Happiness Counts: An interview with No Impact Man

Colin Beavan (aka No Impact Man) and his family spent one year trying to make the least amount of impact on the planet by eating local foods, using sustainable means of travel, and even cutting electricity. He documented his experience through a blog, a book and a documentary.

What struck me most about his experience was that Colin wasn’t just focused on being green, but also focused on overall well-being and happiness. It turns out the two go hand-in-hand. In our interview, Colin talks about how to overcome some of life’s big downers by trading in consumption for community.

A simply good life. (SGL): How did you come up with the No Impact Project idea? Why did you want to do it?

Colin Beavan (CB): In 2006, we had both the Iraq war and news of the melting of the polar ice caps. This was terribly depressing. On the one hand, we were fighting a war for the oil to power our corporatized way of life. On the other, we were melting the planet as a result of burning that oil for the same way of life. In between we had the way of life itself, which didn’t seem to be making people happy. Americans are stressed. They work too much. 27 percent of us suffer from anxiety and depression. It just didn’t seem like a way of life to fight a war and kill a planet for. So what if we could possibly discover a way of life that was both happier for the people and happier for the planet? That’s what I wanted to discover.

SGL: A lot of the No Impact documentary showed how you and your wife negotiated compromise (or didn’t). What advice would you give to someone who’s family may not be on board with being more green?

CB: Once we changed our habits, she (and I) realized that much of what we were doing was better for us–eating better food, getting more exercise, spending more time with family and friends. So much of what we did “for the planet” turned out to be better for us. We ate local food and our skin cleared up. We rode bikes and we lost our guts. We stopped wasting air conditioning and we saved more than a thousand dollars. We stopped spending our time being consumers and ended up spending more time being friends and neighbors.

SGL: Your angle on the green movement is unique in that you are focused on happiness and well-being. Why is this an important factor?

CB: Our economy is predicated on the idea that the more “stuff” people have the happier they will be. So, we all work hard to get more stuff and, especially in the US, forget about the importance of our social relationships. That does not make us happy. During No Impact Man, my family and I got to think about our relationships since we were no consuming stuff. We hung out with our friends instead of in front of the television. That’s what contributed to our happiness. However, for all I say about laughter and fun together, the truth is that it’s always a mixed bag. The truth is that I, like everyone else, am very confused. And since we’re all confused and in the same boat, there is really only one thing that makes sense: helping each other.

SGL: What biggest change did your family make that created the most happiness?

CB: Spent more time together and with our community. As a society we have traded community for consumption, but community makes us happier. It was a bad trade.

SGL: If you could pick one thing for people to change that would have the most impact on the planet and their happiness, what would you recommend and why?

CB: The question for all of us is this: Not whether we are able to make a difference, but whether we want to be the type of people who try. Because you are part of the problem, things won’t change until you decide to be part of the solution. Some people are political so can become activists. Others are self-conscious and so can change the way they live and help others to do the same. Some are business people and so can help change business. Be you. Use your skills, passions, and interests to help each other and the world.

 Be you. Use your skills, passions, and interests to help each other and the world.

SGL: It has been a few years since the No Impact Project, what habits have stuck? Why?

CB: It makes sense to eat food with no unpronounceable poison chemicals in it, so we still prefer food from our trustworthy, local farmer. Rather than take a taxi to the gym so that we can then run in place on the treadmill, it makes sense to get our exercise as part of day by biking and walking. It makes sense to save money so we’ve cut our power consumption. What didn’t make sense was washing our clothes by hand when there was no electricity! So that means that we must also work together to change the systems to ensure that our electricity and other needs are met sustainably. The point is not to deprive ourselves. The point is to make sure that the resources we use actually make people happy and that those resources are renewable.

SGL: When you did the No Impact Project your daughter was a toddler in diapers, now that she is older do you think that the project would be harder now? Why or why not?

CB: Isabella cares more about relationships and people than things. She wants to play in the fountain, not work hard to buy a bigger house or a faster car. She teaches us to savor what we already have instead of making ourselves and the planet miserable trying to get what we don’t have. We have a game we play. I ask her, “Why are we alive?” She says, “To joke and laugh.” I ask, “And what is our responsibility?” She says, “To make sure other people can joke and laugh too!”

I ask her, “Why are we alive?” She says, “To joke and laugh.” I ask, “And what is our responsibility?” She says, “To make sure other people can joke and laugh too!”

SGL: What’s the next chapter for No Impact Man? What are you working on now?

CB: In 2009, I founded a nonprofit called the No Impact Project. The No Impact Project’s mission is to empower citizens to make choices which better their lives and lower their environmental impact through lifestyle change, community action, and participation in politics. Our signature program, the No Impact Week, is an opportunity for people to try what I did for a year for one week, and discover the difference low impact living can have for themselves.

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