" I’ll be monitoring your frequency "
— Zoe Saldana, Star Trek

MRQE Top Critic

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In my movie world, only Will Smith and certain comic-book characters are capable of saving our beleagued planet. At least that’s what I thought until I saw the documentary, No Impact Man.

No Impact Man tells the story of Colin Beavan, a writer who decides that his family will do its part to spare the environment. Beavan tries to set an example by dropping off the power grid, a brave act that includes giving up the consumption of electricity and much else.

Their daughter had little choice but to do without the same things her parents had given up
Their daughter had little choice but to do without the same things her parents had given up

Now as much as I think we all should do more to curtail ravenous consumption of resources, I draw the line at doing without toilet paper. Beavan did not.

Roughly a week ago, I heard an interview with Beavan and his wife — journalist Michelle Conlin — on NPR. The interviewer asked about Beavan’s decision to flush toilet paper out of his life for a year. Conlin expressed her dismay that media types tend to fixate on the toilet paper issue, ignoring the larger purposes of the family’s environmental-friendly experiment.

Really? Look, I’ll try not to leave lights burning. I’ll curtail aimless driving. I’ll watch less TV. I’ll turn the thermometer down. I will not, however, stop using toilet paper because, among other things, I have no desire to simulate life in the 17th Century. Abandon two-ply? I’ll consider it. Substitute rags for paper. Not in this lifetime.

In addition to helping produce the documentary, Beavan has written a book about the year he spent conducting his experiment, sometimes in ways that frustrated Conlin. She found it difficult, for example, to abandon Starbucks, a sacrifice that wouldn’t bother me in the least, although I think I can say with some assurance that I’ve never used toilet paper in a Starbucks.

Conlin, of course, soldiered on, sticking with the program. The couple’s toddler daughter had little choice but to spend 2007 doing without the same things her parents had given up. The idea was to leave no carbon footprint, even a tiny one.

Directors Laura Gabbert and Justin Schein had full access to Beavan’s asceticism. He survived, and apparently learned that many of the things he thought essential were superfluous. I applaud his pluck, but wondered if Beavan weren’t trying too hard, perhaps for the sake of writing a book.

Nah, the guy had to be sincere. After all, he abandoned lots of amenities that make life in New York City tolerable: subways, elevators and air conditioning, for example.

But if Beavan meant to inspire the rest of us to consume less and be more conscious about the ways in which our choices impact the environment, the movie didn’t work — not for me anyway.

To me, Beavan’s sacrifices seemed like a self-inflicted ordeal. Watching No Impact Man wasn’t like reading Thoreau and wondering whether it’s time to head for the woods in search of transcendental liberation. No, the movie reminded me that even honorable intentions can be carried to lamentable excess.

And remember this: Viewing Beavan’s year-long efforts as idiosyncratic and marginal isn’t the same as wanting to despoil the environment. I’m betting even Al Gore uses toilet paper.

No Impact Man opens in Denver Sept. 25. It’s likely to stimulate lively post-movie conversation — pro and con regarding Beavan’s year of ecological experimentation.