No Impact Man

Issue section: 
(350)

Directors: Laura Gabbert and Justin Schein; Release date: 3 September

Do you remember New York resident Morgan Spurlock and his pseudo-scientific experiment, in the film Super Size Me, to eat three McDonald's meals a day for one whole year? Well, forget Morgan Spurlock: here comes the Conlin-Beavan family, with all the tears and laughter, highs and lows, despair and desire that life has to offer, in this new documentary called No Impact Man.

Colin Beavan is a writer who lives in a comfortable apartment on Fifth Avenue in downtown New York and wants to save the planet. His wife, Michelle Conlin, writes for Business Week, is a self-proclaimed reality TV addict, needs her daily dose of Starbucks and wants a second baby.

Together they embark on a journey to radically change their lifestyles over the next 12 months and conduct an unscientific self-experiment: Can an individual make no impact on the environment and thereby produce more good than harm?

Colin did make an impact in the blogosphere, morning shows across the US and the New York Times by turning his family into the object of a documentary in the style of reality TV, the format his wife was so addicted to in the first place.

But did he really make an impact to save the planet? The inconvenient truth is no!

Colin remains convinced that switching off the heat and electricity in times when many people can't afford to pay their heating bills any longer, not using toilet paper when 2.6 billion people - half the developed world - lack even a simple latrine, and having a worm bin in a New York or London apartment will inspire others to take similar actions.

In an age of debt, default and dispossession, Colin and his family will find it difficult to inspire with this regressive critique of US consumerism which calls for sacrifice. As millions of people across Europe and the US are facing austerity measures and so can hardly make ends meet this self-imposed austerity will put people off taking climate chaos and the people who fight against it seriously.

It would be too easy to label the Conlin-Beavan family "bourgeois fucks" or "delusional", as their family friends and colleagues in the documentary do. What needs to be said is that "sacrifice" is not a political strategy to stop climate chaos.

In the light of the floods in Pakistan, the forest fires in Russia and the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico it becomes very apparent that only collective solutions can solve the climate crisis.

Nevertheless our capitalist nation states continue to look to false market-based solutions, such as carbon trading and agrofuels, to solve the climate crisis.

Many individuals, such as the Conlin-Beavan family, in the global north look to solutions within the parameters of lifestyle, consumer choice and, consequently, the market. But climate change is not a lifestyle issue - it is a systemic issue and a product of capitalism itself.