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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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."