You know the story I’m sure: guilty conscience of New York liberal leads to radical lifestyle change, then book, then film. Like Morgan Spurlock’s month of McDonalds, chronicled in Supersize Me, Colin Beavin’s year-long experiment in net-zero impact living can easily be dismissed as a stunt. Frankly, that was my reaction. I have feared, and still do now that the film is out, that the impact No Impact Man may make take the form of a backlash. After all, the fear of all complacent consumers and climate change skeptics is that we green police will force a life of sacrifice and austerity on everyone else. So, not only is it not easy being green, but it’s a miserable slog the rewards of which are limited to smug self-righteousness. Is that about right?

Of course, No Impact Man is making an impact, which is part of the irony of his moniker. No one really desires to make no impact, do they? In the same issue of the Washington Post today was a sobering article, buried on page 4, summarizing the just released findings of a UNEP report. Turns out things are in fact much worse than we thought: global temperatures are rising far more quickly than thought even two years ago. We’re all making a huge impact individually and collectively and that is exactly the problem. Beavin’s impact is less as a role-model for reducing our negative impact than as a provocateur to get us all first to reflect on our ingrained habits and second change what we can in our own circumstances. My husband likes to cite a tidbit of conventional wisdom he heard once, that doing something three times pretty much ingrains it as a habit. That applies to habits good and bad: open that bag of chips, three days in a row? Bad habit. Eat an apple instead? Good. And good habits eclipse bad. But we have to first really see, really know, what our habits are, and that’s the value of No Impact Man.

Beavin’s wife Michelle makes a guest appearance on his blog, and while confessing her own bad habits and recidivist tendencies, describes the “point of the project was to be radical: to go completely off the grid, drop out of the culture, and see what would emerge.” As a laboratory experiment it’s interesting, but life isn’t really about dropping out and off. Isolationism in the pursuit of green is no virtue, because isolationism is no virtue period. Unraveling the skein of sustainability requires a broad and diverse set of tools; sacrifice and altruism only get us so far. We have to begin to replace destructive habits with constructive ones, increase our positive impacts. As the UNEP report makes clear, just being less bad isn’t enough anymore.

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