One man’s quest to leave no trace

09/02/2010 12:00 AM |

Colin Beavan with his daughter, Isabella, buying locally grown squash at a New York City farmers market.

Imagine going for a whole year eating only locally produced food, getting around only by bike and scooter, producing little or no garbage and not buying anything new. Oh, and no toilet paper or coffee either.

That’s how New York City writer Colin Beavan, aka “No Impact Man,” and his family spent the 12 months from November 2006 to November 2007 — all in hopes of creating no net environmental impact.

“Do we have to be a disposable culture?” Mr. Beavan asks at the beginning of the 93-minute documentary, “No Impact Man,” which was selected to be shown at the Sundance Film Festival.

The movie was screened Sunday at Art Sites gallery on West Main Street in Riverhead, followed by a $250-a-plate fundraiser dinner with Mr. Beavan at a private home.

All proceeds from the dinner supported the No Impact Project, a nonprofit effort that, according to its mission statement, strives to “empower citizens to make choices which better their lives and lower their environmental impact through lifestyle change.”

The event was the first time Mr. Beavan had combined a screening of the movie with a fundraiser for the project, about which he has also written a book of the same name.

Mr. Beavan, who has appeared on TV shows such as “The Colbert Report” and “Good Morning America,” chose the Riverhead gallery because his father, Keith, is a friend of Art Sites director Glynis Berry.

“I was so impressed that one individual can look at their own life and spark interest and awareness,” said Ms. Berry, who is currently securing the paperwork necessary to incorporate the nonprofit organization Peconic Green Growth, which is dedicated to raising awareness of the intersection of art, community and the environment.

The film tracks the ups and downs Mr. Beavan and his family faced during their year of living impact-free in New York. Some cheating does occur along the way. Mr. Beavan’s wife, Michelle Conlin, is shown sneaking some Starbucks coffee and the family mooches ice from a neighbor when they realize their alternative food storage system isn’t working. Ms. Conlin, a writer for Businessweek, tells the audience, “This is easy for Colin and just like murder for me.”

But the family largely sticks to the plan. They make their own cleaning products with vinegar, cook by candlelight and compost their waste in a worm-filled container in the kitchen. Food shopping is done at a farmers market in Union Square, using reusable containers, and goods are purchased only from farms within 250 miles of New York City.

The project began as a way to encourage people to “choose lifestyle adaptations that are better for them … and better for the environment,” Mr. Beavan said during a Q and A session after the screening. “We’ve replaced social connection with consumption.”

When the year ended, the family stuck with many of the changes they’d made, but not all. For example, they now use some electricity and drink coffee — but Mr. Beavan says they’ve kicked their shopping and television addictions.

So did the experiment work?

Mr. Beavan said that in addition to the health benefits of eating well and biking around the city, he became a better father in the process. By cutting out the hours spent in front of the television, he said that he and his wife were able to invest more time in their daughter, Isabella.

After the screening, Mr. Beavan noted that a lot of attention is paid to how much television children watch. “But I realized it’s important how much TV parents watch,” he said.

Though the project was admittedly a gimmick for Mr. Beavan — the author of two previous historical nonfiction books — to promote his writing, it seems that “No Impact Man” has had anything but.

Thousands of people have been experimenting with living a no-impact life and, this fall, 30,000 college students at 11 schools will participate in a no-impact week.

Asked if he had any regrets about the project, Mr. Beavan cited only telling Diane Sawyer on national television that everyone needs to do only one small thing to help the planet.

At the beginning of the project, he said, he started to doubt its effectiveness and was less adamant about insisting people do everything they can to help. He now advocates making big lifestyle changes, lobbying elected officials and volunteering with an environmental organization or doing all one can to make a positive ecological impact.

“We are in an environmental, ecological and quality of life crisis,” he said. “The economy, credit, people buying stuff they can’t afford, they’re all connected. We can’t all do just one little bit.”

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