Arts & Events

No-Impact Man: A Review and an Experiment

By Gar Smith, Special to the Planet
Thursday September 17, 2009 - 10:01:00 AM

Like cyber-chef Julie Powell in the movie Julie and Julia, Colin Beavan has followed the blog-book-flick path to fame. His blog about trying to live a “no Impact” lifestyle in the midst of Manhattan spawned a book, a website ( and a documentary. (No Impact Man, opens in the Bay Area on Sept. 18.) 

Unlike Julie, who cooked her way to fandom, Colin encountered a fair amount of criticism from readers ticked off by his eco-superior airs. In the United States, it seems, you don’t touch a man’s handgun and you better keep your hands off Middle America’s air-conditioning and HDTVs. Nonetheless, Beavan, his wife Michelle and their 2-year-old daughter Isabella can lay claim to being modern-day eco-heroes for managing to live without electricity for six months. (They elected to go off-grid during a Big Apple winter rather than the notorious summer swelter.) 

After catching a press screening of No Impact Man, I wondered: What would it be like to go “no-impact” (or, at least, “low-impact”) for a week? Unlike Manhattanites, most Berkeleyans, already practice low-impact lifestyles. After all, Berkeley is home to the country’s first Ecology Center. We kickstarted urban recycling, biodiesel fuels, and bans on paper bags. The cloth shopping bag has been a standard part of Berkeley apparel for decades. 

The energy bill for our house runs around $40 a month. Our weekly trash weighs a couple of pounds. We compost and recycle. We’ve turned off the pilot lights on our gas oven and stove. (Pilot lights are the equivalent of a TV set’s “stand-by” mode.) Now we only light the oven when we need to bake something. We use an electric spark-gun to light the stovetop burners. Our hot water tank is always turned to “vacation.” When someone wants to take a shower, the heater is fired up for 10 minutes. So here was the test: How much greener could I be? Herewith are notes from my Low-Impact Diary. 


Day One: Friday 

Walked a mile to Solano Avenue. Free Bagel day at Noah’s. Refused paper bagel bag. Felt guilty about scoring free bagel; ordered large coffee. Grabbed paper cup collar from back pocket. (Why use new collar when one will last all year?) Feel smug. Walking home, I’m stuck with empty paper coffee cup. Feel stupid. (Next time, vow to bring reusable mug.) Drop cup in “mixed paper” recycling bin outside local store. Low-impact achieved. No more coffee for a week. (Only local coffee I’m aware of is growing on potted coffee tree in friend’s North Berkeley home. She’s not about to sacrifice her three ripe beans for anyone’s java-jones.) 


Day Two: Saturday 

Try cold shower. Shiver so badly ears nearly fall off. Turn on heat; admit no-impact failure. Walk to Monterey Market. Honor Berkeley Slow Food Guru Michael Pollan’s mantra: “Eat Food. Not a Lot. Mostly Plants.” Gather pesticide-free organic beans, apples and salad mix. Buy six long-lasting candles from Ecology Center (beeswax from West Coast bees). Staffer suggests two no-impact books, Plenty and Farewell My Subaru. Walk a mile to downtown. Visit Farmers’ Market for lunch. At night, use candles for ambience. Solar-powered lamp proves better for nighttime reading. 


Day Three: Sunday 

Instead of microwaving morning tea, pull solar box cooker from garage. Pop cup into the cooker. Wait five minutes. Burn fingers on mug. Return armed with oven mitt. Instead of driving to Berkeley Marina for morning run, start running at front porch. Approaching Aquatic Park pedestrian overpass, nearly creamed by speeding cyclist. Fortunately, No Impact. Halfway through 12-mile run, stop at Seabreeze for cold drink. No locally grown beverages. Sympathetic worker offers free glass of tap water. Buy and devour one California plum. Impact on Earth: negligible. Impact on legs: crippling. 


Day Four: Monday 

No more long showers (while singing Broadway show tunes). Replace ten-minute scrub-down with “Navy Shower.” Turn water off after initial rinse. Lather up. Turn the water back on. Out of tub in two minutes, delighted at extra eight minutes added to workday. (Housemate delighted at lack of Broadway show tunes.) Spot small leak in toilet. Buy new plastic flapper at Ace Hardware. Four bucks: no leaks. 


Day Five: Tuesday 

Bicycle to downtown Berkeley office. Bad start. Tires flat. Crash. Pant leg catches in chain; shoelace catches in pedal. Crash; crash. Pedaling uphill hard work. Almost post-marked by mail truck. Cars like predators. Feel like prey. Bike lanes feel like wildlife corridors. Reach office. For once, no parking problem! Emergency: Forgot lunch bag. How will I eat? Notice neighbor’s fence covered with blackberries. Harvest a cup. No impact! 


Day Six: Wednesday 

Walk to Berkeley Horticultural in search of stevia plant —nature’s natural sweetener. Instead of bottled fruit drink, harvest Meyer lemons from a backyard tree to make week’s worth of lemonade. Walk to BART for mid-day lecture at UC. Use solar cooker to fix rice and beans for dinner. Advantage: Can’t burn rice with solar cooker. Walk 14 blocks to press screening of Earth Days. Inspiring. Catered food. Eat Point Reyes cheese spread on local toast. 


Day Seven: Thursday 

Celebrate Foundation for Deep Ecology wisdom: “Less and Local.” Breakfast on fresh-baked cookies from local bakery. Bike to Green Motors to check out electric cars, scooters, bikes. Walk to cheeseboard for lunch. Decide not to celebrate end of Low-impact Week with a coffee latte. 


Final Impact 

I managed to live a week without buying gas or anything than comes in a box. Avoided elevators and escalators. No AC. I used little electricity. I ingested and imbibed locally (thank you, Napa Valley). Living a no-impact life takes more time and work but left me feeling more grounded and alive. 

Because Colin Beavan was a stay-at-home writer, his wife emerges as the real star of his experiment. This No-Impact Woman not only gave up caffeine, she ditched her car for a scooter and foot-pedaled to her job at Business Week for a year. For me, a special joy of the documentary was watching little Isabella growing up and gaining verbal skills. One of the doc’s sweetest moments comes when Colin takes Isabella to a community garden and shows her a jar filled with fireflies. When one of the bugs blinks, her response is absolutely magical: It defines what it means to be human.