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No Impact Man

This month, I reviewed Colin Beavan’s book “No Impact Man: The Adventures Of A Guilty Liberal Who Attempts To Save The Planet And The Discoveries He Makes About Himself And His Way Of Life In The Process” for The Brooklyn Rail (I can’t actually link to my review because it’s not yet published).  Mr. Beavan is certainly heading for his fifteen minutes of fame.  There is the book, the documentary, and the copious media attention.  He’s been written up in the New York Times.  He’s been interviewed by Diane Sawyer and Stephen Colbert.  He’s showed up in many blogs.  And the book was reviewed this week in the New Yorker by Elizabeth Kolbert. 


Kolbert, a seasoned environmental reporter (her 2006 three-part series “The Climate of Man” was terrific), sharply criticizes Beavan’s project, calling it a “stunt” and “shtick.”  She compares Beavan’s book, along with Alisa Smith and James MacKinnon’s “Plenty: Eating Locally on the 100 Mile Diet” and Vanessa Farquharson’s “Sleeping Naked Is Green: How an Eco-Cynic Unplugged Her Fridge, Sold Her Car, and Found Love in 266 Days,” to Thoreau’s “Walden.”  She claims that all of these books, Thoreau’s included, are mere stunts.  Her thesis–that these stunts don’t much help–demands that she devalue Thoreau’s work, a claim I can’t quite buy.  I’ve taught “Walden” to high school kids for years, and I’ve watched how the book inspires kids to wrestle with the ideas of the importance of communion with nature, anti-materialism, self-reliance, and personal conscience.  Kolbert is not convincing me that Beavan’s project is unhelpful because of its resemblance to Thoreau’s famous ascetic experiment. 


Moreover, Kolbert fails to acknowledge Beavan’s own response to her well-anticipated criticisms.  She criticizes Beavan for not paying attention to the truly important political aspects of the climate crisis.  At the end of her review, Kolbert urges Beavn to write a sequel (cleverly coined by Kolbert “Impact Man”) in which he lobby’s his state lawmakers for better mass transit and devotes his blog to pushing for a carbon tax.  But Beavan recognizes this problem, namely, the seeming disparity between individual lifestyle changes and collective political action.  Beavan struggles with the fact that his book will only make people feel guilty about eating a piece of pizza off a paper plate, while big business gets away with murder (i.e. carbon emissions) and the government does nothing.  Beavan nods to this problem while steadfastly working toward his goal of greater eco-awareness on the indivudual level.  Moreover, at the end of his story, Beavan gives in and he does go visit his local Congressman.   


So where’s the dharmic link? 

Well, Beavan is clearly a practitioner.  In his book, he often quotes Zen
masters and Pema Chodron while relentlessly employing the language of
mindfulness.  He is out to change our hearts and minds and behavioral
patterns.  His approach does seem to me like the Buddhist approach.  But is
that just a facile and worthless categorization?  Or is there something
to the notion that Buddhism works well on the level of individual hearts and minds but
lacks a certain expertise with effecting change on larger, more
political structures? 

Moreover, in non-dual Buddhist fashion, Beavan works hard trying to dissolve the
apparent dichotomy between indivual conversion and political action. 
Kolbert, on the other hand, intensifies this false dichotomy by
critiquing Beavan and his fellow eco-stunters, emphasizing instead
the necessity for concerted political activism.  In the end, Beavan writes
“Collective action is nothing more than the aggregation of individual
actions.”  He has faith in grassroots.


It’s a question of what one can do.  It’s also the problem of false
dichotomies.  What would a Beavan blog devoted to a carbon tax even
look like?  We already have Bill McKibbon’s
Is 350 really all that matters at this point?  Or should we as
individuals also forego plastic bags?  Where is the fine line here?  I
myself have forsworn plastic bags, and now I’m also trying to cut out
all plastic water bottles (meaning, no more XXX pomegranate Vitamin
Water).  In a way, Kolbert’s perspective makes these personal efforts of mine
seem lame and “middle-class”, even shticky.  So I go sign up at  But then what?  Does that mean I can just go back to plastic bags?  What’s a
guy like me who just wants to save the earth do?


Comments read comments(9)
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Anan E. Maus

posted August 29, 2009 at 11:24 am

I don’t think that trying to do one’s best is ever wrong.
I think that the will to do good not only has a pragmatic impact, but a cosmic one…that it creates a vibe and energy in the world at large.
And that someone, somewhere, with the political wisdom, can receive that inspiration and produce the necessary ideas and changes.
The Sufis and Kabbalists talk about this effect frequently. I am sure it is in Buddhist literature as well, though I don’t know a reference offhand. Certainly chanting to dispel danger must be related.

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posted August 29, 2009 at 3:18 pm

“Beavan works hard trying to dissolve the apparent dichotomy between indivual conversion and political action.”
He dissolves it by saying that collective action doesn’t truly exist, its only individual actions, which is a perfect expression of today’s post-modern, neo-liberal consumer-capitalist ideology. We can see how Buddhist nonduality can be used to support the status quo.
I fully agree with Kolbert that this is a stunt, and I’m delighted that she points it out.
The message of these stunts is that the system permits us control over our consumer lifestyles, so let’s be the change we want to see in that area, hoping that it will inspire others and possibly “create a vibe and energy in the world at large” as a previous comment puts it. To understand why this is appealing, you have to insert the unspoken assertion: we shouldn’t impose our morality on others, they should choose it voluntarily.
We are unwilling to do this even democratically, and this means our activism is like fat-free ice cream: all the taste, but none of the calories; the satisfaction of feeling like we are changing things, but without the dangerous element of telling others how to live. We should fully reject this substitution, which turns a moral claim into a lifestyle choice, reducing us to enthusiastic fans of saving the environment who earnestly wish for others to emulate us.
This is the sense that we should understand Kolbert’s claim that Beauvan doesn’t pay attention to politics. Even though activists “raise awareness” of moral problems, visiting political representatives and even demonstrating on the streets, isn’t it obvious that they hope someone else will follow through and do the dirty work that they cannot do: simply override individual freedom and ban actions that are unsustainable and devastate the environment in the name of the collective good.
No wonder our activism is so ineffective. As everyone knows, the fault for this is often laid at the feet of Buddhism, which seems to advocate quietism, etc. But I disagree: far more disturbingly, Buddhism is often attractive to people precisely because it can be interpreted in a way that spiritualizes our disengagement and disavowal of our moral duty. Western spirituality gives us the zero-calorie ice-cream that we want, while concealing the fact that it is a substitution, a shadow of a true ethical position.

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David Lynch

posted August 30, 2009 at 2:50 pm

So I guess as English philosopher Edmund Burke said, ‘The only thing necessary for the triumph [of evil] is for good men to do nothing.’ Really has no merit if I trust Elizabeth Kolbert. Well I am happy to say that I do not. Every change must start somewhere. We are responsible for ourselves and our world. If everyone waited for political pressure and corporations to follow the laws we just might end up homeless as in no earth for us to live on. I was reading an email from Ocean of Dharma and the quoted Chogyam Trungpa
“The setting-sun approach is that you have a giant vision, which you can’t consume, and you end up throwing most of the it away. There is not even a program to recycle the leftovers. Everything goes to the dump. It is no wonder we have such big problems disposing of our garbage. Some people have even thought of sending our garbage into outer space: we can let the rest of the universe take care of our leftovers, instead of cleaning up our earth….As long as we have a pleasurable situation, we forget about the leftovers or the greasy spoons and plates. We leave the job of cleaning up to somebody else….In contrast to that, Great Eastern Sun vision is a very ecological approach. The way of the Great Eastern Sun is based on seeing what is needed and how things happen organically.”
From “The Dawn of the Great Eastern Sun,” in SHAMBHALA: THE SACRED PATH OF THE WARRIOR, pages 56 to 58.
It is time that we as individuals become responsible and accountable for taking care of the earth. We cannot wait for corporate greed and new laws and taxes to make the earth safe. But then again if I accept Ms. Kolbert’s premise this reply and my lifestyle is just another “stunt” I simply feel that if we all are proactive in how we live our life and avoid the plastic bags and bottles, walk more drive less, avoid Styrofoam of any kind the accumulated change WILL make a difference.

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posted August 31, 2009 at 8:47 am

Well, I think it is true that individual consumption choices on their own tend to be more symbolic and educative than anything else. It is also a very seductive trap (a very “American” and capitalistic one) and I think a sort of delusion for one to wholly substitute those choices for collective political action.
BUT that’s not to say that changing ourselves and our behavior isn’t still critical and absolutely necessary – it is. And clearly the opposite can be true – we have all witnessed or participated in street protests or campaigns of various kinds that were at least as ineffectual and symbolic as buying “green” products, if not more so.
In my experience, the key is to find ways to link individual transformation with collective social action. People are transformed and strengthened through collective action and collective action is transformed and strengthened through individual change. “Building a new world within the shell of the old” is, I think, a wonderful way to think of the task of remaking the world along more compassionate lines without trivializing either aspect.

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Patrick Groneman

posted September 1, 2009 at 12:12 pm

@ Mr. Teacup
“He dissolves it by saying that collective action doesn’t truly exist, its only individual actions, which is a perfect expression of today’s post-modern, neo-liberal consumer-capitalist ideology. We can see how Buddhist nonduality can be used to support the status quo.”
In what way is making thoughtful personal consumption choices and radically changing your habits supporting the status quo?

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posted September 3, 2009 at 1:45 am

@Patrick, we retreat to the sphere of personal consumption because political action that risks telling people how to live is not an option. This is an ideology that is perfectly expressed by Burger King: “Have it your way!”
Today, our first commitment is to the consumerist ideal of being able to achieve personal happiness, find our unique ways of enjoyment, pleasure and fulfillment. This book is an attempt to find a solution to ecological problems but still basically maintaining this way of life.

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Henry Pelifian

posted September 18, 2009 at 6:43 pm

Thoreau’s life at Walden was not a stunt, an experiment in living. An experiment that turned out to influence the world. Maybe his one day in jail was a “stunt”, but he attempted to bring to light bad government and corrupt government which supported slavery and unjust and unnecessary wars. (sound familiar) At that time U.S. was fighting Mexico.
His writings influenced Tolstoy, Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr and millions more.
As it turned out Thoreau succeeded, for his legacy penetrates to our time and probably to the end of time.

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posted September 26, 2009 at 5:15 am

I have been to busy trying to make a no impact business work over the past two decades, never had the time to write a book about it though. :)
I do agree with your input here Jordan. He lived in a ideal setting to do it. Trying to make a no impact Tractor and Pick up with out Government Help or other subsides is another story. Trying to generate the energy needed for a milk parlour with out any impact and the transport of Milk and Cheeses is a different ball game.
However it is possible with major set backs, headaches and financial loses that conventional industries do not have to put up with.
However, in the long run and for the good of our planet as well as Humanity I believe it is the only way to go. No impact that is.

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posted August 24, 2010 at 10:04 am

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