film lifestyle simple living

Movie review: No Impact Man

It’s been out for a while, but I just got around to watching No Impact Man over the weekend. (Thank you Dogwoof sale*) If you haven’t come across it, Colin Beavan runs one of the world’s better environmental blogs at No Impact Man. It began a few years back to track a bold personal project – to attempt to live for an entire year with zero impact on the environment. It’s difficult to know how to live ethically in a throwaway society, Colin argues. It takes so much research to know what to give up and what to do differently. So why not give up everything, and then when you’ve tried that for a year, decide what you’ll keep and put back.

This Colin does, more or less, along with his wife and daughter. The film tells their story as over the course of the months they switch to entirely local food, start growing their own, cut out all waste, take up cycling, and eventually even turn off their electricity. It’s a pretty radical experiment, all the more so for taking place in the middle of New York. As the year progresses, they get more attention. The blog picks up. The papers start calling, the radio stations and TV shows.

A lot of people disliked the No Impact Man project for this very reason. It was a stunt surely, a gimmick to get a book deal and a movie. Watching it back now, it doesn’t come across that way. There’s a naive and endearing idealism to Colin’s plan that gives it its integrity. He genuinely wants to know if it’s possible to live with no impact, and by doing something that’s extreme, to trigger a conversation about sustainable lifestyles. And it looks like it’s worked.

What’s great about the film is that there’s no guilt-inducing voiceover, and very few facts about waste or pollution – it’s about people. At the centre of the film are these three pretty ordinary people, a father and husband with a vision, a mother and wife who wants to be supportive but really doesn’t want to stop consuming, and a little girl who is growing up thinking it’s normal to use candles at night in New York City. It’s a family project, but it’s Colin’s dream, and that creates plenty of drama. They argue about whether they really need to give up coffee, understandably. Michelle resents going to work on a farm for their family holiday, but then loves it, and remembers that her Grandparents were farmers too. These differences play out over the year, and there are some touching moments, like when Michelle takes cooking lessons and then cooks dinner for her family for the first time.

The relationship between Colin and Michelle is interesting to me. One of the biggest obstacles to radical lifestyles is differences between partners. I’m really lucky that my wife gets the environmental and social stuff that I’m so passionate about. I’m still holding out for the chickens and I’d like to dig up what remains of the lawn, but Lou will also push me to recycle or reuse  things, or to buy something secondhand. We’re working out our lifestyle together, and it’s great to have a partner in crime.

We watched the movie together, and if you’re the greener half of your own household drama, I’d recommend doing the same. It raises all kinds of questions about sustainable living, and does so with warmth and humour. And it shows that there are other families out there negotiating their differences and making their compromises, and acheiving remarkable things together.

Here’s the trailer:

*If you don’t know about Dogwoof, their a distribution network that specialises in films with a social message. If you’re interested in documentaries or do local screenings, this is the place to look first. As well as DVD sales, it’s also really easy to buy screening licences. Among their films are Food Inc, The Age of Stupid, and the Iraq fly-on-the-wall RestRepo.


  1. I really love Colin Beaven’s work. I’ve been following No Impact Man for about 4 years, back when it was just a blog. I loved the book far more than I loved the documentary. In the book, you really see how naive he is about living a sustainable lifestlye – which I love – because you learn with him and you find excitement about his discoveries with him. It’s much different from books like this that tend to teach or preach.

    In the book, he explains how he came up with the idea and how he got the book deal. He was already an author writing books on history. But he no longer wanted to write about history. He wanted to write what he cared about now and align his writing with his values. He was tired of being inactive about the political and social ideas that were important to him. In fact, his agent was not too thrilled with the idea at first. I’m not sure he expected this to get as big as it did.

    Colin’s done a lot of great work though this project – offering many opportunities for more individuals to get involved – offering free screening copies for faith groups – offering free “retreats” for individuals to learn how to be leaders in this movement. It’s really pretty cool. I’ve even seen him bicycling around my neighborhood with his daughter riding in the back of the rickshaw.

    Because of his work, my consciousness was raised about the packaging my food comes in and I have reduced the amount of trash I throw away. Yeah!

    Thanks for posting about this!

    1. Yes, I’m sure the book fills out the picture a lot more, thanks for the recommendation. It’s on my long, long list of books to read at some point!

    2. I totally understand about the huge list of books to read! Speaking of, I just picked up Cradle to Cradle based on your review. Looking forward to it!

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