No Impact Man: Leading a Green Life Inside a Gray Building

The documentary No Impact Man follows the story of a man who decides to create an experiment: Make the least possible ecological impact on earth. The catch is not in what he changes but in what he does not change—his address, in Manhattan, New York. His wife and daughter join the ride. They go vegan, cut electricity off, wash their clothes with their hands (and feet), walk the stairs to and from the 9th floor, stop drinking coffee, live without toilet paper, while recording their adventures in a blog.

Although the idea is ground-breaking, the execution goes on quietly. News media treat his experiment sensationally, but otherwise he lives an ordinary life, offering some insights along the way about healthier eating habits, more awareness about our ecology, etc. If a viewer is looking for a grand climax or a spiritual experience, he’ll get disappointed (I did – I admit).

But this documentary did one great job. It effectively killed our excuse for not taking up a radically eco-friendly life. When we hear about someone taking a big leap toward a greener lifestyle, we instantly react by saying No I Can’t, Because… followed by one or two pieces of “evidence” showing how impossible it is to ditch the way we live now. Like, We Need to Live in the City, implying that urban life and green life cannot co-exist.

Thanks to this film, we now have a strong counterargument: This guy did it in Manhattan. Ouch. Economically unpractical? His wife kept her job and supported the family. Not family-friendly? They had a toddler. Sure, the whole project was not practical, but it was proven to be doable. For this point alone, No Impact Man deserves to be listed in the Hall of Fame for Documentaries.

And yet, No Impact Man also shows the limitation of the current ecology movement. The results aren’t quantified. We cannot blame the documentary; we simply don’t have the means to measure our “greenness” yet. At least I haven’t heard of any.

We all know that we cannot solve a problem unless it becomes measurable. A good example is our diet. Although reducing our weight itself is hard, the methods are simple: take in less energy, or burn more energy. It is a zero-sum game played in a one-dimensional world.

But in case of ecology, we are playing in a two-dimensional, or even three-dimensional world. It is like trying to pull a thread out of a ball of strings. Every time we untangle a bit, we also tighten another bit, in an unexpected place. Nobody knows what is going on inside that huge ball, and everybody is secretly hoping for someone with a sword to cut the ball in half to end this endless game.

Let’s take chopsticks for example. If I stop consuming chopsticks, am I going to save one more tree in the Amazon jungle? How many trees? Or should I just switch to bamboo chopsticks to nurture the alternative industry to wooden chopsticks? Wait, I heard (at least in Japan) that we should use a certain brand of chopsticks which has a partnership with the domestic timber industry to use residual wooden chips, which in the long run discourages deforestation. The question goes around endlessly. A pair of chopsticks lead to global logistics, and then our thinking stops. Brain overloaded.

Can we create a model that measures our impact on this earth with reasonable accuracy, ease of use, and available for anybody with access to the Web? I think that’s the whole question.

* How could he blog without having electricity? Check the film. It’s one of the best parts.