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"No Impact Man" charts U.S. couple's climate fight

 Colin Beavan and his wife Michelle Conlin, the subjects of a documentary titled
Colin Beavan and his wife Michelle Conlin, the subjects of a documentary titled 'No Impact Man', pose for a portrait in New York August 28, 2009. REUTERS/Lucas Jackson
— image credit: Reuters

By Michelle Nichols

NEW YORK (Reuters) - Colin Beavan so despaired at a lack of political action on climate change that he decided to see what difference he could make by living for a year with as little impact on the environment as possible.

Beavan and his reluctant wife, Michelle Conlin, drastically changed their lifestyle, doing their best not to create trash, cause carbon dioxide emissions or pour toxins into the water supply and by buying only local produce.

The New Yorkers rode bikes to get places, walked up and down the nine flights of stairs to their apartment and cooked meals with food from a local farmers market. They also got rid of their television and bought no new clothes for themselves or their 18-month-old daughter Isabella.

Six months into the year, came the most dramatic step -- they switched off the electricity.

"It wasn't about being an environmentalist and then doing it. It was about just being a concerned citizen and stumbling forward," Beavan, author of two history books, said in an interview.

"We jumped in without knowing what we were doing," added Conlin, a writer for BusinessWeek.

Beavan has described his experiences in a book, "No Impact Man." A documentary of the same name, directed by Laura Gabbert and Justin Schein, will be released in the United States this month.

"Just doing a little bit is not actually enough," said Beavan, who also blogged about his year-long experiment. "If we are essentially going to change the planet ... we have to consider changing our way of life."

Greenhouse gases emitted by burning coal, oil and gas are warming the planet. Governments are due to meet in December in Denmark to agree a new U.N. climate. The hope is to avoid some of the more drastic effects of global warming which include more droughts, floods and the spread of diseases.

"HIDDEN JOYS"

Beavan and Conlin began their experiment in late 2006 and soon attracted media interest. But along with the attention came criticism that the project was just a stunt.

"It can be perceived as a stunt, but truthfully in some ways that's part of the communications strategy to get people interested (in the issue of climate change)," Beavan said.

"A more honest title for Beavan's book would have been 'Low Impact Man,' and a truly honest title would have been 'Not Quite So High Impact Man,' the New Yorker magazine said in a review which accused Beavan of "cooking up" the project with his agent.

"Even during the year that Beavan spent drinking out of a Mason jar, more than two billion people were, quite inadvertently, living lives of lower impact than his," wrote Elizabeth Kolbert.

"Most of them were struggling to get by in the slums of Delhi or Rio or scratching out a living in rural Africa or South America. A few were sleeping in cardboard boxes on the street not far from Beavan's Fifth Avenue apartment."

The couple said the year was hard because U.S. culture is not equipped to support sustainable living.

But the project produced "hidden joys." While Conlin at first resented her husband for not letting her use the dishwasher, she grew to love spending time with her daughter doing the dishes.

"I exchanged my addiction to screens and my high fructose corn syrup induced haze for eating really clean food and feeling good and having an intimacy with my family and friends," Conlin said.

Living with little impact was not only good for the planet, it was also good for their bank account. Conlin said the couple cut their discretionary spending by about 50 percent.

The couple still tries to live sustainably, although not as radically. They still ride bikes, but occasionally take taxis, and they still live without a dishwasher, freezer, clothes dryer and air-conditioner.

(Editing by Alan Elsner)

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