The Magazine

The Adventures of Low Impact Man

One week that will turn you from a conspicuously consumptive carbon monster into a person fully able to lecture the less virtuous about how they're destroying the planet.

Nov 30, 2009, Vol. 15, No. 11 • By MATT LABASH
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Remember that old Mac Davis song, "Oh Lord, it's hard to be humble"? I was ten at the time of its release in 1980. I didn't understand it. But I hadn't yet planted my flag on the summit of major accomplishment. Now I have, and it's like Mac is singing to me. Hell, after my week of virtuous and simple living, it's like Mac is singing about me. My carbon footprint was erased as though a breaker had scoured it from a sandy beach thanks to No Impact Week, as in the eight-day experiment I just partook of with Huffingtonposters and eco-seekers and the No Impact guru himself, Colin Beavan, aka No Impact Man.

As virtuous as I am, Beavan is even more so. For before we spent October 18-25 in virtual togetherness, living individually in our homes, but with all 4,700 of us knitted together as a collective, Beavan lived carbon-footprint-free for an entire year, right there on the ninth floor of his Greenwich Village co-op. Beavan and his wife and his adorable baby Isabella lived without a car or the subway, electricity, or a refrigerator. They gave up meat and taking elevators and disposable diapers and even toilet paper. They made their own cleaning products out of environmentally friendly ingredients. They stopped buying new things altogether and any food that was packaged or came wrapped in plastic. They ate only locally grown ingredients and shopped at the Union Square Greenmarket or with reusable muslin bags out of the bulk bins at Integral Yoga Natural Foods. They stomped their laundry in the tub and what little trash they made went not into a landfill, but into a worm-eaten compost bin in their kitchen.

And why did No Impact Man do this? So that he could humbly show us how to save mankind from CO2 armageddon. And, well, so he could write about himself on his No Impact blog (yes, computers use electricity, but his laptop used solar energy when he wrote at home--though not when he wrote at the Writers Room, a nonprofit urban writer's colony in an airy East Village loft). And so that he could write about himself in his recently released book, No Impact Man: The Adventures of a Guilty Liberal who Attempts to Save the Planet and the Discoveries He Makes about Himself and Our Way of Life in the Process, which prompted Stephen Colbert to ask, "What is the carbon footprint of that title?" (Yes, the book is printed on dead trees, but with 100 percent postconsumer recycled paper and cardboard, processed without chlorine, and manufactured with energy generated by bio-gas.) He's also featured in a companion No Impact documentary (yes, I'm sure he has a perfectly good eco-excuse for the carbon footprint left by filmmaking, too). All modesty aside, then, the No Impact movement is making a Big Impact.

And so we are.

I don't want to brag--that's more Mac's style than mine--but we did it! We No Impacters went zero-carbon for a week! We erased our carbon footprint! Well, we didn't erase it exactly. It's impossible to leave no footprints. I mean human exhalation leaves 1 kg of carbon dioxide a day, which traps heat in the atmosphere, which warms the polar ice caps, which drowns polar bears, which makes Al Gore weep. So we can't be no impact strictly speaking, unless we hold our breath until the Climate Bill passes and President Obama goes to the United Nations Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen in December and invents green jobs and finds green solutions to intractable problems like human breathing. So let's just say I went Low Impact. If my Low Impact week was an aerobics class, it'd be the kind where I jog in place on a mini-trampoline while wearing a decorative headband.

But it sounds like I'm making No Impact Week all about me, and it's not. "The Experiment is about impacting yourself, your community, and your country," as the 17-page No Impact online guide to our carbon colonic read. ("Don't print this out!" warned organizers.) So it's not just about me, it's about the environment, even if the environment is sort of about me. I am it, and it is me--the circle of we, if you will. The environment and I are like three-legged race partners at the company picnic. If the environment pulls a hamstring, I go down too and that bastard Jones from accounting wins. But the circle of me and the environment is about you, too. We're kind of like a triangle, our circle. Our happiness is all interconnected, as I learned from Tom Chapin's song "Picnic of the World" (if I may bring it back to picnics for a second), which was on my eco-playlist for the week:


All sitting on the same big blanket With the same big basket Full of sandwiches and deviled eggs We're all drinking from the same big thermos At the same big picnic It's the picnic of the world