No Impact Man depicts a planet — and a marriage — under strain

Documentary about a New York family's attempts to reduce its carbon footprint to zero finds drama in marital dynamics

Why in the world would someone call themselves “No Impact Man”? Writer Colin Beavan embarked on a yearlong eco-experiment to make himself a good example, but the name suggests he aimed low as an effective role model. Why not High Impact Man? Impactful Man? More Impact Than He Knows What to Do with Man?

Of course, “no impact” describes Beavan’s environmental goal, not his self-promotional one. The documentary No Impact Man describes the New Yorker’s attempt to spend a year reducing his family’s carbon footprint to a mere whisper on the earth. Instead of riding gas-guzzling vehicles and other public transportation, Beavan and his wife will walk or bicycle. Instead of dining at restaurants or purchasing packaged foods, they’ll cook only locally grown items, which means, among other things, no coffee. They compost, reduce their garbage to zero, shut off their electricity, give away their television, even eliminate toilet paper and disposable diapers for their toddler daughter, Isabella.

Initially, Beavan comes across as the most annoying kind of slump-postured liberal killjoy as he appoints himself a martyr for mankind’s wasteful ways. Fortunately, the documentarians are canny enough to realize they don’t have to oversell Beavan’s Earth-first message. No Impact Man is more a film about a marriage under strain than a planet with diminished resources.

Clearly the no-impact project hits Beavan’s wife, Michelle Conlin, much harder than the author and blogger. Beavan works at home and seems to take to self-denial like a penitent monk to a hairshirt. Conlin, however writes for pro-corporate Business Week magazine and admits to being hooked on shopping, reality TV shows and Starbucks. She doesn’t disagree with Beavan’s ideology, but goes along with the experiment as the equivalent of a New Year’s resolution to eat healthier, exercise more, and replace bad habits with good ones.

For Conlin, who subsequently rides a scooter to the office and walks up nine flights of stairs to get home, the novelty of the project runs out quickly. She views the inconveniences of Beavan’s crusade with frequent, visible annoyance. At one point, she’s aghast when Beavan and Isabella merrily pack away her cosmetics. She half-jokingly refers to “the wrath of Conlin” when she wants caffeine to help her write a big story, and sure enough, he gets all pissy with her. The friction brings out deeper fissures in their marriage, such as their disagreement about having a second child.

Occasionally, Beavan allows exceptions to his rules and takes train rides to farms in upstate New York. One dairy farmer points out a problem with the organic label, which precludes his use of antibiotics in case one of his cows gets sick. While No Impact Man covers some of the same corporate-exploited earth as Food, Inc., directors Laura Gabbert and Justin Schein don’t bombard the audience with apocalyptic, feel-bad statistics. The film even contains plenty of critiques of Beavan. After the New York Times runs a story under the headline “A Year Without Toilet Paper,” Beavan receives invitations to “Good Morning America” and “The Colbert Report,” but also a flurry of ridicule from the blogosphere: “Crazy people like you give environmentalists a bad name.”

You can enjoy a laugh at Beavan’s expense when some of his plans go wrong, such as an infestation of flies in the apartment compost bin. No Impact Man seems to gloss over the family’s increased drudgery. Beavan, Isabella and eventually Conlin have fun stomping on laundry in the bathtub, with cold water and homemade detergent, but we never see the clothes drying or learn how well the method works. We can only assume that without television, Beavan has more time to do chores and subsistence shopping, but the film’s vague on this point.

No Impact Man reaches some surprisingly sunny conclusions given its moments of stormy marital strife. By the movie's end, the couple looks more tan and healthy, and enjoys idyllic ventures outdoors and games of charades by candlelight. If Beavan’s still kind of a scold by the end, he's adopted a more positive, expansive worldview than at the film’s outset. When someone asks what they should do to help the world if they can only do one thing, he says, “Volunteer with an environmental group.” Instead of pushing self-denial, Beavan advocates community involvement — a message more likely to have an impact among sympathetic viewers who still want their coffee and toilet paper.