Eco-Experiments: Gimmick, Writer’s Muse or Test Pilot Venture on the Green Frontier

When we started our year-long experiment in January of 2008, seeking to consume everything local, used, homegrown or homemade, I can honestly say we didn’t know about all the other similar experiments working there way into the cultural mainstream. We hadn’t read “Animal, Vegetable, Miracle” or the “100 Mile Diet” and we hadn’t been following the blog of “No Impact Man.” We didn’t know that “locavore” had been selected as the Oxford English Dictionary word of the year just a month before we sat down and plotted our year of local food.

In retrospect, this was a cultural moment that didn’t need intentional awareness as if to copy what others were doing. These experiments on the margins of our consumption status quo were bubbling up all over as if from a common hidden underground aquifer of unrest. In fact the conversations and discoveries that awaited us during our year had been brewing for decades. That being said, it didn’t take us long to discover these books and resources and they served as wonderful conversation partners throughout the year.

With the realease of the “No Impact Man” movie this month, these kinds of eco-experiments have attained a new level of cultural status and with that, more than bit of scrutiny and skepticism. The New Yorker has taken the biggest swipe in the article, “What’s Wrong With Eco-Stunts?”.

After a meandering comparison of “No Impact Man” with Thoroeau and his book, Walden, the article offers the following rather heavy-handed critique;

A more honest title for Beavan’s book would have been “Low Impact Man,” and a truly honest title would have been “Not Quite So High Impact Man.” Even during the year that Beavan spent drinking out of a Mason jar, more than two billion people were, quite inadvertently, living lives of lower impact than his. Most of them were struggling to get by in the slums of Delhi or Rio or scratching out a living in rural Africa or South America. A few were sleeping in cardboard boxes on the street not far from Beavan’s Fifth Avenue apartment.

What makes Beavan’s experiment noteworthy is that it is just that—a voluntary exercise conducted for a limited time only by a middle-class family. Beavan justifies writing about it on the ground that it will inspire others to examine their wasteful ways. But…The real work of “saving the world” goes way beyond the sorts of action that “No Impact Man” is all about.

What’s required is perhaps a sequel. In one chapter, Beavan could take the elevator to visit other families in his apartment building. He could talk to them about how they all need to work together to install a more efficient heating system. In another, he could ride the subway to Penn Station and then get on a train to Albany. Once there, he could lobby state lawmakers for better mass transit. In a third chapter, Beavan could devote his blog to pushing for a carbon tax. Here’s a possible title for the book: “Impact Man.” 

Ouch. So is this proliferation of eco-stunts just a publishing/writer’s version of “greenwashing”? Are they just carnival side shows to the real work of environmental activism? Tomorrow I’ll offer a response to the critique from the perspective of someone who has participated in one of these eco-stunts.