Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Livin' the Good Life

The Green Phone Booth is delighted to welcome Karen Moser-Booth, a Boston-based photographer and writer trying to live a good life, for the first of a two-part guest series on No Impact Man.

Rising sea levels devouring towns, catastrophic storms annihilating thousands of people and animals, melting ice caps: it's more than enough to leave you shaking in your boots. Fear is a powerful emotion, and it certainly captures our attention, but the message of fear has been a bit, shall we say, exploited by environmentalists. Climate change is a real and imminent danger, and we need to grab people's attention, but how effective is our message if the end result is a bunch of folks frozen in fear? That's why I sighed in relief as I finished No Impact Man by Colin Beavan--fear and guilt and blame is not his message: hope and the power of individual action is.

Colin, as many of you may know from his blog, set out on a year-long experiment in New York City, along with his wife Michelle Conlin and their then two-year-old daughter Isabella, to see if they could live without a net impact on the environment. Lifestyle redesign, you might call it. Colin is quick to admit that "no one can live without making some environmental impact," so as they phase out different areas of negative impact, they attempt to counteract the impact they can't influence with eco-activism, or positive impact. "Could I," Colin asks, "live my life doing more good than harm?"

Now, I'm an avid green bookworm. I've read my fair share of do-this-for-a-year-and-write-a-book-afterwards; some good (Animal, Vegetable, Miracle comes to mind) and some--OK, many--not so good (think: A Year Without "Made in China). And what I've discovered after many sessions curled up on the couch is that the necessary balance in these books between research and personal narrative is hard to get right. Too much research? Yawn. Too much narrative? OK, but why? Why are you doing this and why are you having me come along for the ride? To top it off, many eco-authors repeat the same old statistics and ask the same old questions. If I have to read that the U.S. is the world's largest producer of greenhouse gases one more time ... Suffice to say that, despite being a fan of Colin's blog, I came to his book a bit weary.

Colin nailed the balance. Not only did he balance research and (new!) statistics with narrative, but he even waxes philosophical at times. Did you know that the estimated cost of dealing with the results of climate change is 20 percent of the world's gross domestic product if we wait, but only 1 percent if we act now on efficiency measures and renewable energies? While he provides thought-provoking stats, Colin also provides thought-provoking thoughts. "Without real community, where is the visceral sense of connection to something larger, to something to which I owe my care?"

Colin doesn't shy away from discussing the hardships of habit change and the "crises of confidence" they experience as they "swim against the cultural tide ... because our systems are not designed to be sustainable." And let's face it, eliminating packaging, carrying a glass jar for coffee, and turning off your electricity is not exactly easy to do. Environmental destruction is ingrained in our habits, but how often are we taking the time to question these habits? How often do you throw away a dirty Kleenex without even considering that an alternative exists? How many times do you get in the car to go to the store because it's part of your routine? Could you walk? Would you? When you're in the fishbowl, it's hard to see inside.

"For most of my years I've just tried to live my little old life the way the people around me wrote it, but now I'm definitely turning a lot of it upside down. I'm defining my life for myself. And you know what? It's kind of a blast," Colin writes.

Nor does Colin dismiss arguments against his views, with a particular emphasis on individual versus collective action. He uncovers bumps in the indie road throughout his year, like the nonexistent governmental regulation for power companies to provide renewable energy options. Certainly collective action is essential, but doesn't individual action lead to collective action? We don't exist in a vacuum. Every bad habit, like disposable paper napkins, that is broken and replaced with a sustainable habit, like bringing your cloth napkins, has an impact on the actions of those around you. Janine Benyus, who coined the term "biomimicry," seems to agree. In a recent interview in The Sun magazine, she said: "People think all we need to fix our predicament is a free source of energy, but I think we need to change our behaviors. More energy would just help us deplete the earth's lifeblood faster." Ultimately, we need individual and collective action to work in tandem. In the meantime, your green lifestyle helps convince others that global warming exists and to change their behaviors ... and that's momentum for the domino effect.

No Impact Man's wonderful reference section, by the way, will provide many more days of reading material, and includes a well-deserved shout-out to one of the Green Phone Booth's faves, Beth of Fake Plastic Fish.

The most rewarding part of No Impact Man isn't the fodder for my to-read list, though. The best part is its focus on the benefits of living an eco-friendly lifestyle. As the year unfolds, Colin and his family realize that "changing the way we lived was changing us." As they turned off their electricity, he spent more time with his family, out and about in their community. As he eats local, homemade food, he finds kneading bread to be "like meditation with a survival imperative." He splashes in the rain instead of taking a taxi, loses weight instead of taking the elevator, throws dinner parties instead of charging take-out, and improves marital relations instead of zonking out in front of the TV.

We need to bring back the joy in words like "frugal" and "secondhand." We need to embrace slowing down with more than our words. We need to reconnect with our community. Change can be joyful, and your life better for it.

Fear might be the easiest way to communicate the need for action on climate change, but it's not the best way. In the brilliant book Creating a Climate for Change, Suzanne C. Moser writes, "In their attempts to ring the alarm bells more fiercely, many are tempted to either make the issue scarier or to inundate people with more information, believing that if people only understood the urgency of global warming, they would act or demand more action. ...Almost every new story about global warming brings more bad news." Moser (a wonderful last name, for sure, but no relation) goes on to caution against using fear as a primary motivator because it triggers two psychological reactions: to control the external danger or to control the internal experience. Bring on the people who react by controlling the external danger, but let's think for a minute about what methods people employ to control the internal experience of fear. According to Moser, some of these methods are denial, inaction, projection of responsibility onto someone else (India/China debate, anyone?), fatalism (thoughts that lead to giving up), and "psychic numbing," or when a person realizes the magnitude of the threat and perceives an inability to affect it before going numb. This psychology talk is all a fancy way of saying the good life is a good thing to highlight--which Colin's book does so joyfully well. As FDR famously said during the Great Depression: "The only thing we have to fear is fear itself--nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance [emphasis mine]."

Maybe Isabella, Colin and Michelle's young daughter, is who we should be catering our eco-activism message to. How do you talk to kids about climate change? You empower them through your own habits and actions. You make the connection between what's happening in the world and what you're doing. You get to the point where a two-year-old says, "Daddy, please turn on the candles."

I walked away from this book hopeful and motivated, and I've already taken on some of my bad habits. Maybe I've become the next domino ... will you be next?


utahlawyer said...

Thanks for your thoughtful post. I will have to pick up a copy of Beavan's book from the library.

Green Me said...

I am glad you wrote this post. I figured I didn't need to read the book as I followed his blog from early on in his "no impact year" and thought I'd read it all. I think I will add it to my very short reading list, which is right now topped by the Transition Primer.

And, unlike the above comment, I might not be able to wait for the Library. Instead I think I'll buy it and then donate it to our local library when I am done!

Crunchy Chicken said...

I just started reading it and it gives a whole new insight that you won't get from the blog. I'll be doing a book club on his book next if anyone is interested.

kale for sale said...

I just saw last night that he'll be speaking at an independent bookstore nearby. After reading this I may just go and hear him. Thank you.

Green Bean said...

Thanks for the review, Karen. Honestly, this wasn't even on my radar but now I'm thinking I'll pick up a copy at the library.

Karen Moser-Booth said...

Thanks for the comments! Crunchy, you might be interested in checking out Treehugger's questions for discussion on the book, since you're doing a book club: http://noimpactproject.org/wp-content/uploads/2009/08/noimpactman_rgg.pdf.

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