Lessons from No Impact Man (and Woman)

The other day, Dan I watched No Impact Man, a documentary that follows a writer, Colin Beavan, as he attempts to strictly limit his impact on the earth – while living in a New York City apartment with his wife and young daughter. Over the course of the year, Colin and Michelle gradually shed the layers of consumer culture that make up most of our lives. They start by cutting out take-out food and meat, shopping, and public or private transportation (only foot scooters, bikes and walking are allowed) and get gradually more extreme until they are living completely off-the-grid. The film summary can be found on the No Impact Man blog.

What I found most engaging about this documentary was watching Michelle adapt to the project as her resistance to some drastic life changes – living without Starbucks, disposable diapers, refrigeration – is gradually broken down. Michelle entered into the project with what seemed to me a reasonable amount of reluctance; she goes on a paycheque-blowing shopping spree before her year of no consumption, and downs three iced espressos in one sitting on her last day with coffee. A senior writer for Businessweek, and a self-professed “corn-syrup loving…….total consumer”, Michelle seemed like an unlikely candidate for off-the-grid living. I almost wondered at what the two halves of this couple had in common. Michelle’s initial resistance, paired with her acknowledgement that there were elements of their life that she wanted to see change, such as the amount of garbage they were producing, television they were watching, and her pre-diabetic health condition, made me curious to see how she would react to the drastic changes that were coming.

There are definitely some points in the film where you can see that Michelle is thinking that this project is totally nuts – and maybe her husband is too. There is a scene mid-way through the film when Colin decides to wash the laundry by filling the bathtub with water and homemade soap and stomping on the clothes. Michelle is lurking in bed, reading a book, having just seen Colin pack up all her cosmetics in a box for the year, and realizing that in a couple weeks they are going to be without power. After she hears their daughter shrieking and laughing in the makeshift laundry tub, Michelle goes to check on what’s happening, and while a bit suspicious of the whole process at first, she seems to melt into the experience, eventually climbing into the tub herself.

I was inspired by Michelle’s personal growth through this project; how she is strengthened and stretched and empowered through the process, and the challenges that this alternative lifestyle brings. While acknowledging to a friend that she has allowed herself some cheating along the way, she also notes that there is ‘no going back’ to her previous lifestyle: this experiment has clearly changed her in a profound way. A clip of Michelle at work shows her enjoying her one indulgence – ice from the water machine – and it is clear that she has learned to cherish the simpler things in life.

Near the end of the film, Michelle speaks about how her relationship with food has changed over the course of the year, having now met the farmers who produce their food, spent a week on a working farm, and developed a much more intimate understanding of what eating locally really means. Declaring that she wants to take things further, Michelle reveals that she has never cooked a meal for her family. Now I am no domestic goddess (just ask my crock-pot loving, dishwashing boyfriend) but I just can’t imagine not preparing my own food–ever. Michelle gets a cooking lesson and proudly prepares a meal of roasted vegetables for her family. Even though it has been a year of turmoil, Michelle seems so much healthier, happier and balanced by the end of the film – she seems to have been profoundly changed by the process of living simply, in fact far more than the “no-impact-man” himself.  Overall, the film was an interesting lesson in how adapting to change (even when, or maybe especially when, it is uncomfortable) can be broadening and enriching – a lesson that I will try to take to heart.

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