By Dennis Hartley
“Yeah, but I mean, I would never give up my electric blanket, Andre. I mean, because New York is cold in the winter. I mean, our apartment is cold! It’s a difficult environment. I mean, our life is tough enough as it is. I’m not looking for ways to get rid of a few things that provide relief and comfort.” –Wallace Shawn, from My Dinner with Andre.
I don’t know about you, but I’m with Wally. And Kermit the Frog. Because, dammit, it ain’t easy being green. Oh, I suppose I feel pretty good about myself when I toss the empty cereal box (made from post-consumer fibers and printed in soy ink) into the recycling bin, bring my reusable bag to the farmer’s market, or screw in a low-wattage compact fluorescent bulb, but does that mean I’m doing my part to reduce mankind’s carbon footprint? After watching the new eco-doc, No Impact Man, it would seem that my crimes against Mother Gaia are running a close 2nd only to those of Capt. Hazelwood.
Yeah, it would take another guilty liberal to make a guilty liberal like me feel, uh, guilty; and filmmakers Laura Gabbert and Justin Schein have succeeded in doing just that in their film, documenting the efforts of blogger/author Colin Beavan to spend an entire year making as little environmental impact as possible. Operating under the supposition that there are more than a few liberal minded, well meaning, self proclaimed “environmentally conscious” wags out there who don’t exactly practice what they preach (and humbly considering himself to be among them) Beavan set out to put his, uh, mulch where his mouth is. Beavan decided that if he was really going to go for it, he would have to convince his dazzling urbanite wife, Business Week writer Michelle Conlin (a classic New York neurotic) and their toddler to join in as well. So how does a family of Manhattanites pull this off without leaving their metropolitan cocoon? This paradox provides plenty of rich narrative compost for the filmmakers, and they cultivate it well.
Beavan’s strategy was to go whole hog; well, not literally, because he and his wife were apparently vegetarians already going in. But any food they were to consume in the course of the experiment would have to come from local growers (although, dwelling in the heart of New York City, they had to fudge the definition of “local” a tad). Much to Michelle’s chagrin, this meant no more Starbucks (the inevitable scenes dealing with her caffeine withdrawal angst, while initially amusing, begin to feel a little stagy). Electricity was right out, so they dutifully shut down the breakers in their apartment. Automated transportation was also nixed, only walking and biking allowed (elevators were also verboten). And lastly, they make what is arguably the ultimate sacrifice: no material consumption (during a thrift store visit, Michelle gazes wistfully at a used Marc Jacobs bag; the look on her face speaks volumes about the twisted pathos of consumer culture). When Beavan announces that toilet paper is off the list, the shit (no pun intended) really hits the fan.
Okay, despite the obvious “Dah-link I love you, but give me Park Avenue!” parallels, it’s not exactly Green Acres; after all, this is a serious-minded documentary, not just going for the quick yuck. In fact, one of the more fascinating aspects of the film is its exploration of the outright hatred that Beavan receives from some quarters. In one scene, he mopes at his laptop, so befuddled and browbeaten by all the negative comments on his blog that he’s ready to just throw in the towel on the whole project (“Ah yes, Grasshopper, we bloggers must all suffer through that phase at some point,” I mused to myself, while thoughtfully stroking my imaginary Fu Manchu mustache). Ironically, some of his detractors accuse him of being the very creature that he set out to prove to himself that he wasn’t-one of the hypocritical “green fakers”. Even one of his consultants, an urban gardening expert who he has befriended, questions his sincerity. He proffers that Beavan’s wife writes for Business Week, “…for which millions of trees are cut down on a regular basis in order to promote the thoroughly fallacious propaganda that American corporate capitalism is good for the people.” He’s only getting warmed up. He concludes: “If it’s your contention that it evens out because she doesn’t take the elevator in your 5th Avenue co-op…I have to say you’re either dishonest, or delusional.” Ouch!
For me, the most pragmatic takeaway from the film stems from one of Beavan’s more thoughtful observations. Perhaps the point is “…not about using as little as we can possibly use…but to find a way to get what you need, in a sustainable way.” The major question that looms is: why are some people so threatened by the very idea of “thinking green”? Beavan offers that perhaps it is “…the idea of deprivation that scares people the most” – which of course brings us back full circle to Wally’s lament from My Dinner with Andre that I quoted at the top of the post. Short of chucking it all and joining an Amish enclave, I think it’s possible to be eco-conscious and enjoy some comforts of modern technology without feeling guilty about being alive in the 21st Century. For Wally, it’s the idea of losing the use of his electric blanket. For me, it would be my DVD player. And my DVD collection. OK, and my cable service, and my DVR. I will happily sort out all my garbage, buy locally (when feasible) and avoid using my vehicle whenever practical, but you’ll only get my Universal Remote…when you pry it from my cold, dead hands.