walkitout (walkitout) wrote,

a bit more about _No Impact Man_

Having posted a how-was-the-book review, I figured I'd post a little bit about what I thought of the project. Like _Practically Perfect in Every Way_, _No Impact Man_ takes a variety of related self- improvement projects and turns them into a year long experiment. Where Niesslein was attempting to become a better mother/wife/domestic goddess/etc., Beavan is attempting to be a better guilty liberal/environmentalist/climate activist. Where Niesslein went and got books on clearing out the clutter and improving one's marriage and parenting skills, Beavan got in touch with locavores, the various women who write about trash and reducing it, dove right into human powered transportation, etc.

Niesslein and Beavan both discovered a couple very similar insights that had nothing in particular to do with the details of which self-improvement they were adopting, but had a lot to do with the process of paying such close attention to oneself in conjunction with attempting to become better. First, it is inescapable, however we frame it, that we have decided by doing this that our pre-project selves are somehow inadequate. Second, there's a bit of a letdown at the end, then we notice that we changed more than we realized -- some habits don't end with the project, but stick with us for always, and it isn't completely obvious in the middle which ones those will be. Let alone at the beginning.

Both books were interesting to me in particular, because I had read a lot of what Niesslein and Beavan had read, and had engaged in related (altho much, much less disciplined and inspected) efforts to change in related ways. I got what they were doing; I had fairly strong opinions about what tradeoffs I thought made sense. So when Beavan gets up the day he starts his project, which he has decided to begin by reducing his trash, and blows his nose into a paper towel and feels horribly guilty, I had to laugh. Really, really hard. This was a part of the project where Beavan felt like he was a pioneer, but he is not. A lot of us have been down the path to cloth napkins, kitchen towels, cloth diapers, cloth wipes, lunapads, handkerchiefs. Not all of us saved our trash for a week, mostly because you just have to look in the bucket where you throw the trash to realize something is dominating the mix and from there it's a short step to figuring out how to make that go away.

It was hard to tell whether Beavan was sincere about his sense of discovery, in much the same way I often felt like Ellen Ruppel Shell was putting one on to connect to her audience when she reveled in the Feeling of Getting a Deal. But stepping back, I have no reason to believe either one is yanking my chain. Beavan probably had not ever contemplated the lowly handkerchief.

In some ways, I was a little sad that Beavan brought no historical perspective to the book. It felt very much like Beavan was turning the clock back, that his version of No Impact Man was really 1920 man, then 1910 man, then 1900 man. He didn't get back too far into the nineteenth century. There's no indication he even went all the way to the coldwater flat, for example, for all that he did turn off the power he did not give up electricity, much less the phone. Then, too, I felt a little cheated. Why should I and the other people sharing the house with me during the day have no air-conditioning, if even No Impact Man thought it was okay to have AC at the office? Beavan does a little hand waving at the limits of individual action, but it is quite hand waving, and I'm on the side of his political activist friends who exhibited skepticism about the project.

On the other hand, Beavan and Niesslein do something really great when they enact what theorists advise: what would it mean for us to reduce our emissions this far? What would it feel like to keep a house clutter free? Are these goals compatible with living a good life? How much is it going to piss off our families? And both came to some largely sane conclusions -- some things are better not to have, some things are easy to give up, some things we really want some of the time, but don't need every day. And some things I'm going to fight really hard to keep.

Where Shell's _Cheap_ and Owen's _Green Metropolis_ talk about a problem, in one case offering no particular solution individual or general, and in the other, offering a solution both individual and general while avowing he can't imagine actually doing it himself, Niesslein and Beavan take solutions and take them for a test drive. Their report back has so much more merit, the rubber having encountered the road, that I am starting to really understand _why_ this genre of non-fiction has taken off so wildly.
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