NEW YORK – Colin Beavan sat under the light of a single bulb, freaking out.
Along with his wife and young daughter, he had just spent a year trying to reduce their net environmental impact to almost zero. With a flip of a switch, they had cut their Manhattan apartment off from the electrical grid.
They had stopped using anything disposable or buying anything new. In a city of skyscrapers, they had given up elevators. They went everywhere by bicycle, bought food directly from local farmers, had even sworn off toilet paper.
It had been a year of rules, a year in which nearly every aspect of their lives had been shaped by what they were not allowed to do. And now it was over.
So Beavan sat at home. If he had to get up to go to the bathroom, he would walk to the other room and turn on the light there – and then run back to turn off the first light. He just couldn’t let himself light up more than one bulb at once. He walked around the apartment unplugging things.
Once, Beavan and his wife, Michelle Conlin, had lived lives of take-out dinners and taxi rides, recreational shopping and reality TV. But as his family cut back – and as he learned more about the devastation wrought worldwide by human consumption – he had found relief, and an easier conscience.
Now, as he turned the lights back on, he had to admit that he was once again part of the problem. The new freedom and the old guilt. It felt awful.
Beavan’s experiment with the extreme had played out in public; he had blogged about it on his site “No Impact Man” (which would beget a book under the same name, published last month, and a documentary).
But now, like so many of us who are grappling with a growing awareness of the dangers faced by the planet and the damage our lifestyles cause, Beavan and his family were faced with the challenge of finding their own middle ground.
With their years of excess and their year of simplicity behind them, how would they choose to live?
Little Isabella was not yet two when the experiment began, but she already knew who “the man” was.
Nearly every morning, as her family prepared for the day in their one-bedroom, lower Fifth Avenue apartment, “the man” would arrive with a bag of breakfast bagels. At night, he’d pass their doorman carrying a plastic bag filled with cartons from Big Enchilada. Or with Chinese food. Or with deli fare.
On the street, Bella would spot a bicyclist riding by, and she’d point and yell: “There’s the man!”
In the evenings, they’d settle down to eat in front of their TV. Conlin, a journalist who writes for BusinessWeek, was obsessed with reality shows: “The Bachelorette,” “Paradise Hotel,” “Temptation Island.”
One day, in the depths of “Bridezillas,” she looked over and saw Bella wasn’t just sitting next to her – she was watching intently. Conlin’s heart sank a little. This wasn’t what she wanted for her daughter.
Meanwhile, Beavan – a self-professed guilty liberal who had written books on the history of forensics and of D-Day – found himself railing about the travesty of global warming. But after returning to his apartment from a meeting with his agent only to discover he’d left the air conditioner running, he started to question whether he had any right to complain.
So Beavan arrived at the idea for the experiment, both as environmental activism and as subject for his next book. Conlin, eager to eliminate what she felt were her addictions, suggested that shopping, TV and movies should be among the first things to go.
Instead of “the man,” food now came from the farmers. They began eating vegetarian and shopping at the local farmers market, eating only things they already had in their apartment or that were grown within 400 kilometres. At night, the three of them would sit around the table together and … talk.
“The hearth was the TV before ‘No Impact,”‘ Conlin says now. “After we gave away the TV, the hearth became our family table. … I gave up reality TV for reality.”
It was a trade they had no intention of reversing, once the experiment was over. So much of what they’d thought would feel like sacrifice had ended up being nothing of the sort.
When the year was over, Conlin and Beavan didn’t want to set any more rules for themselves. After all the restrictions, they wanted to finally let it all go and see what felt right.
Mostly, they stuck to buying their food at the farmers market. But if they were short on groceries after a late night at work, they would stop at the supermarket – despite the packaging on the food on the shelves, despite the distance it had travelled.
While the amount of garbage they produced increased from just over a litre every four days to 23 litres, this was a far cry from the 409 litres they produced before the experiment. Their refrigerator is back on, but their freezer is gone.
They started buying olive oil and some seasonings, even though they’re not made nearby. They began saying yes when friends invited them out to dinner. And they started using toilet paper again – but now it was made from recycled paper.
Neither of them wanted to bring back their giant 46-inch TV. But once a week or so, if they’re in the mood, they’ll watch a drama on a laptop.
It was an obvious choice to keep the rickshaw bikes they’d come to love – three-wheelers with space for groceries and a seat for Isabella. But now, when it rains, they sometimes take the subway.
The air conditioners once seemed like a necessity. But take them away, and the heat and the lack of electronic entertainment drove the family outside, where they spent most evenings at the fountain at Washington Square Park. They cooled off in the mist of the fountain, looked around at the virtual circus of performers who have made the public plaza their stage. They talked with neighbours.
No longer hunkered down in their family’s lonely bubble, they were out in the city. They loved it.
At one point during the experiment, Isabella woke up sick in the middle of the night and threw up all over herself and her bed. Her parents changed the sheets, and she threw up again.
Staring at the vomit-stained sheets and pyjamas, Beavan just couldn’t face piling them into the bathtub and washing them by hand. Feeling a bit like a failure, he headed downstairs to the building’s electric laundry machine and gave in.
The next time he had a pile of laundry, he figured if he had broken the rule once, a second time wouldn’t hurt. After that, the slippery slope became a laundry landslide.
It was a rule he didn’t really regret breaking. There are some resource conservation measures, it turns out, that could turn even the most fervent environmentalist against going full-out green.
Conlin, too, found her limit. Coffee beans are not grown anywhere near the Eastern seaboard, but local food or no, caffeine was one addiction she couldn’t shake. She did, however, ask cafes to fill a portable container so she wouldn’t waste a cup.
Toward the end of the experiment, Conlin would talk about how much she wanted a dishwasher again. But when they flipped the power switch, the machine stayed dead. There was no way to fix it, and an attempt to buy a used model flopped. So Conlin did her research and found a new one that seemed the most responsible purchase.
But when they got to Home Depot and saw it, she couldn’t stop thinking: All those shiny new parts. The huge box it would come in. All that packaging.
“I just couldn’t pull the trigger,” she says now, sitting in her apartment, all the lights turned off in favour of the afternoon sunlight wafting through the windows.
Still, she says, “I foresee myself at some point in my life having a dishwasher.”
Her husband looks at her in some surprise: “What has to happen before you can do that?”
“We’ve had so many arguments about the dishwasher,” he says, laughing. “So basically the subtext here is don’t let Colin for a minute think that he’s won this fight.”
“When I want one, I’ll get one,” she says with a smile.
Some of the post-experiment adjustments have been painful.
The day after the project ended, Conlin got into a hybrid livery cab with Isabella and set off for the airport for a Thanksgiving trip to see her parents in California.
As they pulled up to the airport curb, she was overcome by a weird feeling of grief. It was over. And here she was getting on an airplane, a decision that by some counts would wipe out all her carbon savings of the last year.
Beavan stayed at home. He just couldn’t bring himself to get on a plane.
When Christmas rolled around, they looked into taking the train, but discovered the tickets for the three of them to see her family in Minneapolis would cost a whopping $2,500, more than double the plane fare. So this time Beavan sucked it up, and he went with them to the airport.
The last few weeks he’s been flying for his book tour. He still agonizes over it.
Beavan tries to make up for the damage by requiring those paying for his travel to make a substantial donation to a renewable energy project. He and Conlin are taking fewer trips to visit family, and staying longer when they go.
Their experiences with travel have been a reminder of one of the lessons of the experiment: Although their family’s project made a small-scale difference, and had inspired others in ways they hadn’t foreseen, it was not a replacement for larger social change. Compared with the introduction of, say, an affordable national railway system, individual action pales.
As Beavan sees it, it’s just like a graph he sketched during the year of no impact.
With either extremely high or very low resource use, quality of life was poor. But there was a virtual sweet spot, right at the peak, when they had enough to be happy but not so much that they were weighed down.
Since the year ended and left them to their own devices, they’ve been trying to find a way to get back to that point.
“In some ways, the project actually really began the day we ended,” Conlin says now. Beavan chimes in: “We still haven’t actually figured out the way we want to live.”
No matter how happy they are with the changes they’ve made, some things have been lost. For Conlin, the thrill of shopping is gone. A few months after the experiment ended, she ventured into a department store to replace a frayed suit for work. But there was none of the rush, the excitement of the perfect find. While once, on impulse, she had spent nearly $1,000 on a single pair of stiletto boots, she bought this suit mostly because it was practical, inexpensive and necessary.
And they’re reconsidering some decisions that they’ve made. In a fit of what may have been overeager enthusiasm, they gave away all their fans, even though they use comparably little energy.
They’ve started taking elevators again, but they say they miss the exercise they got on the stairs.
And Conlin finds herself missing the worm composting bin (in its stead, they donate their organic waste to farmers at the market). She had been disgusted by the worms, even imagining them staging a breakout and getting into the family food. But Isabella was fascinated by them. And the worms had given Bella a glimpse of the natural cycle of things – a rare gift for a city girl.
But other gifts remain. At their community garden plot, where they’ve been growing giant zucchini each the size of a human forearm, Bella helps them plant, and wanders through the greenery, eating tomatoes as if they were apples.
There’s no longer one nameless “man” delivering their food on a bicycle. Now they themselves are on wheels, breeze in their faces, exploring the city. On their frequent excursions to the park, Isabella often asks to talk to a stranger. Usually, her parents say yes.
Often, Isabella and Beavan head out the door, no destination in mind.
And in a ritual that began during the year that taught them so much, he turns to her and says: “Let’s go see what happens.”