A year without toilet paper - The Interview


You wouldn't necessarily know it from watching him on his appearance on The Colbert Report. He comes across as a soft-spoken, good-natured guy, for sure. But he must have a very impenetrable hide to still be blogging after being on the receiving end of the recent Gawker snarkfest about his family's infamous experiment, a year of extremely low-impact living in Manhattan.

This enviro-aesetic lifefstyle includes giving up toilet paper, consuming only food that has been grown within a 250-mile radius, avoiding all carbon-producing forms of transportation, no air conditioning (in New York! in the summer!), and buying nothing new.

I wrote a rather critical blog post about Beavan's adventure last March, after reading about his family's exploits (can you use that term when talking about someone who DOESN'T exploit stuff?) in the New York Times. If you had asked me then, I would have said that Beavan's experiment was all a publicity stunt, and that the extreme conditions that he and his family were subjecting themselves to were really overkill. In fact, I did say something along those lines, but with more sarcasm. Many other people responded in a similar fashion.

Months later, after having written a few blog posts of my own that caused people to freak out ("How DARE you criticize baby carrots?! Do you want us ALL to be obese?") because their lifestyle choices were being challenged, and nobody likes that. In addition, I've learned about the dangers of plastics, both to our bodily health and to the environment at large. My stance towards Beavan's experiment softened considerably.

For one thing, it's really hard to pick on someone who is just trying something, while sharing the experience with the world. Anyone who talks to Beavan, or reads his blog, No Impact Man, can tell that he's not the type of guy to foist his ideas on anyone. He's just an environmentally-conscious guy who got sick of talking the talk, and decided to walk the walk. Plus, he's got a sense of humor about the whole thing.

I recently asked Beavan, whose blog is also a part of the Life Remix Network, to answer a few questions about how is experiment is progressing, and how he feels about the furor surrounding his attempt to decrease his impact on our planet.


What has been the overall response been to your experiment? The internet can be a vicious place, and I'm sure you've received a fair share of malicious criticism. But your own site seems to have many supportive readers. Do you find that the reaction is about 50/50?

What you can't see is the emails I get. I've become so used to getting supportive email that it is quite a shock when something critical comes in. People come to the blog, I think, because they sense for themselves that there may be a way to live that is not so frantic and consumption-based that can both be kinder to the planet and make us happier.

How do you deal with some of the attacks leveled at your family? Is it difficult to balance sharing your life and protecting your own emotions?

By concentrating on the huge level of support and on my mission with this project, which is to allow people to examine the lessons I'm learning this year as one method to make more positive choices for themselves. My style is not for everyone, though, and that's okay.

I imagine it's nice to avoid having to buy lead-painted toys from China for a while. Do you find it easier to raise a child in your apartment now than it was before? Are there challenges with the experiment specifically related to child-rearing?

With no TV or electricity or video games, this experiment has meant that Isabella gets so much more of our attention than she might have otherwise. We play, we ride around on our bikes, we go to the park, we splash in the fountain. This is the biggest gift of the project.

Has this endeavour helped you to save money, or is it more costly in the end? Fluorescent light bulbs, for instance, are quite expensive.

CFLs, over their lifetime, work out cheaper, thanks to electricity savings (though of course we don't use electricity right now). Our grocery bill is higher, but our restaurant bill is lower. We don't fly or drive. We're saving money and eating better and getting more exercise and feeling healthier and sleeping more.

When your year is up, do you think that you will continue to practice any parts of this experiment? Are there any aspects of this lifestyle that are more difficult than others?

Which bit shall I give up? Spending time with Isabella or eating better? Just joking, but honestly, much of what we've changed we'll keep. But probably not all. Still, that's all hypothetical. We're not there yet.

Do you feel like this lifestyle is made easier due to your work-at-home status? Could a family with two parents who work outside the home, making a net income of $60K, engage in the same kind of practices?

I'm not hoping to make everyone live like me. I'm just hoping people might feel encouraged about the possibility of finding their own suitable options that might both be better for the planet and make them happier.

Many people have questioned your motives in this experiment, suggesting that you're only doing it to sell books. Also, there's been a bit of snarking in the blogosphere that your book is going to "kill millions of trees". How to you respond to those attacks? Is there any validity in them?

There might be easier ways to sell books! The good news, for me, is that FSG plans to publish my book by the most sustainable method they can find. I'm happy about that. Every time a book like mine gets published in a sustainable way helps smooth the way for the publishing industry to eventually publish all books sustainably.

How do you apply the no-impact lifestyle to your dog? What do you feed her, and how difficult is it to clean up after her without using SOMETHING plastic?

I pick up her poop with found plastic bags.

Overall, are you enjoying your new lifestyle? Are there some aspects to it that you just can't WAIT to finish up?

Although the experiment will be officially over in November, the investigation may never end. It's fascinating and satisfying to take the life you've inherited from your past and your culture, to question the underlying assumptions, and see how you put it back together when you choose deliberately.

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Guest's picture

I've been following this family's journey very closely, and I think what they are doing is pretty brave. It's easy to see the entire thing as a publicity stunt, but if it was, they probably wouldn't be enjoying many benefits from it. It seems like they are very genuine, and I commend them.

Will Chen's picture

Great interview Andrea! It is great to see Colin sticking up for his principles. A lot of negativity probably comes from people feeling guilty about their own wasteful lifestyles. The more successful Colin is with his experiment, the less excuse the rest of us will have for driving two blocks to pick up an Icee from 7-Eleven.

That's one good looking family, by the way. That photo looks like one of those model families that comes with the frame. If no impact living can make me look as good, I say where do I sign up?

Guest's picture

This looks great! I think I'll spend the day reading back in the archives of his blog.

Also-- it's easy to forget that most of the world doesn't actually use toilet paper and central AC. They wash with water and cool down with fans.

Guest's picture

This really is ridiculous to me. Lately, I've been changing our family's lifestyle a bit, because I really do think it's important to save for the environment. As a matter of fact, just the other day I cussed out my husband for throwing out his garbage out the car window. Now his car just fills up with garbage instead :) But I mean....if they don't use toilet paper, how smelly are they to be around? Or do they use newspaper or what? Of course that would leave ink streaks! They could hve just purchased recycled toilet paper couldn't they?

Andrea Karim's picture

Water, sweetheart. Water and cloth washcloths. And maybe soap. It's not that difficult. Not that I would do it, because I hate doing laundry.

Guest's picture

I think a lot of what WiseBread is about is looking at our prejudices and cultural training to see how things really are and could be - and you've demonstrated it, by saying your previous opinions and how they've shifted. Thank you for looking into what Colin Beavin's reactions are to those who had those prior thoughts, too!

Guest's picture

Andrea - Thanks for taking a thoughtful 2nd look at this family.
It is unfathomable to me just why this man's experiment causes so many people to spit venom. He's not telling other people how to live, but showing them what can be done by example. And if he effects even minor, environmentally positive changes amongst his readers, then any damage from publishing is likely offset by the changes he has inspired.
And while I don't think it's a publicity stunt, I couldn't care less if it was. Maybe some good will come of it. Who is he harming? His family is happy and healthy.
For some unknown reason, lots of people take his experiment as a personal attack, but I'm thankful that there are people like him who are willing to withstand all the negativity in order to try to do something positive.

Tannaz Sassooni's picture

not sure why i'm being snarky, because i actually think what this family is doing is pretty cool, and the bit about his improved relationship with his daughter is particularly sweet and heartening.

but, regarding his own book, why no ebook option? it's great to look for sustainable ways of publishing it, but it's still printed on paper. why not at least do both a paper and an electronic release -- so people who wanted the paperless option had it? it might save as least as much paper as going without tp for a year would!

Andrea Karim's picture

I have a hunch, but no proof, that the book will be printed on bamboo paper or something. It's not snarky to question that - perhaps an ebook option will happen, but I odn't think the details are worked out yet. Or if they are, no one is sharing them just yet.

Guest's picture
Dilbert's Principal

The people hating on this guy are the same type of folks who stoned the first man who invented fire. Keep fighting the good fight No Impact Man!

Myscha Theriault's picture

I have to say, I'm in agreement about the nastiness possibly coming from the fact that people's own choices were being challenged. When someone is trying a particular lifestyle choice and succeeding at it, and someone else would like to achieve the same thing but is not willing to make sacrifices in the same area . . . often times the first reaction is to criticize. I'm not sure why that is.

We've had a few experiences with this as well. There are investment strategies we try that other people are not willing to risk. We also make sacrifices in areas some people would never contemplate (cable TV). On a recent visit to the home of one of my husband's childhood friends, we were surprised at how critical he was of what we were doing.

We found it interesting that he was so negative, when we were getting ready to take off and travel for six months, were debt free and had the ability to only select projects we found valuable. This person was still struggling financially with an overpriced lifestyle and was clearly not willing to make any changes, no matter how obvious it was to us that he had the freedom available to him much more quickly than we had been able to achieve it.

He was really interested in our lifestyle and wanted it for himself, but when he asked how we did it and we told him, he couldn't help telling us why our strategies wouldn't work. He somehow missed the obvious . . . that it was working.

The same seems to relate to the gentleman you interviewed. Just because a lifestyle choice is not for everyone doesn't mean the person it is working for is wrong in trying it out. Good post.

Guest's picture

I was reading his blog awhile ago, and it's an interesting project. The only thing I found a bit irksome was when he talked about how the family has a maid. I don't know if the family still has one, but it's certainly a lot easier if you're not the one cleaning. Other than that, it's just an interesting project.

Guest's picture

I am totally in agreement with trying to impact the environment as little as possible. However, I think it's harder for low income people in this country to follow it to the extent that he and his family are doing for this year. It's more expensive to buy food in a market instead of a big chain. Also, does not buying food from more than 250 miles away also mean no oranges or lemons if you don't live near parts of the country that support those fruits? I also wonder about all the people who would lose their jobs (truckers, stockers, etc.) if we all followed this. I'm not saying he's wrong, and I think it's terrible that people say such horrible things to and about someone they have never met. I do feel that this issue is very complex. As a divorced working single mother whose ex belongs to the dead beat dad club, I do worry about the environment, I try to save water, recycle, I tell my children how fortunate we are to have clean water at the turn of a faucet, but there's no way I can do all I want to do, and sometimes other people come off as self righteous. But, maybe I'm just sensitive.

Andrea Karim's picture

No, I totally agree with you, K. One of my intital criticisms of the project was that it's fairly easy for an upper class Manhattan family with one child to do this. But it's a lot harder if you are struggling to make ends meet, because in a way, you have to undergo a much bigger transformation. It's one thing if one parents gets paid (well) to work from home, and you can afford a maid. It's another if a single parent has to work all day long and really work hard to find time to make dinner.

And the points you raise about people losing jobs are entirely valid. It's definitely something to think long and hard about. As our economy stutters, we might have to consider more localized economies than the one were currently have. And it might cost a lost of jobs - hopefully, it will produce some good jobs as well (maybe more local businesses as places like WalMart become less popular - IF that happens?).

Guest's picture

Thank you, Andrea. And yes, I hope the same thing, that if some jobs were lost, then others would be created more localized, with better pay and benefits for them. It's not easy being a retail chain worker. I'm not one, but I have friends who are. If people are better paid, then they could afford to loosen the deep attachment to Wally World with their low, low prices. :-]