12/08/2010 10:41 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Colin Beavan: How does "No Impact Man" talk about Progress?

This is article 7 of 8 in the series about interviews with speakers at Cancun's "Forum on Communicating Climate Change." Click here to read the introduction.
Cross posted on Hub Culture

Colin Beavan, better known as "No Impact Man," lived for a year with his wife and daughter in a New York apartment with as little environmental impact as possible. His tactics were extreme: he stopped using motorized transportation and even electricity. He ate only local food and walked up 11 flights of stairs to his apartment instead of taking the elevator. His family was not allowed to buy new things; all purchased items had had to be used. His blog gained a significant following, and he wrote a popular book and starred in a movie about this project (I saw the movie--it was quite good). The take-away message of his experience, though, was not necessarily environmental: living "more simply" made his family much happier, as they had fewer distractions and more time to spend together.

Now, although Colin does use electricity and many modern comforts, he maintains his simple lifestyle, buying little and owning no car. He has also inspired at least 15,000 people to attempt a week of "no impact" through his non-profit, the No Impact Project.

When I first heard about Colin's stunt two years ago, I had two main concerns. The first is that environmentalism often fails to take root because it is stuck telling a "back to nature" that tells us to give up modern comforts instead of motivating us with a "progress" narrative. The second concern is that telling people to live simply somehow feels condescending to the two billion people on the planet who live on two dollars a day and rightfully should be using more resources and not fewer.

Colin responds below, basically saying that we need to think hard about what is progress, and that the message of course should be different for different countries in the world.

And before you make any snarky comments about "No Impact Man" flying to Cancun (and using an iPad, which I spotted him doing during the conference), remember that even Colin doesn't argue against all consumption. The challenge, as I see it, is to choose useful consumption, and to differentiate that from consumption that just makes you poorer and less happy.

I also recommend reading Colin's post on communicating climate change, available here. He has some insightful recommendations.

Next and Last Article: Gonzalo Canseco: Why did Mexico choose to host a forum on climate change communication?

Other articles in series: