Issue 19 : Fall 2010








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On 'No Impact Man'

by Derek Wall

11 Sep 2010

THE LAST FILM ALWAYS BIASES the reception of the next. The last film I watched was that 1990s British classic 'Dirty Weekend' based on the novel by Helen Zahavi. Director Michael Winner, best known for making Charles Bronson a household name in 'Deathwish', collides with feminism with disastrous results (but hey I liked it). Sickened by exploitation by sexist men, the protagonist of the film Bella goes on a killing spree in Green Party MP Caroline Lucas's Brighton constituency, cleansing the streets of Brighton Pavilion to make them safe for womankind. If you have had a revenge fantasy about your dentist, you will enjoy 'Dirty Weekend' irrespective of gender, but you probably should not watch it. I am not sure that the strong meat of the film version of Helen Zahavi's novel quite put me into the right frame of mind to deal critically with the subtler flavours of Colin Beavan's 'No Impact Man.'

The thesis of 'No Impact Man' is simple: Colin Beavan, a New York writer who longs to write something engaged and political, decides that his family will spend a year living on zero carbon. They can buy nothing new, and lifts, trains and even buses are banned; the car is the great Satan of course. All food is to be organic and local (well within 250 kms). No TV, recycling of all trash, etc, etc.

My initial reaction was one of dissatisfaction. Irony, philosophy, agony in Manhattan family - hey its Woody Allen with all traces of humour removed. The film certainly has moments where the mundane, such as cycling, is presented as some exotic and dangerous adventure. Six minutes in, my children insisted it lacked excitement and we switched off the TV. However after a day with my kids, I returned for another look and was more impressed.

However 'No Impact Man' grows on you. It demands some patience, especially if you already recycle rubbish, cycle or engage in a spot of gardening. Its selling point isn't so much making a drama out of good environment practice but as a non-violent form of reality TV. The domestic drama grows as Colin and his wife try to live without coffee, etc, but none of the arguments and dilemmas seem contrived or obviously constructed. Back at the turn of the millennium my Phd (Politics and Philosophy of Earth First, thanks for asking) supervisor Peter Jowers answered an advert to take part in a BBC programme, which would place participants for a year on a remote Hebridean Island, where they would work together to create a utopian ecological community. It turned out that he was suckered into a scheme that was an important link in the chain of reality TV's prehistory . 'No Impact Man' evens the odds between the utopian and the merely exploitative. It works as soap without the sour manipulations of the reality spectacle. It is unlikely entertainment but entertainment nonetheless. Ironically Colin's long suffering wife (who pointedly reminds him that it is his project down to the sexist title 'No Impact Man'), wonders how she will live without reality TV when the television has to go.

'No Impact Man' after the first sticky six minutes does entertain. However is the project worthwhile ethically, socially, politically? Well as an assault on exploitative forms of televisual entertainment I have already voted yes but on climate change, I am not quite so sure. You can't live ecologically and enjoy the experience from a high rise flat in the Big Apple. We can't collect bottles and line them up until we get to a sustainable world. Structural change rather than individual action is essential. Take transport, I think the first battle is to get people out of their cars and into the subway. However without real investment in public transport this isn't going to work. Most of my friends in the USA have to drive because there are no trains, and in many cities and suburbs there aren't even sidewalks to walk along. I used to hang out in London with a large tribe of squatters in Deptford; when they were evicted, they took their compost bins and plants with them. But to really grow food you need access to land and with land prices in New York higher than the Empire State building, this is impossible for most people. As Heather Rogers in her splendid book'Green Gone Wrong' has shown, organic local food production is under attack from agribusiness; agribusiness which pollutes the environment and abuses animals with a corporate welfare cheque paid by Congress. Personal action is almost meaningless without political action. You can't actually do low let alone 'no impact' without structural change. Land ownership, mass transit, education and culture all come into play.

Yet what saves 'No Impact Man' in terms of environmental protection are the hints of something deeper. Colin's visit to Sustainable South Bronx shows another side to ecology. The South Bronx is where the rubbish is dumped. All the shit is piled up in poorer and African-American districts. There's a scene when a hippie gardener gently points out to Colin that his wife, by working as a journalist for 'Business Week', is cutting down trees to make corporate propaganda. It's an instructive point.

The film is a slow burn joy; the most important points come out of the cracks and between the lines. This makes it defensible and praise worthy as politics and entertainment (however give me Jean Luc Godard's 'Contempt' on both counts any day). Colin, by subverting the reality genre, provides environmental education in spades. I am reminded of the philosopher Slavoj ZiZek, in his first book to be translated into English 'The Sublime Object of Ideology', where he talks about how practice creates belief. The Christian or the socialist who does not have faith, practices the rituals (whether prayer, communion or selling a left wing newspaper) and, as if by magic, faith is generated. This is belief before belief. One does not believe but believes oneshould have belief. The ritual delivers conversion. Green practice even if a little uncomfortable and in danger of distracting from the bigger political changes needed, creates perhaps a much need shift in consciousness.

However Zizek also neatly provides a counter point to this approach, noting that by highlighting what is wrong those who know they are guilty can react negatively to the bad news. We identify with the symptom and love the disease. To illustrate this point, Zizek discusses how well being radicals tried to expose the war record of Austrian Presidential candidate Kurt Waldheim before a crucial election. Waldheim, fought for the Nazi's in the Second World War and didn't wish to expose his record. However exposure, paradoxically cemented his standing with voters, because so many Austrian voters of the same generation identified with Waldheim's experience, which they shared.

As Zizek argues "Leftists put the emphasis of their campaign on proving to the public that not only is Waldheim a man with a dubious past (probably involved in war crimes) but also a man who is not prepared to confront his past, a man who evades crucial questions concerning it - in short, a man whose basic feature is a refusal to 'work through' the traumatic past. What they overlooked was that it was precisely this feature with which the majority of centrist voters identified. Post-war Austria is a country whose very existence is based on a refusal to 'work through' its traumatic Nazi past, proving that Waldheim was evading confrontation with his past emphasised the exact trait-of-identification of the majority of pointing out the failure we can unwittingly reinforce the identification".

The USA is built on a lie. However, pointing out that unlimited waste and exploitation of resources is wrong may simply cause US citizens to embrace unsustainable lifestyles with increased vigour. This is sadly illustrated by the extreme reaction of some in the film: the TV talk show host who introduces Colin as an environmental Manson is typical. Green living is so threatening that those who practice it are bracketed with mass murderers. Thus 'No Impact Living' is as challenging at the micro level of the personal as it is at the macro of the structural change needed. The barking mad TV coverage indicates why US citizens are seen as a bit crazy by the rest of us on this planet. Nonetheless the negative reaction cannot simply be dismissed.

Clearly environmentalists, particularly in the US, are at present fighting a losing battle. Climate change is the new socialism and socialism is the old satanism. So saying anything is difficult. Nonetheless Colin has a brave go and shows that you can even enjoy living on less, less waste, better health and an appreciation of quality rather than sordid quantity. I guess I would go for something a bit more Mid West than Manhattan. Think of what the straight talking Johnny Cash did for anti-war protest or prison reform. There is a green who, ironically, is embraced by a tribe of true blooded US libertarians: Elinor Ostrom who won the Nobel Price in Economics for insisting that we should share more and think of the next seven generations. I reckon blue collarUSA and not just middle class New York, might just be persuaded by Elinor Ostrom with her famous 'I was born poor' line, perhaps with some country music riffs behind her wise words.

Of course the real No Impact Man (and women and children) lives in Colombia, Latin America and is absent from Beavan's film. In Colombia, Afro-Colombian communies live green lives, growing their food organically and gently prospering on very little. Ironically they are under attack from the paramilitary death squads, as powerful figures make a grab for their land, so that palm oil plantations can be used to make quick profits for bio-fuels to run cars in the USA driven by greens.

So, 'No Impact Man' is good as far as it goes but it needs to go further if the threats to planet and people are to be challenged effectively. A journey has begun, and all journeys begin with a gentle peddle of the bicycle, however No Impact Man has more miles to travel. Go on Colin, go to Colombia an interview Afro-Colombian community members, and take a train to Indiana University and get that all American 'Low Impact Woman' Elinor Ostrom on film. She might just be able to deal with the symptoms and give some hints on curing the disease. But hey what do I know, I watch Michael Winner films.

[Reprinted here with permission. Originally published Monday 5th September by --ed.]