For one year, author Colin Beavan and BusinessWeek's Michelle Conlin tried to live with no impact on the environment
My author husband, Colin Beavan, decided in late 2006 that he wanted to stop writing about history and start writing about global warming. He was so excited about his idea—attempting to live for one year in the middle of New York City without making any negative environmental impact—that when he asked me to join him, I immediately went all wifely and lobbed back an effusive yes. When my best friend from childhood, filmmaker Laura Gabbert, later heard about No Impact, she begged Colin to let her and her partners film us. After they promised Colin to make as low-carbon a movie as possible, he agreed. His sustainably produced book—made from postconsumer recycled paper and chlorine-free cardboard, with energy supplied by biogas—is titled No Impact Man. It hit stores Sept. 1. The documentary of the same name begins opening nationwide on Sept. 11.
Truthfully, when I said yes to this Woody Allen-meets-Walden affair, I didn't fully think through what it would mean to live with a toddler and a dog in a one-bedroom, ninth-floor Manhattan apartment using no elevators, no electricity, no disposable diapers, no food grown more than 250 miles from home, no TV, no takeout, no beauty products, and no washing machine. Oh yes, and no buying anything; for the next year I would shop my own closet.
Little did I know that a year after the project's completion the global financial system would implode, or that the era of high-impact living—using one's house as an ATM, jetting off on a lark—would come to a spectacular and cataclysmic end. And here's the strange and unpredictable twist: Going No Impact for a year turned out to be sublime preparation for the post-subprime life.
In our 10 years together, Colin has bought himself three things: a second-hand cell phone, a used PC, and a folding bike. He bought me a diamond ring from a flea market. So no spending problems there. I, however, was an inveterate credit dipper. (As a last-chance binge before the project began, I indulged in a $900-plus pair of stiletto, knee-high Chloe boots. Then I had a moment of silence for my Sample Sale self.)
At first, the call of the stores was strong. Life on the hedonic treadmill is a habit—and I had to break it. Soon I started coming up with end-runs that gave me an even bigger high. Not buying anything new didn't mean I couldn't partake of Jane's Exchange, a children's consignment depot. We took our daughter, Isabella, there for her birthday, and I told her she could pick out anything she wanted. She chose a hardly-worn pair of princess slippers. Cost: $1.
We cut most other expenses, too. The Con Edison bill dropped to zero. Restaurants were out. But we did partake of the freegan lifestyle, eating bakery leftovers. Coffee was also verboten. There is no such thing as locally grown coffee—tragic for a girl who before going off the bean was averaging 20 shots of potent, iced Starbucks (SBUX) espresso deliciousness every beautiful day. On my last run, I blew through a $25 Starbucks gift card in a single workday. Withdrawal was ugly.
But thanks in part to cutting out all my bad habits, within a month, my debt was gone. We ended up cutting our discretionary expenses by at least 50%—often more. Honestly, when my paycheck started loitering around in my checking account, it actually felt uncomfortable. From my journal: "I CANNOT get my bank balance down for the life of me. I spend Nothing. As in NOTHING." Without knowing it, we were early adopters of what would become the new frugality. We even started giving away 10% of our money to charity.
The No Impact project also provided an opportunity to do a lifestyle redesign. In a nation of extreme commuters, mine was a micro-jaunt: Greenwich Village to Midtown Manhattan, 20 minutes door to door via subway. But Colin and I foreswore all modes of carbon-based transportation (except for BusinessWeek reporting trips). Not because we are against mass transit. But because the point of the project was to be radical: to go completely off the grid, drop out of the culture, and see what would emerge.
At first I walked the 40 blocks to and from my 750-square-foot nanoplex. But this was taking too much time away from my then 2-year-old. So I started to use a push scooter. The scooter itself became a workplace objet fixe. It was irresistible to my colleagues, who swiped it to vroom up and down the halls à la Romper Room. I had long been too tired—from not working out—to get to the gym to work out. But by exchanging my time on the subway for a self-propelled commute, I dropped 10 pounds; my new locavore diet didn't hurt either. I had the energy of a supermom in my slacker mom's body. My insomnia evaporated—the scooter was No Impact Ambien. My palate also began changing. The local food, though heavy on the parsnips, began to taste delicious. Three months in, I started getting through the day without the usual afternoon Dunkin' Donuts high followed by the crash. The pastry mania and shame hangovers were gone. My pre-diabetic condition vanished.
Work was my fast life. Home was my slow life. No lights, no cell phones, no TV. I know it sounds like deprivation. But the truth is that when I opened the door to the No Impact house at night, I felt like I was walking into a vacation. The days felt like they lasted forever. No Impact was a great ritual destroyer. What I realized was that so many of my rituals were so bad for me (my health), for us (our bank account and all the family time lost to my scurrying off to shop), and for the environment. What I learned from No Impact was that there is a steep cost to supporting all your stuff. To a life devoted to getting and having. In my days of high consumption, I'd been searching for something. It turned out that it was right in my own home.