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31 March 2014

Are you "eco-effective"? Inspired by No Impact Man.

How much of our consumption of the planet's resources actually makes us happier and how much just keeps us chained up as wage slaves?
This week in Brisbane we've had a 'No Impact' immersion.  We watched the film No Impact Man, and as Biome founder I was fortunate to take part in a Q&A panel afterwards.  I'm also reading the book, which explores in more depth the impacts that New York City-based author Colin Beavan attempts to negate in his year long lifestyle experiment.  It's a great read that I am finding more effective at changing my habits than other environmental books.

I connected with Beavan's philosophy and the messages that we have conveyed over the years with our eco-retail business--and, based on the world wide interest in his project it seems to be working for many others.  He delves into the motivations of why 'we' spend our lives working to earn money in order to be able to spend it on buying more convenience and material excess in the pursuit of elusive happiness.  These words stood out:  It's not that while trashing the planet the human race is having a party. Quite the opposite. We feel a malaise and guilt that at another time in history might have motivated action, but at this time seems instead to be coupled with a terrible sense of helplessness.

Beavan wanted to find a way to encourage a society that emphasises a little less self-indulgence and a little more kindness to one another and to the planet.  But, if he was to write a book about changing other people, he realised that he ought first to worry about changing his own actions.

And so began his year of inquiry--to put the habitat first and see how that affected his family; and, most importantly when it came to his own despair, was he as helpless to help change the imperilled world we live in as he thought?


Beavan followed the words of the environmental scientists William McDonough and Michael Braungart: "Saving this planet depends on finding a middle path that is neither unconsciously consumerist nor self-consciously anti-materialist. The idea for No Impact Man is not to be anorexic but to be abundant, not to be eco-efficient but "eco-effective."

His philosophy is based not only on reducing consumption but also on changing what is consumed so that it actually helps or at least does not hinder the world.  He argues that humans need to figure out what our world is able to productively offer us rather than considering only what we want.

After all, this harmonious existence is how most other species on earth live.  He illustrates this with the simplicity of examples from nature.  "Lions neither starve themselves nor gorge to the point of wiping out the gazelle population. Instead, they promote the health of the gazelle herd by culling its weaker members and preventing herd overgrowth which in turn prevents overgrazing of the savannah. Animal waste does not poison the ground but fertilizes the soil so that it can produce more vegetation for the animals to eat. Bees feed on the pollen of flowers but far from damaging them they provide the crucial service of pollinating them."

Beavan references the book Cradle to Cradle, where McDonough and Braungart discuss the Menominee tribe of Wisconsin, who have harvested wood for sale from their forested land for many generations.   He writes: "In 1870, the Menominee inventoried 1.3 billion standing board feet of timber on their 235,000 acres. Since then, they have harvested nearly twice that amount--2.25 billion board feet. Considering the "clear-cutting" methods of the corporate lumber merchants you hear about, which completely strips land of its trees, you'd expect that the Menominee would have barely a single tree left...In fact, they have 1.7 billion board feet left, more than they had in 1870, and a thriving forest ecosystem."

"That's because the Menominee tend to cut only the weaker trees, leaving behind the strong mother trees and enough of the upper canopy for the arboreal animals to continue to inhabit. They have figured out what the forest can productively offer them instead of considering only what they want to take from it."

Stage one: No waste - not even toilet paper

No Impact Man sensibly approached his project in stages, taking on one impact before tackling another. His first stage was to live without making garbage.  Beginning with an inventory of all the rubbish AND recycling they generated, Beavan and his wife committed to producing not a skerrick of output.

"wash the spoon" -
This concept of recycling not being as 'green' as we believe is building momentum.  In Junkyard Planet,  author Adam Minter, says recycling has the tendency to absolve our conscience about acquiring the next new thing.  The vast majority of rubbish and recycling are items used for less than 10 minutes.  Beavan talks about the loss of the "waste not, want not" ethos his grandparents held dear.   Items pass through our hands with little gratitude for the precious resources that were consumed in their production.

Recycling is in fact not very different to rubbish - there is no "away".  Many of the health and environmental issues of dealing with the massive global recycling industry are pushed onto the poorer nations - China for example, where Australia sends container ship loads of toxic, dirty waste for "recycling".

The holy grail is an empty recycling bin--and that is what Beavan recognised and lived by for the year.

How can you achieve this?  No Impact Man showed us: do not accept anything in to your life that needs to be recycled or thrown away.
  • buy food with absolutely no packaging (by shopping at farmers markets and whole food stores) - even their milk was purchased from a farmer that refilled the same glass milk bottles
  • take your own containers and cheesecloth and produce bags to the take out store or food market
  • use reusable cloths instead of toilet paper, napkins, baby nappies
  • bake your own bread, make your own yoghurt
Any 'waste' you do produce should be organic matter that can be composted at home with a worm farm, Bokashi or compost heap.

Beavan's family ate a pretty simple diet based around shopping direct with the producers, only eating what is in season and only eating food that was grown within a 250 mile radius of New York. This helped with eliminating packaging waste - but Eating Sustainably was the third stage and we will leave that for another blog post.

Read more about the No Impact Man project here and consider participating in the week long experiment.  See more activism quotes on Biome's Pinterest.

Author & Editor

Tracey Bailey is the founder of Biome Eco Stores and mother of two. After working in corporate communications and starting a family, she made a choice to be part of the solution to our planet's future and started Biome Eco Stores. Tracey is passionate about educating the community about living eco-friendly and sustainable lives through her extended product, chemical, health and environmental knowledge.


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