The Impact of Having No Impact: Colin Beavan, at the Quad City Earth Charter Summit Print
News/Features - Feature Stories
Written by Jeff Ignatius   
Wednesday, 01 October 2008 02:37

Reader issue #704 Colin Beavan's thought was hardly unusual. Most of us have wondered whether all our accumulated belongings and technology make our lives better.

"We're consuming way too much stuff as a civilization," Beavan said. "And we have an idea that's because we need all these things. When people tend to talk about living environmentally, they tend to think of depriving ourselves. The question became in our year: Would we be less happy or more happy? Would we actually find that there were some greater satisfactions than consuming resources to be had? And if that was the case - which it was in our case - might it be possible for our culture to design itself in such a way so that it uses fewer resources but also gives us happier lives?"

Beavan - who will deliver one of the keynote addresses at the Quad City Earth Charter Summit on Saturday, October 11 - is not talking merely about driving less, or eating more fresh food, or recycling more. "Our experiment was extreme," he said in a phone interview this week.

How extreme? The New York Times article about Beavan's family was headlined "The Year Without Toilet Paper."

Beavan's described it as "an experiment that we ran as a family, where the four of us - myself, my wife, my little girl, and my dog - tried to live while causing as little environmental impact [as possible] for a year." The experiment started in November 2006, and Beavan began calling himself No Impact Man.

The television went away. They didn't use the elevator in their New York City apartment building. They didn't drive cars, or even use public transportation. They turned off the radiators and air conditioners in the apartment. They only ate food grown within a certain distance from their home. No freezer. No microwave. No use of the laundry machines in the basement. They eliminated spices except for salt. In the process, they reduced their volume of trash from 90 gallons a week to a cup a week.

"The difficult thing is learning how to do it," said Beavan, who's now 45 years old. "We made a lot of changes over a period of six months, and then we lived with those changes. The hard part was getting into the swing of the changes. How do you live without trash? Even when you figure out how to do it, it's not your normal habit. So you have to change your habits. ... Every time we added a new element, there was a hard part."

What Beavan found was that he and his family got more exercise. They ate healthier. They talked more instead of watching television. They invited their friends over. "We felt like what we wanted was not more stuff so much as more community," he said.

The larger question, he said, is whether it's "possible that we could not only have a happier planet but happier people."

The experiment was born out of a concern for the environment. "It was a response to the fact that government and business were doing nothing," he said. "I'll try and do something for myself, and maybe some other people will get a message from it."

When most people feel guilty about the state of the planet, they do something small such as recycling more. Beavan said that wasn't enough: "We've had recycling for a long time, and we still have global warming."

Colin Beavan The experiment had plenty of surprises. Beavan and his wife switched their daughter to cloth diapers, and about a month into the experiment they ran out of clean ones. Beavan found a disposable diaper in a closet, but his daughter threw a fit. "I tried to put the plastic one on her, and she just started screaming, ‘I want my new diapers! I want my diapers!'" he said. In the end, he realized that most of us would be unhappy "if you wrapped a piece of plastic around your own butt for a day."

He said that he understands that it's not feasible to leave no mark on the planet. "It's impossible to be zero impact," he said. "The philosophy is: Can you do more good than harm? But it wasn't measured rigorously." He said he tried to offset his carbon sins by volunteering for environmental not-for-profits.

Beavan said he doesn't expect people to mimic his experiment. "I wasn't telling anybody to do anything," he said. "I was just telling people what I do."

But he hopes that people understand that they have an impact on the world. "What I'm most interested in is encouraging people to believe that how they live their lives makes a difference ... If you live it as though you do make a difference, then you will."

Beavan, an author of two books (including one titled Fingerprints: The Origins of Crime Detection & the Murder Case That Launched Forensic Science), made the no-impact experiment his job for the year. The resultant book is due out next year, and yes, he's taken crap on his blog for the resources that will be used in the production of said product. A documentary will be making the festival rounds in the spring.

He recognizes that what he did is not practical for most people. It's not even practical for him. "There were definitely parts of the experiment that didn't make sense," he said. "I really missed the laundry machine."

Once the year was over, Beavan said, the key test for consumption was whether it improved life. Hence, the washing machine and dryer are okay because they contribute to his family's well-being and happiness by saving so much time. "It's a real waste of resources if it's not improving human quality of life," he said.

And while many elements of the experiment have fallen away, Beavan said he and his family have retained roughly 60 percent of their no-impact ways.

When asked what he did the day the experiment ended, he joked, "We saved a lot of money, and I bought a nice secondhand Hummer."

The reality, he said, was that much of what he might have wanted do had lost is luster. "In some ways, it was like an anticlimax," he said. "It's over and we can do whatever we want, but we'd learned so much that we kind of understood the environmental cost of everything that we wanted to do, that it was kind of hard to get back to doing it."


Colin Beavan's Web site is



The Quad City Earth Charter Summit

The Congregation of the Humility of Mary's October 11 Quad City Earth Charter Summit will feature two keynote addresses: "Global Climate Crisis: Solid Facts," by University of Iowa professor Jerald Schnoor, and "Does Our Happiness Have to Cost the Planet?" by Colin Beavan, also known as "No Impact Man."

While last year's inaugural event focused on the Earth Charter itself (see more information at, this year the sisters of the Congregation of the Humility of Mary chose to focus on global climate change, said Lisa Bellomy, chair of the Congregation's Earth Charter Committee.

Schnoor's address (at 9:15 a.m.), will provide a scientific perspective, while Beavan's speech (at 1:30 p.m.) will introduce the audience to a man who undertook a one-year experiment with his family to live a year with minimal negative environmental impact.

Although the Earth Charter Summit is a day-long event, walk-up registrations will be accepted throughout the day, Bellomy said.

The Quad City Earth Charter Summit runs from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. on Saturday, October 11, at the RiverCenter in downtown Davenport.

Advance registration is $20 and includes an "Earth-friendly" lunch. Walk-up registration (without lunch) is $10.

For more information on the event, visit or call (563) 323-9466.



blog comments powered by Disqus