‘No Impact Man’ – or was that ‘No Impact Family’?

‘No Impact Man’ is yet another one of those projects where someone stops/starts doing something for a year – you might cynically say with the aim of getting a book deal/film. This latest example of the genre, dubbed “annualism”, follows husband Colin Beavan, with his wife Michelle Conlin and their daughter, in a year of reducing their environmental and social impact to zero (or at least, attempting to).

Grist has an interesting review of the film up, about how the title of the project ‘No Impact Man’, kind of erases the fact that this is a project drew the whole family into it, and actually it was Conlin who, in their terms, was the “star of the show”. In the trailer, above, Conlin repeatedly draws attention to how she’s been – somewhat unwillingly – pulled along for the ride. And, as Grist says:

While Beavan gets all the attention and the superhero nickname, his wife and their 2-year-old daughter, Isabella, are dragged along for the un-motorized ride.

Ironically, Grist point out that Conlin, despite being uncredited, and not being the one who gets a book deal, film deal or blog, actually makes the film a lot more interesting:

Beavan, despite his claims that he was a do-nothing liberal, seems like he was just waiting for a reason to build a kitchen compost bin, mix up natural cleaning supplies, start buying groceries at the Union Square farmers market, etc, etc. The movie shows him reflecting on and defending the project, it shows him visibly losing weight over the year, but you don’t really see him struggle.

Conlin is more sympathetic because she misses coffee and tires of eating local root vegetables. She thinks, understandably, that a year is a long time to go without buying new clothes. While No Impact Husband devotes much of his day to cooking, cleaning, and making the experiment work, she keeps her day job. The filmmakers play up Conlin’s “espresso-guzzling, retail-worshipping” characterization, but it’s still clear this is difficult for her.

Although this is only a small point, it seems like an interesting example to me of everyday sexist language – actually Grist’s joking title “No Impact Husband” could have avoided this dilemma. But it’s also of course noteworthy that the film-makers appear to have recognised this, and used it in the editing process to show tension and make it more interesting.

On the other hand, the gender roles in the film also sound interesting: according to Grist, Beavan made this project, and (OK, taken to extremes) running the household, his full time career, while Conlin continued to work full-time as a Business Week reporter. One of the critiques of the various efforts to return to a less-resource-intensive way of life is that, because gender roles in different sex couples around housework and childcare have not shifted, they can tend to have a “woman, get back in the kitchen” subtext. These kind of projects might focus on the wider environmental and social impacts of life in a rich country, but do they focus on the ‘social impact’ inside the family – maybe it’s a bit more comfortable to look at the impact of your coffee consumption (and it’s unlikely that looking at the sustainability of said coffee consumption will consider the gendered impacts, incidentally), because it’s further distant, than it is to issues such as: is house work and child care divided equally in our house?

As Lisa Jervis said in a Salon interview this weekend,

I don’t think the solution to that is to stop trying to get people to cook. The solution is to make sure that the household work is distributed more equitably. And I say that with full understanding of how little things have changed since the ’70s, in terms of getting men to fucking do their share around the house. And I also think that it’s no accident that the kind of rarefied, chef-dominated cooking discourse that I was talking about earlier, that often makes people feel like they can’t cook rather than helping them feel that they can, is very male-dominated. Whereas the quotidian meal prep in this country is still mostly female-dominated. The feminist movement has generated a lot of good analysis around that. However, we have not moved the needle very much. I don’t have an answer for that.

And, of course, although it’s probably not the intention of these kind of projects, there is the question of whether they don’t set an unrealistic standard – most people don’t get their experiments in low-impact living supported by turning it into a career move, after all. Does it only further the stereotype that caring about or trying to change your individual way of living is somehow for middle class/wealthy professional white people? When really what’s needed is not for one family to make extreme changes, but for everyone – in rich countries – to make manageable changes?