‘No Impact Man’ – or was that ‘No Impact Family’?

// 1 September 2009

‘No Impact Man’ is yet another one of those projects where someone stops/starts doing something for a year – you might cynically say with the aim of getting a book deal/film. This latest example of the genre, dubbed “annualism”, follows husband Colin Beavan, with his wife Michelle Conlin and their daughter, in a year of reducing their environmental and social impact to zero (or at least, attempting to).

Grist has an interesting review of the film up, about how the title of the project ‘No Impact Man’, kind of erases the fact that this is a project drew the whole family into it, and actually it was Conlin who, in their terms, was the “star of the show”. In the trailer, above, Conlin repeatedly draws attention to how she’s been – somewhat unwillingly – pulled along for the ride. And, as Grist says:

While Beavan gets all the attention and the superhero nickname, his wife and their 2-year-old daughter, Isabella, are dragged along for the un-motorized ride.

Ironically, Grist point out that Conlin, despite being uncredited, and not being the one who gets a book deal, film deal or blog, actually makes the film a lot more interesting:

Beavan, despite his claims that he was a do-nothing liberal, seems like he was just waiting for a reason to build a kitchen compost bin, mix up natural cleaning supplies, start buying groceries at the Union Square farmers market, etc, etc. The movie shows him reflecting on and defending the project, it shows him visibly losing weight over the year, but you don’t really see him struggle.

Conlin is more sympathetic because she misses coffee and tires of eating local root vegetables. She thinks, understandably, that a year is a long time to go without buying new clothes. While No Impact Husband devotes much of his day to cooking, cleaning, and making the experiment work, she keeps her day job. The filmmakers play up Conlin’s “espresso-guzzling, retail-worshipping” characterization, but it’s still clear this is difficult for her.

Although this is only a small point, it seems like an interesting example to me of everyday sexist language – actually Grist’s joking title “No Impact Husband” could have avoided this dilemma. But it’s also of course noteworthy that the film-makers appear to have recognised this, and used it in the editing process to show tension and make it more interesting.

On the other hand, the gender roles in the film also sound interesting: according to Grist, Beavan made this project, and (OK, taken to extremes) running the household, his full time career, while Conlin continued to work full-time as a Business Week reporter. One of the critiques of the various efforts to return to a less-resource-intensive way of life is that, because gender roles in different sex couples around housework and childcare have not shifted, they can tend to have a “woman, get back in the kitchen” subtext. These kind of projects might focus on the wider environmental and social impacts of life in a rich country, but do they focus on the ‘social impact’ inside the family – maybe it’s a bit more comfortable to look at the impact of your coffee consumption (and it’s unlikely that looking at the sustainability of said coffee consumption will consider the gendered impacts, incidentally), because it’s further distant, than it is to issues such as: is house work and child care divided equally in our house?

As Lisa Jervis said in a Salon interview this weekend,

I don’t think the solution to that is to stop trying to get people to cook. The solution is to make sure that the household work is distributed more equitably. And I say that with full understanding of how little things have changed since the ’70s, in terms of getting men to fucking do their share around the house. And I also think that it’s no accident that the kind of rarefied, chef-dominated cooking discourse that I was talking about earlier, that often makes people feel like they can’t cook rather than helping them feel that they can, is very male-dominated. Whereas the quotidian meal prep in this country is still mostly female-dominated. The feminist movement has generated a lot of good analysis around that. However, we have not moved the needle very much. I don’t have an answer for that.

And, of course, although it’s probably not the intention of these kind of projects, there is the question of whether they don’t set an unrealistic standard – most people don’t get their experiments in low-impact living supported by turning it into a career move, after all. Does it only further the stereotype that caring about or trying to change your individual way of living is somehow for middle class/wealthy professional white people? When really what’s needed is not for one family to make extreme changes, but for everyone – in rich countries – to make manageable changes?

Comments From You

Feminist Avatar // Posted 1 September 2009 at 4:03 pm

How on earth does one have ‘no social impact’? And why do we want this?

Jess McCabe // Posted 1 September 2009 at 4:06 pm

@Feminist Avatar Sorry, that was possibly a bit jargony, when you talk about environmental and social impacts it’s generally assumed it’s a negative impact you’re talking about. (It’s possible to have positive impacts on the environment too, of course…)

Feminist Avatar // Posted 1 September 2009 at 7:44 pm

Sorry, but I just HATE these sort of weird drives. Because first people rather arbitrarily decide what is ‘good’ and ‘bad’ for the environment or society or whatever and then follow a particular path with no acknowledgement whatsoever that the choices they are now making have different impacts on the world- and there is no way you can be ‘impact’ free.

Especially, as it never seems to be based on real scientific evidence of what’s good environmental practice, or if it is, it’s only on focuses on one type of impact -such an greenhouse gases or pollution or saving energy- but doesn’t think about exploitation of workers, or global economies, or sustainability or impacts on local people, or social justice or or the fact we colonised the world, stole their resources and then cut them off, telling them to make the best of it- because that’s ‘more ethical’.

None of which ranting I realise has anything to do with the content of your post.

polly // Posted 1 September 2009 at 9:24 pm

Some time back there was a study which showed the ‘enviromentally unconcerned’ actually had lower carbon footprints because they were poorer.

http://www.guardian.co.uk/environment/2008/dec/14/environment-carbon-footprint-wealthy-redland

Which is what I always think of when I hear about this kind of “look at me” environmentalist nonsense. It’s like the piece in the Guardian today about the launch of some eco campaign in New York with Thom Yorke of Radiohead playing in a solar powered tent. How did he get there – solar powered plane? Bicycle? Will he be doing an entirely acoustic set with no amplification?

Women who have lower incomes than men are, on average, less likely to damage the environment simply because they can’t afford to.

Cassian // Posted 2 September 2009 at 10:21 am

“Does it only further the stereotype that caring about or trying to change your individual way of living is somehow for middle class/wealthy professional white people?”

I met up with an old friend the other week who is trying to push for sustainable living in a ‘white-working class’ part of Bristol. The Knowle West Carbon Makeover might make an interesting TV show. Although there is always a risk, when well meaning middle class liberals try to educate working class people, of coming across as a bit patronising.

Jess McCabe // Posted 2 September 2009 at 10:37 am

@Feminist Avatar *In theory* efforts which are truely centring sustainability shouldn’t focus on one type of impact (ie environmentally sustainable for the planet/ecosystems and socially sustainable for people – most people would put in economically sustainable, but I think that’s only interesting in so much as it makes things socially sustainable).

However, in reality when you hear people talk about sustainability it’s all too often boiled down to climate change; yes, a very important issue, but not the only issue.

Madeleine // Posted 2 September 2009 at 11:13 am

I agree that what’s needed is definitely for more people to be able to make manageable changes. For instance, a BBC programme (last year, I think) “It’s Not Easy Being Green” made it look as if it was bloody impossible to be green unless you owned a big rural property with plenty of land, and a huge amount of money to spend on setting up all your green projects. I found it quite discouraging.

And – why are people constantly being lectured and patronised about things like not sorting their rubbish properly or not growing their own stuff etc, but I NEVER (correct me if I’m wrong, please) hear any criticism of things like Formula 1. Imagine what their carbon emissions must be! Sheer waste of energy (okay, I’m not a fan and that’s just my personal opinion).

Lindsey // Posted 2 September 2009 at 2:41 pm

@Madeleine

Totally! There are loads of entertainments, sports and general businesses that are knowingly wasteful.

It really is businesses that have more emmissions and more ability to do something about them than individuals. I can be as green as I like, walking or taking the bus or whatever, but that’s tiny compared to say a major business offering discounted travel cards or scrapping company car schemes for thousands of employees.

Jess McCabe // Posted 2 September 2009 at 4:51 pm

@Lindsey Sort of; yes, it’s obviously extremely important that business takes primary responsibility for cutting emissions, but actually the way it works is that the collective impact of the lifestyles of individuals in the wealthiest countries does have a cumulative effect which can’t be ignored IMO. It’s not so much that one person making a change will make a big difference, but that unless everyone in the wealthiest countries reduces our consumption of resources, we will not be able to solve the issue.

Just to take one example, although it’s business that is responsible for cutting down tropical forests at a terrifying rate, they’re doing so to feed demand for products – most of them pretty unnecessary – in North America, Europe, Australia, Japan.

One example that makes this really understandable for me is the impact of consumer exports on China’s emissions – you might have heard lots about how China is now the biggest emitter of greenhouse gases in the world, and needs to make cuts, etc. There was a study out earlier this year, which showed that half of recent rises in GHG emissions in China can be traced back to producing goods for export. So, not only is that driven by demand from consumers in countries such as the UK, it also means that to a great extent China’s emissions are going up to support more luxury lifestyles, at cheap prices, here in the UK, for example, not improvements in China (although the economic benefits will obviously benefit people to, to varying degrees).

I like the “contract and converge” model – as outlined by Climate Justice here. They have a nifty graph showing how CO2 emissions per person should converge. So, for example, each individual Briton might have to cut emissions (averaged out across the population of course), by say 60-90%. Some of that will be under our specific control and some of it won’t. And if it’s a truely just solution, then you should see the wealthiest people within the UK reduce their impact a lot more than the least wealthy.

Actually, a lot of this problem comes down to some quite basic issues around the need for wealth redistribution – in this case resource distribution.

Kristel // Posted 2 September 2009 at 5:38 pm

Well, Jess, I am constantly trying NOT to buy cheap (and not so cheap) stuff made in China, but it is close to impossible. And it’s a known fact that UK entrepreneurs like to base their production/manufacturing operations in China and other Asian and third world countries because the labour is a lot cheaper and the employees have hardly any basic human rights. The only people who benefit are the entrepreneurs. If these people could be prevented from treating Planet Earth as their personal factory staffed with low cost workforce there would be an immediate improvement. Madeleine and Lindsay are right, individuals (even collectively) can only do so much. It’s big business, global corporations, who need to be reined in p.d.q.

Jess McCabe // Posted 2 September 2009 at 5:51 pm

@Kristel Just to be completely clear, I’m NOT saying that big business doesn’t have to take on most of the responsibility. See my comment above where I say that business has the primary responsibility. I’m just saying that individuals will also have to make changes.

Kristel // Posted 3 September 2009 at 10:38 am

Sorry Jess. I should have taken more time to read properly. My mistake.

Cassian // Posted 3 September 2009 at 12:13 pm

@Kristel. I have found the best way to avoid creating more demand for products produced in sweatshops is to re-use. It has really cut down on the amount of stuff I buy, me and my friends have a big swap fest – get rid of stuff we no longer use in exchange for things our friends no longer use. At its best it can work really well.

Kath // Posted 4 September 2009 at 4:30 pm

Hi Jess, sorry if I’m being dumb, but why would ‘No Impact Husband’ be a better title?

Jess McCabe // Posted 4 September 2009 at 4:36 pm

@Kath Well, at least No Impact Husband indicates that he’s not a lone wolf, pursing this no impact living thing on his own; his actions have consequences for the rest of his family. In a way, it’s a bit better than No Impact Family which I used in the headline, because after all it does seem to be (from the reviews and trailers) at least partially the story of one man’s impact on his family.

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