No Imact Man? Is Moderation a More Sustainable Message

I just finished reading  No Impact Man. On loan from the library, it languished on my nightstand for two weeks before I decided to read it. Even with the due date looming, I still picked it up and put it down several times before finally struggling to the finish.

Why did I have such a hard time with this book?

It started with the title, No Impact Man. No Impact? Really? Is that possible in our modern society? Is No and Never just  too extreme?

I’m idealistic by nature. I’m all for changing my habits to benefit the planet and live more sustainably. I long for the simplicity of my youth and wish my kids could have an equally carefree childhood. Riding a banana seat bike down the middle of the street, helmet-less and barefoot and without a care in the world—that’s livin’. Tim and I are doing our best to raise our family with simple ideals in mind. But we know that all or nothing is not realistic these days, if for no other reason than it being too tough a message for most people to  accept.

Wouldn’t we being doing more good if we got people to embrace a sustainable moderation message?

I know book titles (and blog titles for that matter) must be catchy to entice people to buy/read them. Shock sells. And people are probably buying the book because they are intrigued by No Impact. “Somewhat Less of an Impact” isn’t as exciting. Why else would Colin’s ass cleaning routine (some sort of secret routine devoid of toilet paper) be the question most interviewers asked him over the course of his project?  Maybe people want to read about extremes.

Fine, but I’m pretty sure most people don’t want to live that way.

Unlike No Impact Man, if I lived in NYC, I would definitely take the subway and ride in elevators and buy toilet paper (Colin also admitted that after the year was up, he went back to elevator and subway riding) Does giving up these things—especially in a dense city where they are running anyway (with the express purpose of helping to make the density livable)—really make a difference? Or is it simply a matter of attracting more attention?

For us, sustainable moderation is key. Extremism alienates people. When an impossible way of life is shown as the only worthy option, people can easily respond with “that would never work for me,” and immediately return to their usual resource consuming ways.

However when faced with approachable ideas and options for making sustainable life changes, we’ve found people have better reactions. Especially, if the first step is something fun (and we don’t need to tell you that riding bikes is fun!).

We advocate for making small changes to daily habits. It makes a noticeable difference and provides a a solid base from which to launch more changes later. Some good starts:

  • Drive less
  • buy less
  • buy used stuff
  • pay attention to how a product is made or packaged and think about where it will go when you’re done with it
  • Reduce the size of your garbage can and see how little you can throw away each week

Baby steps, baby.

The Car Free Days family constantly examines our footprint and tweaks our buying, transportation, and consumption habits as appropriate for us. A big reason our blog is titled Car Free Days (with an emphasis on Days) is the message of moderation. It’s no secret but we still own a car and plan to keep owning one — at least until the whole family can ski, camp, backpack, and occasionally transport grandma at a moment’s notice, as easily and as we do now.

Our van is ugly (no need for comprehensive  insurance), and paid for. We’ve run the numbers and it costs much less to own than we’d spend on a replacement cocktail of ZipCar and standard rental cars. So while we could ditch it to make a grand statement of being totally CAR FREE, in practice selling it would do little more than make such a statement. We’d still drive our usual 3 to 4,000 miles a year via car share and rental cars, spend more out of pocket, and lose flexibility. to boot. Oddly, we also found, back when we had some free FlexCar benefits, that having driving “credits” encouraged us to actually drive more.

So until America rebuilds the rail network the auto industry dismantled over the past 60 years, car ownership (but not daily or even weekly driving) remains our most effective occasional long-distance transportation option.

Heck, even Colin admitted that he couldn’t wait for his experiment to end so he could jet off to Europe (and burn up all the carbon he saved during the year). So much for the sustainability of crash diets.

How about you? Any thoughts on sustainability, moderation or going cold turkey?

Have a great weekend.

– Anne

13 responses to “No Imact Man? Is Moderation a More Sustainable Message

  1. Anne…you are right on. Extremism only creates more extremism. The masses will not go for that.

    Down here in the burbs of Pigwallup I try to do the little things:

    – Take the train/bus to work and Combine trips in the car.
    – Remind our kids (and each other) that stuff is not important.
    – Look at where your produce is coming from and only try to buy local, in-season stuff.
    – Shop at our farmers market when it is going.
    – Try to buy stuff with minimal packaging.

    Some of our friends down here think we are a little peculiar, but oh well.

    Karin and I have a long way to go, but little by little, things can change. I think if we can change attitudes out in the burbs, things can really change.

  2. nice post! I agree moderation is key for pretty much everything. And interesting point of the binge purge nature of his experiment. ( No Impact then flight to Europe).

    I grapple with the moderation issue for myself and feel that I have to make choices that work best for me. For me the key is moderation and choice. The choice to take the car or not. I just want more choices. More trains and buses and bikable routes etc.

  3. Kurt — nice to see you here on Car Free Days. It’s been too long!

    I think you are right about the importance of changing attitudes in the burbs. Anne and I were at a Christmas party last weekend people were pretty supportive of our blog and family biking stuff … to a point. As in in great that we do these thing because “you live in Seattle. We can’t do that where we live because the roads and drivers aren’t car friendly.” I agree that it’s harder to ride for transportation in Woodinville than Ballard, but there’s got to be some middle ground.

    And Vanessa, thanks for the comment. Ideally more multi-modal options available (bike routes, buses, trains, walkable neighborhoods, etc), mean more sustainability because we have more more choices on those days we don’t feel like biking or walking or whatever.

  4. I agree, simply being aware of the issues and doing what you feel you can is a big step. We can’t all be self-sufficient farmers working the land by animal power, feeding the animals from our own crops and whatnot. Still, incorporating some of those practices into life in the city is a great idea, I think. Grow some of your own food. Get as much of the rest as you can from local farms (local meaning as close to the city as possible). Make your own food from what you get from those farms, including things people just don’t make anymore, like yogurt, sauerkraut, pickled stuff, bread – things that are simple and easy to make even in an apartment.

    As far as transportation goes, there are certain things we just can’t use the bikes we have for, and there are certain days we really just don’t want to be exposed to the weather. That being said, we probably drive about 2500-3000 miles per year, give or take. It would be possible for us to live in Portland completely without a car, especially without kids. But we own a car, it’s paid off, low maintenance, pretty high gas mileage, and we can’t really take our bikes to visit relatives that live 45 minute drive away on the freeway.

    Anyway… all that to say, I agree that it’s good to do what you can, and to make informed decisions that take all sides of your life into account, to find a balance you feel comfortable with.

  5. What a great post! I’ve just started my car-light venture and I struggle a lot with pushing myself to go carfree more often, while also living in a way that I could “sell” to others. I agree that the balance is key–riding your bike is wonderful, but people won’t see that if you are forcing yourself to ride just to make a point. I don’t want to alienate myself from others by being an extremist because then I just become so “other” that people can’t relate. I’m just a normal person facing all the same doubts/hindrances/excuses that others face . I think I’m still erring on the side of driving too much, but I’m getting there. 🙂

    • Hi Angie – Thanks for the comment. I checked out your blog last night…good stuff. I look forward to hearing more about your journey.

      Since our goal is to get more people to join us I agree that alienating people does no good at all.

      Also, riding a bike should be about having fun and enjoying the journey rather than trying to “get through it”. If it’s not fun, what’s the point?

  6. Hey, I’d love to see a full post about your “carfree moderation.” For example, do you plan on replacing the van at its inevitable death? I’d love to hear more detail. Thanks!

    • JDF,

      Thanks for the request. We can definitely do a post about carfree moderation.

      We haven’t talked about what we’ll do when the van dies, I guess we’ll cross that bridge when we come to it. I’m sure there will be some sort of cost benefit analysis too!

  7. Nice post. My first thought is “you can’t publish a book without impact.” Poor trees!

    But honestly, in a larger way I am kind of torn. No we can;t all be no-impact man, but we are going to need to take larger, more radical, and yes, a little more uncomfortable steps than just recycling and installing low flow showerheads if our kids are going to have a planet.

    Over here, we dropped from being a two car to a once car family, among lots of other changes. The most interesting, probably, is our adoption of cloth toilet wipes (cut-up t-shirts and flannel) for wiping pee and blowing noses. The ladies seem to like it!

    We blog more about that stuff at

    • Hi Tom,

      Yes, we are all going to need to make changes, some of them painful. But small incremental changes are more likely to stick than radical ones.

      Thanks for the link to your blog. I wish I had one of those toasty rice bags warming my feet right now!

  8. Hmm another criticism of the No Impact Man….
    I don’t think a full conversion to the lifestyle played out in the ‘one year purge’ was ever meant to be the solution that Beavan intends to deliver unto the world. It’s just a detox. Haven’t you ever detoxified your body to get rid of all those unhealthy toxins you’d accumulated from years of abuse or petty addictions? Maybe not…
    The experiences can be that after having purged and endured the experienced of fasting, and gotten through the letting go of unnecessary habits you get to look at your lifestyle without that sense of dependence you may have otherwise had.

    The title of the book reflects a desire, or an ambition, not necessarily a statement of fact. It is useful in declaring the purpose and underlines the extreme challenge of the project that Beavan and his family engaged in. Throughout the experiment he openly admitted to all kinds of shortfalls and inconsistencies etc… It was an experiment to see what it would be like, how can anyone be criticized for that? I never heard or read him saying to anyone, You Must do any of the things he had done. He simply looked at a modern life and attempted to subtract those parts that make an environmental impact… Of course there could never possibly be ‘No Impact’ but surely that is not the point.
    To know something better we sometimes need to deconstruct it. Break it down into it’s various components and look at each of them to see what value they add to the whole. I would say this is quite a healthy process. We can discover as the Beavans did that there were some real gems we had previously overlooked and equally a lot of crap that we don’t really need.
    When at the end of the project we come to putting it all back together again we might find we have constructed ourselves a very different and hopefully more rewarding life.

    It’s great that you drive your car less, you don’t have to get rid of your car. You don’t have to sacrifice any of the things that Colin and his family have sacrificed, I don’t think that this is the message we should be getting from this at all. The idea is that you ask yourself the question, and look into your own life to see how it might work differently. You are already doing this, and sharing it with others, that’s great.
    Colin’s story might differ from your own in some way, that’s OK isn’t it?
    Everyone must travel his or her own path and there are so many stories we will never get to hear. I am glad for any that remind me I am not alone in caring for the future of humanity and a livable planet. “Peace to us all”

    • Hi David –

      Thanks for the thought provoking comment. I agree that the purpose of the Beavan’s experiment was not to create a recipe of “no impact” for others to follow – everyone’s experience in this world is different. And so it’s expected that his story is different from mine.

      He put himself out there for all to examine with the blog, book, documentary and future feature film. A little criticism comes with the territory.

      We live in a world of excess and greed and self examination of one’s own habits is healthy and beneficial for us all.

      Again, thanks for the comment.

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