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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
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 350.org.
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 350.org. 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?