trains or buses only in emergency situations or where another alternative wasn’t available. Beavan’s plan included buying fresh vegetables and fruits every day from a local farmer’s market (meat was out, due to the costs involved in producing and transporting meat), composting, washing his family’s clothes in the bathtub using biodegradable detergent, eliminating household cleaners, dispensing with toilet paper, and once the cold Northeastern winter gives way to spring, to the elimination of electricity. Each step adds unexpected complications, including food storage problems (vegetables wilt, especially in the summer heat), a workaround to power his laptop (solar panels), and the withering summer heat (they spend more time outdoors).

Not surprisingly, Beavan’s “no impact” plan receives wanted and, in some cases, unwanted attention. His plan nets him invitations to appear on television and radio programs, a semi-critical article in the New York Times, criticism from other environmentalists (for a lack of seriousness and the book he’s preparing for publication), and death threats left on his blog. He also helps with a local garden and, with Conlin’s mild protestations, plans a vacation to an upstate New York farm for four days. Conlin admits to sneaking off for the occasional jolt of caffeine (prohibited under Beavan’s plan), as well as luxuriating in her air-conditioned office during the hot and humid summer months. Nearing 40, Michelle expresses a desire for another child, something Beavan initially refuses to consider.

Alone, Beavan’s plan might seem eccentric and insufficiently engrossing for a feature-length documentary, but with Conlin’s participation, participation founded less (far less) on agreement with Beavan’s ideas than the usual give-and-take of long-term relationships, No Impact Man becomes as compelling as a narrative film. Conlin recognizes the presence of a narrative arc (and its potential inapplicability) to Beavan’s one-year experiment and her relationship with Beavan, but she also recognizes its limitations. She also provides No Impact Man with much of its humor. She’s also the subject of pointed criticism from a local gardener for her work as a BusinessWeek writer (i.e., writing that takes capitalism and consumption as a given), but it’s a subject Beavan doesn’t directly raise with Conlin (but probably should have).

By the end, Beavan and Conlin have learned what they could and couldn’t do without, Beavan completes his book chronicling the one-year experiment, but, just as importantly, their relationship seems to have deepened (not having a television for a year helped). As for what lessons moviegoers can take from No Impact Man, they might be limited. Living in a city with a high population density, not to mention a farmer’s market within walking distance, working from home, etc., aren’t advantages everyone watching No Impact Man have, but it still serves as an important reminder for environmentally conscious moviegoers: change can be both local and global. Activism in the service of political change is obviously important, but so is personal change that, in turn, can turn into collective change.