I just spent the entire day--and I mean entire, as in beginning at 7 AM and ending at 9:15 PM--with a TV crew. They are doing a segment on the No Impact experiment for a major network (details to come). I hope it's good for the cause and good for the project. Meanwhile, I'm spent. So, I hope no one minds if I post an OpEd I published in the New York Times back in mid-March. I figure some of you never saw it. For those of you who have, sorry! Tune in tomorrow.
Worms in the Apartment
By COLIN BEAVAN
FOR the year beginning last December, my wife, our 2-year-old daughter and I, while living in the middle of the city, are trying to survive without making any net impact on the environment. This means we’ll get as close as we can to creating no trash (so no takeout), emitting no carbon dioxide (so no driving or flying) and pouring no toxins in the water (so no laundry detergent), as well as mitigating impacts we can’t avoid (so planting trees). Not to mention: no elevators, subways, buying products in packaging, plastics, air-conditioning, TV or toilet paper.
Though I’m ashamed to admit it, this is the first time I’ve substantially changed my life to reflect my beliefs. I have boycotted products that contributed to the hole in the ozone layer; written letters against the Japanese for hunting whales; called for an end to the poaching of Congolese gorillas; marched against the whites who controlled South Africa in the apartheid era; detested the Israeli killing of Palestinians; and despised Palestinian killing of Israelis. But I made the mistake of believing that condemning the misdeeds of others somehow made me virtuous.
With age, I even ratcheted down my political action and veered perilously close to joining that brand of liberal who whines about the world but doesn’t actually do anything about it. If I were still a student, I’d probably march against my adult self. And, as a member of that passive group of do-nothings, I was far from alone.
Prof. Arthur Brooks of Syracuse University, in his recent book “Who Really Cares,” published data showing that, for all our liberal ideology, people like me volunteer their time no more than conservatives, and we actually donate 30 percent less to charity. We even give less blood.
“It’s not that liberals are selfish,” Professor Brooks told me on the phone. Rather, he said, they worry that individual action lets everybody else off the hook. Believing to a large degree that, as Professor Brooks put it, “societal coercion is better than individual action,” they prefer to exert their efforts on grand schemes to change the government and the laws.
So people like me work to get out the vote, but feel entitled to heat our empty homes all day because, hey, we’ve done our best. Liberals, Professor Brooks said, “are suffering from cognitive dissonance — because the way they live their lives is not in accord with their ethics.”
And anyway, with global warming, there is no time to wait around for a strategy of “societal coercion” to take effect. But can individual New Yorkers really help? Isn’t this really a problem for the sub- and ex-urbanites who guzzle gas in their S.U.V.’s? After all, 78 percent of Manhattan households don’t even have cars — can’t we content ourselves with the eco-efficiency of our crammed-together little island? Not when you consider that, together with the rest of our state, New Yorkers make nearly 1 percent of the world’s carbon dioxide, the predominant greenhouse gas.
So my family and I have started our experiment in extreme environmental living. We keep a bin full of worms that turn our organic waste into compost. We make our own yogurt, staying away from those nasty plastic tubs. We grow herbs on our windowsills.
We’ve faced a million problems — how to make a meal without creating a mountain of plastic; how to bike through the city streets without ending up with a crushed skull; what to do about diapers — but we’re reaping some unexpected benefits.
With all the stair climbing, I’ve lost 15 pounds. We produce less than half a small bag of trash in a week. My wife loves riding her foot-propelled scooter to work. Family life now centers around the kitchen and dining table, where we talk, instead of around the TV, where we didn’t. Even parts of the banks of the Hudson were, a least for a while, a little cleaner because we spent an afternoon picking up garbage (including, God save me, plastic bottles full of urine thrown from vehicles on the West Side Highway). Most of all, we feel that we are not contributing so drastically to the world problems that worry us.
I’m not saying that we’ll retain our most extreme adaptations when the year is over. I don’t know. And I’m certainly not saying we’re doing more about the environment than others — there are many engaged, committed people who do much more than we do.
But I like to hope that, at least, we have stopped doing so much less.
Colin Beavan (that's me!) is now leading a conversation about finding a happy, helpful life at Colinbeavan.com. If you want to know how people are breaking out and and finding authentic, meaningful lives that help our world, check it out the blog here and sign up to join the conversation here.