No Impact Man and the Pursuit of Happiness

In dieting, I learned early on, exercises in extremes do not yield good results. Starve yourself of chocolate, and you can be sure the first thing you'll do when no one is looking is dive into a kiddie pool of chocolate, roll around in it and then lick your own arms. I once even tried to give up bread. After two weeks I sat down and ate an entire baguette, crusty end-to-end. Walk the middle ground, I decided, in food and all things.

Maybe it was this hard-earned (and hard-learned) lesson that led me initially to avoid Morgan Spurlock's Supersize Me. It reeked of gimmick, and seemed on the outside to offer no takeaway lessons. Nobody eats fast food all three meals (right?) so what could be the point?

I did see the movie later and had to admit that I was wrong. It turned out that the parameters of his experiment were more rigorous than I expected, and it also turned out that setting an extreme goal yielded behavioral and biological results that could be extrapolated for meaning in the not-so-extreme. And it turned out that, in truth, the way many Americans were/are eating is extreme. And I was forced to confront that extremity.

Similarly, I was wary of No Impact Man. I admired the gesture, and appreciated its Thoreauvian allusions (did I just make up a word?), but I wondered if there was anything of merit for me in there. Again, similarly, I had to admit I as wrong.

Colin Beavan, as you may have read, did a year-long experiment in which he -- and his wife and infant daughter -- tried to live in their Manhattan apartment with zero environmental impact. He blogged it, chronicled it on Good Morning America, and let a documentary film crew follow him around.

Now, the movie is in theatres, and the book is on shelves.

They gave up a lot -- electricity, coffee, toilet paper, transportation that wasn't self-propelled, non-local foods, etc. -- but in the process tried to show that it wasn't about deprivation, but how much you could give up and still be really happy. And actually the quest for happiness was the part that really interested me.

That and the fact that while it wasn't explicitly a movie about food, it turned out to be largely so. Maybe that's because the production and distribution of our food has such an enormous carbon footprint; maybe that's because their lives became largely about food procurement and preparation (i.e., when you eliminate take-out and introduce cooking, food becomes a much bigger part of your life). Whole swaths of the film center on the greenmarket in Union Square, on the community garden on LaGuardia Place and Bleeker, and on two farms that NYC-dwellers know well, Hawthorne Valley and Ronnybrook.

And so maybe he makes some critics cranky. They wonder why -- if sustainable food enthusiasts and advocates (like blogger Kerry Trueman who has a nice lil' cameo; or Majora Carter from Sustainable South Bronx; or Mayer Vishner, the community gardener who takes Colin under his wing) have been living this life for quite some time now, composting, and eating local food, and forgoing bottled water -- why we should care about this self-professed "guilty liberal." They might wonder along with Beavan himself, if he is "self evolved, or just self-righteous." They might wonder, like Mayer the gardener, if he is "dishonest or delusional" in believing that his lifestyle choices will somehow cancel out his wife's job at Business Week, propelling the capitalist machine.

Meh -- those questions don't really bother me so much. I liked watching these two regular people play around with change, with having less and discarding less, and with what it means to take individual action towards a global goal. I was most interested in Beavan's wife Michelle's journey, her humor and frustration, her quiet expression of loss of the part of her that loved to buy things, and realizing that she was left with a hole to fill. With what?

With time at the neighborhood park; with household chores like cooking and washing that are taking longer, but are suddenly more fun; with family time; with book reading by candle light; with dinner parties with friends; with charades and Scrabble. I dunno, but it sounds like a good time to me.