It’s impossible to reduce one’s negative environmental impact to zero, so the conceit of the No Impact project has always been to reduce our negative impact as much as possible and then to increase our positive impact. In other words, we reduce the harm we do to the planet and increase the good we do in the hope that, ultimately, we will have no net impact.
It’s not intended to be scientific so much as philosophical. Is it possible to live a life doing more good than harm to this planet? What happens when you try? That’s a big part of what this project is about.
Anyway, the current stage of the project is the positive impact part, which means I’ve been measuring oysters to be seeded in the New York waterways, helping to build a rain garden to minimize sewage overflow, tending to saplings that filter diesel particulates out of the air, making a temporary park on Seventh Avenue and picking up trash. I’m so sorry that I left these things to so late in the project.
Because it turns out that volunteering with local environmental organizations is one of the most joyful parts of the project. When people have asked me what they should do to get started helping the environment, I’ve usually said use less of something—plastic bags, cups, air conditioners or what have you. These are good beginnings and they help to raise consciousness, but from now on I think I’m going to suggest volunteering with a local environmental group, which I’m coming to believe has the potential to have a far more powerful effect on a person.
Susan Och said it wonderfully in the comments section of this blog:
“One of the cool things about trying to change the world is that you eventually have to go out and talk to "strangers". You have to turn off that voice in your head that gives you reasons to avoid people ("Too Fat!" "Too Old!" "Carrying a Plastic Shopping Bag!" "Wrong Team Sweatshirt" "Not Like Me!") and to greet others with sincerity and humility. When you're just trying to save the world in your head, it seems that progress depends on getting everyone on the same page. ‘If only everyone rode bikes....’ or ‘If only everyone was a vegetarian.....’ When you get out and talk to people, you find that reality is complicated, and that the solutions are many. Instead of sitting alone, fretting that ‘people will never change,’ we find that people are changing, and offering fresh solutions for our seemingly intractable problems.”
My experience volunteering echoes Susan’s sentiments. Some of the wonderful rewards I’ve discovered in the very small amount of volunteering I’ve done so far include that I get to:
- Learn how the way we live already damages my local area and hurts the lives of people who live in it (as opposed to thinking only about far away polar bears, ice caps and coastal communities threatened with flooding)
- Rub shoulders with a lot of people who care about environmental things at least as much as I do
- Be part of a community that supports life changes that help the planet and don’t think it’s weird and have suggestions of their own
- Have the seeds of my self-righteousness crushed by seeing people in action who have been working to help the planet way longer than me
- Learn a lot of practical planet-helping skills
- Have my values reinforced and feel like I fit in
- Make a lot of really, really cool friends
- Feel like there are some totally amazing people in the world who really want to help
- Have my faith in humanity restored
The director of one of environmental organizations I’ve been working with recently sent me a note that said, “Thank you for coming into our lives.” That just goes to show how wonderful and generous the people I’ve been meeting are. This woman has been working to help my city and its environment for 14 years. The thanks are the wrong way round, for I am the lucky one. I am lucky that, through volunteering, people like her have come into my life.
PS One positive impact thing I'm doing is a sponsored swim in New York harbor to raise money for a couple of my local environmental organizations. If you like this blog, I'd be very grateful for your showing your appreciation with a contribution. Click here to read more and for directions on making your donation. Thank you!
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.