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
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:
Drinking from the same thermos, Tom? Not in the age of swine flu. So maybe a better way to understand the you/me/environment/triangular/circular picnic through song would be with Nelly's smash 2002 hit, "Hot in Here." 'Cause let's face it, it is getting hot in here, with the environment feeling all greenhouse gassy from our carbon emissions. It's getting hotter over the sweep of history, that is. Technically, it hasn't lately gotten any hotter, and, in fact, it's gotten a bit colder since 1998 as the BBC just reported. So maybe we should just leave the understanding-through-eco-songs alone for the moment.
What is abundantly clear from my carbon-colonic guide and Beavan's No Impact bible is that being religiously eco-conscious isn't just about looking outward, but also about looking inward and achieving personal happiness. "You live a happier life that will result in a happier earth," Beavan writes. So that if I can make one person feel better about the environment, even myself, I've made all people feel better. That's a lot of good feeling that comes from me giving up paper towels. So I went ahead and gave the No Impact Experiment a whirl.
The way the experiment works is that each day emphasizes new actions, which then roll over to the next day, so that by the end of the week, all actions are working in concert, and you've been transformed from a conspicuously consumptive carbon monster into a virtuous person who can then go on to lecture less virtuous people about how they're destroying the earth.
One of Beavan's big "ideas for change" will sound drastic to American ears: "Stop shopping." I figured that over the last two years with the near collapse of our economy, we already had that one covered. But not good enough, apparently, as Beavan rails against our tendency to acquire too much stuff, over 90 percent of which ends up trashed within six months. His practical suggestions, then, range from "shopping in your own closet" (I put one of my own bespoke suits on layaway--it was expensive) to finding "hand-me-loves (aka hand-me-downs)" through activities such as dumpster diving. He even suggests throwing a clothing-swap party with friends.
Throwing a clothing-swap party is out of the question on account of my being straight. So I query several friends by email, asking what they'd be willing to give me, and if I had anything they'd like in exchange. A fishing buddy offers to send me his Redskins-themed Clinton Portis thong. Slate's press critic, Jack Shafer, suggests that a warm bag of urine mixed with wood ash would yield "a nice, non-toxic fertilizer." Greg Gutfeld, the host of Fox's Red Eye, writes, "I have some workout tights! Some old workout shirts. A soiled eye patch. A 'Celebrate Diversity' T-shirt in rainbow colors. A ball gag. In exchange, I would prefer chaps." Clearly, dumpster diving is the way to go.
Consumption Day happens to coincide with my 10-year-old son Luke's birthday. So I figure I'll find him, as Beavan puts it, some "treasure untold" for a present in one of the many dropoff dumps in Calvert County, Maryland. Luke and his six-year-old brother, Dean, come with me. First, however, we stop by the Help Association secondhand store to try our luck there. It's closed. So we peer in the window at a pink "Race for the Cure" T-shirt, an old fondue pot, or a pig figurine that I could've secured for him had it been open.
"What's this place for?" asks Luke.
"Mostly for poor people who need help," I respond.
"But we're not poor," he says, concerned. "We're just gonna take poor people's stuff for your story."
We shove off to a series of dumps. At the first one, the kids climb up on a dumpster and pop the lid open. While trying to decipher what's more valuable--the Snyder's pretzel box or the Big Gulp cup--a large man in a large truck arrives to tow away a full trash receptacle. He sees us hovering over a discarded kitchen chair and a bedpost, and starts yelling at his coworkers, "What are those kids doing over there?" We're apparently not supposed to be walking around the premises while equipment is being moved. But Dean thinks he said, "What are those geeks doing over there?" It makes him angry, and he's lost the will to treasure hunt. "C'mon," I say to the kids, "We're going to a better dump."
We can't find one though. Most are closed on Sunday, though we sneak into a few anyway. At one after another--we put some 90 miles on the SUV looking for carbon-neutral gifts--my kids make the best of it. We ignore "no scavenging" signs, and I tell one attendant that my kids "need to find treasures untold for a school project." Dean laughs at this when the attendant assents. "That guy will fall for anything," he snorts. My kids are not only learning how to save the earth, they're learning how to lie like pros, making the trip both inspirational and educational.
Without going through trash bags, they call out when they suspect they've discovered a treasure: "Look Daddy, a rubber band . . . a puzzle piece . . . a broken rake." At the county landfill, we dodge buzzards and guano to fish out an old scooter. Dean wants it immediately. It's kind of like a scooter he already has, except not as good and rusty. Luke takes a pass on a Malibu Barbie bike. After many hours, I remain birthday presentless for my son, though I like to think I've given him the gift of experience. Good thing his mom has a new Lego set on the way.
After aborting the dumpster-diving mission, I feel like I need a true success for my first day. So I follow Beavan's advice and make homemade body products. I look up a recipe for a moisturizer on thedailygreen.com. It calls for baby oil and mayonnaise. I hate mayonnaise: the smell of it, the texture of it, everything about it. It's so . . . mayonnaise-y. But I dutifully mix it up and smear it on my face and ashy elbows with a barbecue brush, gagging all the while. My wife, Alana, mocks me. "You're putting mayo and baby oil on your face? That's gross. And you'll break out."
"You don't get it," I say, returning fire at the woman and her uppity Arbonne skin care products. "You're either part of the carbon problem or part of the solution."
I sit down to peruse reader comments under the mayo/baby-oil moisturizer instructions and forget about my elbows, smearing mayonnaise on our couch, which I then have to remind myself not to wipe up with paper towels. One reader is shocked the recipe is even there, since baby oil is a petroleum product. I've been had. My face has been greenwashed--the term for companies which cynically promote green products as marketing gimmicks, in order to prey on eco-suckers (there is even a "green" brothel in Berlin that offers discounts to johns who arrive by bike). Worse still, I smell like a bad cafeteria sandwich.
I grab my wife's exfoliating wash and run to the sink, scrubbing the goo off my face. With all this moisturizing/exfoliating activity, I'm starting to think I'm not too straight for a clothing-swap party after all.
I wake up this morning and look in the mirror. As per my wife's prediction, I have two mayo-and-baby-oil inspired blemishes. But my elbows are silky as a cat's ass.
Today is all about trash. I'm supposed to make a lot less of it. Therefore, to raise my trash consciousness, I collect all my trash from yesterday in a special bag and inventory it. Beavan is right: It's shocking what you can learn about yourself from going through your own trash. Though I have no problem hopping in a car and driving 100 miles to go fishing on the spur of the moment, I'm not a total eco-Philistine. I've recycled paper and plastics for 15 years. While on the rivers that I love, I bark at fishermen who litter or who try to keep fish in catch-and-release waters. I willingly watched An Inconvenient Truth without holding it against doomsday prophet Gore that, according to the Tennessee Center for Policy Research, his Nashville home burns 20 times the electricity of the average American household.
Still, as I catalog my refuse, it feels like evidence in support of Beavan's indictment. The average person carelessly produces 4.6 pounds of trash per day. Even when conscientious of the trash I was producing: Four lemons quartered for iced tea, plus the plastic bag in which they came. Two gallon-sized tea bags (I scrupulously buy fair trade tea. I go to Safeway. I have money. They have Lipton. I give them the money. They give me the tea. Fair trade). Thirty-six empty packets of Sweet'N'Low. Two Diet Coke cans. A Polly-O string cheese wrapper. Lots of paper towels--some wet from wipe-ups, some wrapped around pistachio shells. A napkin. A newspaper I had to lay on the floor to inventory my trash. A butcher knife. Bloody Isotoner gloves. Size 12 Bruno Magli shoes. Looking at all this refuse, I learn something disturbing about my lifestyle: I use way too much artificial sweetener.
Part of my day involves food shopping as Tuesday is going to be Transportation Day, and I will lose the use of my car until the end of the experiment. We are advised to prepare accordingly. But here too, we are to be mindful of trash, bringing only reusable bags and not buying food that comes in throwaway packaging. I also spend some of the day clocking the odometer to mark off how far I will be biking if travel becomes necessary. We are supposed to make "no trash travel kits"--all sorts of reusable containers--though there isn't much point as once I lose my car in my Southern Maryland exurb, there are few places near enough to travel by bike, unless you count the cemeteries, old tobacco barns, and my local convenience store/gas station where the only locally grown products are state lotto tickets.
I do, however, stop by Safeway. I buy environmentally-friendly deodorant, Tom's of Maine--aluminum-free, made with natural hops, which I've always preferred in a glass instead of under my arms. On Beavan's advice, I look for a straight razor, instead of the disposable offerings that sound like souped-up race cars (Mach 3) or top-of-the-line tennis rackets (Quattro Titanium). No luck.
With the eliminate-throwaway-packaging rule, it's a short shopping run. Ninety-five percent of the grocery store is off-limits to me. So I mainly shop for the fruit and vegetables I won't be able to find at the farm stands. Beavan, like all locavores, worships at the altar of locally grown food, which not only supports the local farmer and tends to be more organic, but also reduces carbon-emissions due to reduced "food miles" in transport. Though this can be an errant assumption. The Economist reported, in Britain, it was more environmentally advisable to truck in tomatoes from Spain during the winter than to grow them in local greenhouses, and large supermarkets--with their high volume, central distribution depots, lean supply chains, and full trucks--can sometimes be more food-miles efficient than a local-food system where produce is moved in a larger number of smaller, less efficiently packed vehicles.
As a good eco-citizen, I'm giving up meat as well. Though I'm not entirely sure why. Fact: A cow emits 50 million metric tons of methane gas per year. Fact: I eat lots of cows. Ergo, I'm reducing methane gas emissions. Yet, while I'm sticking to the program, I don't want to take too many chances on the unappetizing root vegetables that plague our farm stands this time of year. So it's navel oranges from South Africa, avocados from Chile and Mexico, sweet onions from Peru. At least the tortilla chips I buy are from Texas. They come in a plastic bag, and sort of cut against the program, but what am I supposed to eat my signature guacamole with? My fingers? I'm not a savage. Plus, they're made out of white corn, making them kind of like a vegetable once removed.
There's a big glitch, however. I've forgotten my old bags. I run to the car, and find whatever I can, which turns out to be a slim Subway sub wrapper, and an unused deodorized pooper-scooper glove, with two smiling dogs on it, called a ScooPick. I apologize to the checkout lady, as she packs avocados into my pooper scooper, telling her I can't make trash and that she must get this all the time. "No," she says, eyeing me suspiciously, "actually I don't." She asks if I want to round up my total to help fight breast cancer. But she clearly doesn't give a rip about the environment. (You scratch my back, I'll scratch yours.) I decline.
I take my produce home in the fragrant ScooPick. I may never eat guacamole again without thinking of a dog park.
One of the reasons I became a professional magazine writer--besides having no marketable job skills--is that I work best staying up until all hours of the night. I can generally sleep through the hours when 9-to-5ers are commuting. Not so, if I want to go to the office during No Impact Week.
Beavan's champions are always marveling at how he pulled off his year of living virtuously in the middle of Manhattan. To which I say, big deal. Anybody can get around solely by bike on a mostly flat, 13.4 mile long, 2.3 mile wide island with every boutique taste imaginable, even of the eco-exotic variety, within a short jaunt. Try doing it in Calvert County, 35 miles from Washington, D.C.
Giving up my car, my eco-sensei says, would help me "think fewer emissions and more fun, free time, and money." But biking 70 miles round trip would take all day. There'd be no point in going, it would be no fun, and even if it gave me more free time with my kids--which it wouldn't--I'd be too tired to play with them. So my best option is to bike to the Park'n'Ride lot and catch a semi-environmentally friendly commuter bus.
This turns out to be a difficult trick. The last bus leaves for D.C. at 7:20 A.M., a time at which I'm either usually still sleeping or just thinking about getting up. Consequently, I wake up at 5 A.M., to shove off by 5:30. Outside, there isn't even a hint of sunrise, and it is a moonless night. I'm riding in pitch darkness, except for the headlights of cars whizzing by on a busy four-lane highway with erratic shoulders. The trek is seven miles of taxing hills. (I wear a heart monitor when I bike. On regular rides over flat terrain, I'm in the 120-135 beats per minute range. On this one, with a messenger bag on my back, I stay up around 160 most of the ride.)
It's so dark I can't see my gears and accidentally upshift on steep climbs. My mountain-bike chain pops off twice. (Since I hadn't greased it in a while, I can fit it back on with minimal mess, though I still look like I've been fingerprinted.) I ride warily in the darkness, keeping my eyes trained on the faint glint of the guardrail, and the white highway line of the shoulder. But at one point, my bike hits something squishy and nearly kicks out from under me. I stop and wait for passing cars to illuminate what I hit. It's a dead possum. At least I think it was dead. It might have just been playing possum, in which case, playtime is now certainly over.
The Park'n'Ride is behind Safeway, so I go into the supermarket bathroom, wash the grease off my hands, and try to make myself presentable. Wearing a ski hat and thermal jacket, the brightest yellow one I have in the interest of not getting plowed into by commuters, I'm drenched with sweat even in the 39-degree early morning air. With my ineffectual Tom's of Maine honeysuckle-rose eco-deodorant--not my usual "Cool Wave" triple-protection Gillette--I smell like a whiff of Febreze spritzed over the crowd at a Phish concert.
I miss the bus that's already there while searching for a place to tie up my bike (it's the only bike in a parking lot full of hundreds of cars). I take my place in a single-file line waiting for the next one, where people stand wordlessly and catatonically under the lutescent light of a big hangar. It feels like I'm trapped in a Hopper painting. By the time I get on the next bus, I've been on the road for an hour. That's the amount of time it usually takes me to get from door to desk in my car, which doesn't have rules against profanity and drinking fluids, as the bus does. And I still have 28 miles to go in the thickest rush-hour traffic, with nine stops before mine once we get to the city.
All told, it takes me two-and-a-half hours to get to work, though I had to leave so early that I'm still at the office an hour before anyone else. On the upside, there's no point in staying long. I had to leave my laptop at home, since I didn't want it slamming against my back or getting wet on the biking leg if it rained. Plus, if I want to get back to Calvert County, a 5:50 P.M. bus is my last call. If I miss it, I have to sleep at the office. No Impact Man was right. Not commuting with my car turns out to give me all kinds of additional free time. Because if I have to rely on the bike/commuter bus system, there's not a chance in hell I'm coming back to the office this week, thus reducing my commuting time and my vehicular emissions to zero.
On the way home from dumpster-diving on Sunday when I still had the use of my car, I'd stopped by a farm stand, run by Mark Cox, who also runs Mark's Lawn Service, about ten miles down the road from where I live. It's a place I sometimes take my children in the fall, letting them jump on his pumpkin-shaped balloon-bounce, one of the nods to agri-tourism that farmers tend to make these days.
Cox admitted it's tough-going, eating local this time of year unless I want to eat pumpkins and mums. (In bad frost years, he imports pumpkins from Canada to keep customers happy). I told him of my experiment, so he graciously loaded me up (gratis) with squashes that even he had trouble identifying, and Indian corn, which he swore I can pop in a microwave just by sticking the entire cob in a paper bag. (I tried it, and, after I finally got my smoke-choked fire alarm shut off, it looked like a science experiment gone seriously wrong.)
Cox, a fourth-generation farmer, appreciates how locavores emphasize eating locally grown food. But of course, a lot of their do-goodnik brethren are why his stand is now loaded up with mystery squashes. He used to be a tobacco farmer, which pays the highest yield per acre of any crop, until the smoking-ban nannies pushed the state to pay farmers not to grow the evil leaf, hastening the demise of the local tobacco-market auctions for those who still wanted to stay in the game. For a farmer, it can be pretty hard making up that income pushing decorative gourds to eco-yuppies.
And man cannot live on Indian corn and spaghetti squash alone. I realize, even after my Safeway run, that I'm missing amenities, such as tomatoes for my guacamole. So I pedal eight miles to the closest farm stand that has them, Trott's in Dunkirk. It's the place I buy the world's best sweet corn and tomatoes all summer long. Now, what's left of the tomatoes are too green and a little end-of-season iffy. I buy a load of them anyway, along with an eggplant. I'm not a big turnips guy, so I ask Betty, who is manning the stand, if anybody eats mums. "The deer in my yard," she says.
Much more appetizing are the buckets of apples: Fuji and Crispin, Red Delicious and Jonagold. I buy whatever I can fit in my messenger bag, now tottering with about 10 extra poorly distributed pounds which will make the ride home an undertaking, and I ask her where they grow them. I've never noticed any apple trees around here. "We get them from an Amish guy in Pennsylvania," she says.
It turns out, buying locally grown food is no easy feat, even when you're surrounded by farmers. I figure I might fill out my menu a little easier at a full-blown farmer's market, much like the one in Manhattan where Beavan shops. But the nearest one is a 32-mile round trip by bike, 16 miles of which I'd have to be hauling heavy produce. I'll eat squash-kabobs before doing that. But I get curious, and want to know what kind of locally grown delights I'm missing.
I call the market and am put through to a produce manager. I ask her if their stuff is homegrown. "Depends what you mean by homegrown," she says. "Some is from Lancaster, Pennsylvania" (the market's Amish-run). "But most of our stuff is grown in the United States." Does that mean some produce comes from foreign countries? "Yeah," she admits. "We get some from New Zealand and Chile."
Nobody's pure. Even the Amish, it seems, are importing from the "Picnic of the World." On the way home from Trott's, I swing my bike by the ultimate farm stand (Safeway) to buy some locally baked French bread. It comes in a slip-off wax paper wrapper, which in the interest of staying true to the program, I ditch. One of the bakery employees squawks at me when I tell him why I don't want it. "You have to take the paper," he insists. "We have to charge you, and what are we supposed to do, put the barcode on the bread?"
In my house, Energy Day could also be called Resistance Day, the day in which my family officially gets sick of me, as I turn off the heat and lights, cook my vegetables on the grill, and tell them that aside from retaining our refrigeration capacity so that all my farm-fresh produce doesn't spoil, we will attempt to go without electricity for 24 hours, and that there will be no more television all week. My Guitar Hero-playing children don't look amused. Dean interrupts his "Eye of the Tiger" solo to shoot the death-stare: "Tell your boss he's taking this too far."
I make a deal with the kids. I hand them the remote control and tell them, if they can keep it away from me for five minutes, they can still watch television, though not in front of me. I set the timer. I'm still faster than my carbon nemeses in the straightaways, but around the tight corners, they can elude me for a long time. The second I say "go," Dean runs upstairs to his room with the remote, locks the door, and runs out the clock. It's not pretty. But a win is a win.
My wife loses a best-of-seven coin toss, however, when protesting the rest. ("You can go live in the basement," she says, "it's cold down there.") I regularly chop wood in my backyard, so earlier in the day, I'd split a bunch of aged white oak, poplar, and locust rounds in preparation, justifying the carbon output to myself because I burn it hot and clean.
So we spend the night in the living room, playing Uno with the lights and heat off in front of the fireplace. The fire and a dozen or so lit candles still don't equal the illumination of one energy saving light bulb (which I later read are more carbon-efficient than this alternative). Since it's hard to see, however, I've taken to wearing a dorky hat with a built-in battery light that I own for night fishing. I walk various family members to the bathroom or the kitchen with it like a tour-guide at Carlsbad Caverns, them muttering all the way. The hatlight is also the only way we can tell the blue from the green color scheme on the cards. The family keeps complaining that I'm shining the light in their eyes. It feels like they're playing cards at a sobriety checkpoint after getting pulled over by a coalminer.
"I could use some wine," Alana says. "I wish we had white."
"I'd get it for you," I respond, "but I can't use my car."
We split a bottle of red instead and settle in for the evening. In the darkness, our lives slow to a crawl, in the best way. There are stories and songs and me whipping the piss out of my kids in Uno, then bragging, then having them complain to their mother about my bragging, while I insist I'm just celebrating my good fortune. Dean sits on the coffee table, legs folded Indian-style, chanting "ohhmm," which he probably saw on Spongebob Square Pants, though he's lost all interest in television, for the night at least.
Surprisingly, the No Impact guide doesn't ask me to shut down the computer for the day, even if it encouraged me to throw a blanket over my television, as well as to "Unplug! Turn it off, Power down. Go off the grid." In fact, it asks me to "blog or vlog about your experience conserving energy here," as well as to take my brief end-of-the-day survey, which I must take every day, about how anxious or satisfied or fulfilled I feel living a simpler, more virtuous life. My life, truth be told, has actually become quite a bit more complicated, with all the logistics planning, the no-trash making, the local-food vegetarian menu-finding, the four-hour bike-errand-running, the candle-lighting, the eco-conscious nightly podcast watching. Unless it's your full-time vocation, as it was Beavan's, it's pretty exhausting.
At about 8:50 P.M., I'm in the full glowing warmth of Chianti's embrace. The fire rages. My dog Moses, who nearly set his tail aflame with the abundance of candles and then tried to eat one, is snoring big bear-dog snores by the hearth. The children have been tucked into bed. I give my lady friend the eye, figuring maybe she has what I have in mind. I flip on my hatlight and ask her if she wants to play "Canary in the Coalmine."
But dammit, I remember, I can't. I have to spend my No Electricity-evening watching No Impact Man talk climate science and fossil fuels and the merits of Wal-Mart's Green Label plan on his nightly hour-long 9 P.M. podcast. What good is turning out your lights if you can't broadcast the fact that you have? Even as Beavan lived without electricity, over his year-long experiment, a documentary crew filmed him flipping off his breaker, Good Morning America checked in with him throughout the year, the New York Times came to his house and ran a front-page spread in their Home & Garden section. Suffering for the environment might be noble. Suffering in silence is unthinkable.
Alana gives me a your-loss-buddy look and traipses upstairs in the dark to watch The Office. "Remember," she says, "The kids liberated our television. Tomorrow, the lights come back on."
On Friday morning, the bill for electricity day comes due. There is fresh mint and red-onion debris everywhere from the potato salad I made in the dark. Wood-beetle shavings from the firewood I carried in are sprinkled all over the rug. Wax drippings from using candles as light cover the hardwoods, making our living room look like an S&M dungeon. My wife gives me a stern lecture about how she isn't the maid and how, eco-consciousness aside, I need to be mindful of cleaning up my own personal environment.
I agree with her completely, then take the passive-aggressive route. Today is conserve water day, so we are under strict orders to not flush toilets unless necessary: "If it's yellow, let it mellow." I mark my territory in every bathroom, like a dog reasserting his property rights.
The average American, Beavan tells us, uses 1,189 gallons of water a day. We are supposed to keep track of our water consumption. I wash my hands out of a pot. I bathe with a cold wet rag and keep track of how many gallons I rinse with. I track every ice cube consumed. For the day, I end up using only about 11 gallons, plus 52 cubes, not terribly far off the average consumption in water-starved sub-Saharan African countries.
I'm pretty proud of myself. Why, I'm not sure. My house is on well water, and we sit over a huge underground aquifer in no danger of running dry. I can't quite connect how taking shrinkage-inducing sponge baths or restricting ice-cube use is going to help the good people of Kenya, who are water starved. Perhaps I could bottle potable water and ship it to them--but I don't even want to think about what the carbon footprint of using that many plastic receptacles plus transport fuel would be. It'd probably break my online carbon calculator.
Perhaps any sense of accomplishment is evident because even though this is a self-conscious journalism experiment, it really is turning me into an OCD patient, trying to meet all the challenges. I'm becoming a scold to myself and others, the citation-writing OSHA inspector of my own life. I measure and weigh the consequences of the most necessary consumption, every genetic or learned impulse turned into a disputatious wrestling match--should I or shouldn't I? I am not living, I'm self-litigating.
Most leisure activities or electives--the things which give your life fullness and sweetness--are out of the question. Dark chocolate? It comes in tinfoil packaging. Sex? You can't recycle condoms, and birth control pills introduce hormones into the water supply which confuse fish genitalia. Fishing? Well, I'm sure there's all matter of problems with that. I really don't care.
Despite being in the middle of an ascetic, Thoreauvian experiment, I'm no Thoreau. But then, neither was Henry David Thoreau. Just have a look at The Thoreau You Don't Know by Robert Sullivan. While living at Walden, Thoreau went to town just about every day. He read newspapers, had his mother do his laundry, and was the last to leave at parties. He gave shelter to the workers who were harvesting ice from Walden Pond in an act of filthy commerce brokered by his landlord, Emerson. He caught and ate fish (he once accidentally torched 300 acres of Walden woods trying to cook fish in an old stump). He even slaughtered a pesky woodchuck, who'd ravaged his bean field, then devoured the critter, reporting that he had a "musky flavor."
I want to take my own kids fishing, having promised them a crack at some stocker rainbow trout, which are planted around here by Department of Natural Resources trucks twice a year. Since my boys are too inexperienced and too short to wade the trout rivers I fish up north, battling for space around these power-bait puddles with greedy bubbas filling their buckets is about the only crack they get at holding a rainbow.
Since I can't use my car, however, I can't get them there--it's too far for them on bikes balancing their rods. So I bike the 4.5 miles myself and have my wife drop them off by car with our gear. When we arrive, the pond is already full of bubbas holding the choice positions and bombing the water. The dumb tank fish have been sufficiently warned, and they want nothing to do with us. Our three-man take for the day: a little bluegill.
Time has gotten away from me, however, as it frequently does when I fish--which is sort of the point. I want to make today count for the kids because, by the time I get off my experiment, the fish will have been cleaned out by the non-catch-and-releasers. If any rainbows happen to be left, they'll have Ph.D.s in fly evasion.
But we're supposed to be at my mother-in-law's for my niece's 18th birthday dinner at 5 P.M. She came all the way home from college in North Carolina just for it. But it's 4:30 now. My wife picks up the kids, and takes them home. By the time I bike to the house, they're ready to zip down the driveway without me. (I'm planning to allow myself a shotgun-riding trip as it's a place my wife was going anyway--commuter-bus logic.) I start an unattractive argument, throwing a fit about how they need to wait, how I need to take a cold sponge-bath, to brush my teeth with a baking soda concoction, and to prepare my arugula salad in a reusable container for that night's dinner. They're gone before I can finish, already 30 minutes late having waited for me to return by bike.
I'm stuck at home, alone with my principles. I figure I might as well read Rachel Carson's Silent Spring by candlelight. (A heckling colleague told me it's much better if I add "between the sheets" after every sentence.) But first, I take a freezing sponge bath, writing down my water consumption (3 gallons). Then I stomp a small load of laundry in the tub--no harmful detergent. Then I make an inedible spaghetti-squash concoction from a bad Internet recipe, which I end up throwing into the woods, figuring the deer can take their chances.
I settle down with Silent Spring. It's better than I thought it'd be: "Future historians may well be amazed by our distorted sense of proportion between the sheets."
Today is the day I'm to give up everything (as if I already haven't) and take "some time back for yourself . . . to reflect on the well-being of yourself and the planet." The guide asks, "How do you usually spend your day off? Consider how different--if at all--this day will be."
Because of the no meat, no packaged food, no hot shower, no television, no car, no electricity (aside from my laptop and a single reading light--my hatlight went dead), and no fun generally--I figure it'll be a little different than usual. In fact, a package arrives by mail, an order I'd put in before I was prohibited from buying anything new. It's from a fly shop I frequent in Idaho. Inside are little packets of Clousers and Crazy Charlies and Surf Candies. They call October "Rocktober" around here--as in rockfish, the local name for stripers. And these are the flies that should be bringing to hand all manner of fish in the shallows of the Chesapeake Bay right now, before our striper friends flee to deep winter holes or migrate south and the bite is off until spring.
Of course, the bay is too far of a bike ride while carrying my 9-weight rod and my stripping basket. Without my car, I also can't capitalize on the last profitable weeks of smallmouth bass fishing at my favorite breathtaking stretch of Potomac River in Harpers Ferry, West Virginia. Neither can I get to my kayak spot on the Patuxent River along which the blackjack oaks and box elders and swamp hickories are now bedecked in their autumn finery, nor to the numerous trails I often bike when not riding to Park'n'Rides next to belching cars on busy highways. It'll be nice when all this simple living's over. It's making me miss nature.
Instead, I spend all day on the Internet, catching up with the endless No Impact blogs, vlogs, and tweets. Random Twitter sampling: "For #noimpact week, I am suffering through a nasty cold with a handkerchief, instead of tissues. Kinda awesome, or kinda icky? I vote both." The high priest of eco-virtuousness, Thoreau, would, I suspect, find the whole communication icky, as he prophesied social networking, when he wrote in Walden,
My No Impact blogging/vlogging/Twittering circle seems unconcerned that the information and communication technology sector is responsible for about 2 percent of all global carbon emissions--some say slightly more than air travel. And air travel itself is a pretty serious concern, according to Beavan, who went so far as refusing to get on a plane to visit relatives during his year. "One long-haul flight causes the same carbon emissions as an entire year of the average American's driving," he wrote in No Impact Man.
It seems our eco-doom is no longer as pressing a concern. As I peruse Beavan's book-promotion schedule on his blog, I count scads of cross-country jaunts--presumably too far to reach by bike. He'd have to bypass a lot of Charmin to make up for them. Beavan recently told the Associated Press that he tries to compensate for the damage by requiring those who pay for his travel to make a substantial donation to a renewable energy project.
So while I fret over turning on my lights or taking my children fishing five minutes from my house, my eco-guru is erasing all my carbon conservation, as well as his entire year of no-impacting, with just one or two of the many plane rides he takes to promote his book. I think I'm starting to understand No Impact Man when he writes, "Living our values across all areas of our individual lives--from the private to the public--demonstrates an integrity and a conviction that can help persuade the skeptics."
So some of us have to reduce our own carbon emitting. While some get people to pay other people to do it for them: an integrity and conviction offset, of sorts.
Sunday: Give Back Day
On my last day, I'm supposed to "give back" by volunteering with an environmental organization, but to reach St. Michael's, where I can join a Save the Bay volunteer group planting oyster spats on reefs, would mean 154 miles round trip by bike. So instead, I bike to Chesapeake Church, about a mile down the road, and volunteer at our church's food pantry.
Though I live in the sixth wealthiest county in the United States, 5,000 residents still live in poverty, and the vast majority of those who avail themselves of the food giveaways here--the only criterion being that they walk through the door--are children and their working poor parents (they put in their 40 hours a week at jobs that don't pay enough for them to feed their families). In the church parking lot, food distribution leader Debbie Weber, in dark jeans with scuffs on the knees from bending down to pick up bags or wipe up spills, oversees a large delivery truck staffed with volunteers taking in church members' contributions for the second week of a two-week food drive, which has brought in 6,651 pounds of food so far. There will be several more to reach their 14,000-pound annual goal.
Across the grounds at the pantry, over a dozen volunteers work for a couple hours full-tilt, unloading the truck and stocking the shelves, and more food is still coming in from additional members who missed the truck. One carbon-monster wheels up in his chariot-of-death--a Cadillac Escalade--and unpacks an entire SUV of plastic-bagged groceries, bought at his own expense.
As I join in the shelf-stocking, putting the boxed mac'n'cheese, canned Dinty Moore beef stew, offbrand toilet paper, and packaged Ramen noodles in their respective places, I realize how these needy carbon-emitters--the church helps 100 families per week--wouldn't make it for a second in the No Impact Experiment. Where's the locally grown, unpackaged delights? Where's the exotic farmer's market daikon radishes and lovage and baby fennel and swiss chard? Where is all the fresh food that helps our environment heal and guilty upper-middle-class white people feel better about themselves when ordering it from their Community-Supported Agriculture cooperative?
I bike home and end the eight-day experiment several hours early, deciding No Impact has had enough impact on me. I jump in my car and drive to the bay, where I fly fish for stripers off my favorite rock jetty. Releasing what I catch, I watch the setting sun while feeling a cool autumn wind hit my face. I order takeout Chinese food (the first meal I've eaten all week with my family), and put my General Tso's Chicken container in the recycle bin when I'm done. I take a hot shower, turn on my lights, pour myself a tall bourbon (without measuring my ice cubes or splash of water), and watch Mad Men on television.
And how do I feel? Like a moral failure, a carbon monster, an eco-sellout? Not even close. In fact, I feel positively Thoreauvian. For as Thoreau once wrote in a dead-tree letter to a friend: "Do what you love. Know your own bone; gnaw at it, bury it, unearth it, and gnaw it still. Do not be too moral. You cheat yourself out of much life so. Aim above morality. Be not simply good, be good for something."
Matt Labash is a senior writer at THE WEEKLY STANDARD. His first book, Fly Fishing with Darth Vader: And Other Adventures with Evangelical Wrestlers, Political Hitmen, and Jewish Cowboys, will be published in February by Simon & Schuster.