Making the rounds on talk shows (Stephen Colbert, NPR, Good Morning America, etc.), author Colin Beavan soon recognizes and runs with the whole toilet-paper thing. As we read in his book, and see in its companion documentary, No Impact Man, his interviewers are obsessed with his shit.Give up toilet paper?!? How do you wipe your ass???Awkward giggling ensues. But really, Beavan's interviewers—and his online detractors—are obsessed with their own shit, both figurative and literal. As we see in the film, he does his best to laugh, smile, and go along with this potty discomfort. If his no-impact project was, for an entire year, to systematically reduce his Manhattan family's consumption, garbage, and carbon impact, then he has to accept TP mockery to promote his PC agenda. Once The New York Times wrote a lightly dismissive 2007 feature on the guy, he became an eco-celebrity and, paradoxically, a figure of cyber-derision from the left.But he also got a book and movie deal in the process—the second big reason he makes some liberals so peevish.First he dares to question our takeout food, our stacks of newspapers and magazines, and the hidden manufacturing costs of our iPhones. (What we can't see on the assembly lines and mining pits in China can't hurt us, right?) But we're busy media professionals! We've got blogs to write, planes to catch, kids to pick up at day care! The cup we chuck from Starbucks or (still functioning) old Sony we lug to the Goodwill depot—those are the discards of our go-go, active lifestyles. We've got to keep up with the latest new trend. Sometimes you have to buy yourself a new yoga outfit to motivate for the next morning's class.Beavan is media-savvy enough not to wave his finger or come across as a scold, either in this film or his book (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, $25), which carries the lengthy, self-inoculating subtitle "The Adventures of a Guilty Liberal Who Attempts to Save the Planet, and the Discoveries He Makes About Himself and Our Way of Life in the Process." You see? He's being lighthearted about things! Beavan goes to great lengths to present his project as one man's experiment—well, one family's experiment—not a prescription for the entire world.Yet Beavan's media splash, scattering drops of eco-guilt, has been received as a betrayal by his class. Meaning liberal, city-dwelling, highly educated, Prius-driving professionals who feel they're doing enough already. They voted for Obama, they try to shop local and organic, they recycle—who is this No Impact Man to shame them?To call Beavan's project a stunt, as The New Yorker's Elizabeth Kolbert has done, is obvious. He calls it that, too, in his book. He knows it's a clever, self-serving means of getting people talking; and in the film he wincingly reads some of the snarkiest comments from Gawker. He meets an online critic in person, and sort of wins her over. His wife, journalist Michelle, is leery of the project from the outset, and she remains our skeptical proxy for most of the film. Her vices—shopping, coffee, television—are our vices; and Beavan mostly wins her over, too. (An easier battle, granted, having already won her hand.)Yet the Manhattan media backlash continues. The book tour, the documentary, the planned feature adaptation—it's driving some critics crazy. Because what Beavan is telling us, really, is obvious. Is No Impact Man a landmark documentary? Is the book a Walden for our time? Not really. Both, in a modest, agreeable fashion, tell us what we already know: We buy too much, we waste too much, and we're using up resources disproportionate to our presence on the planet.Does that mean we should all live like eco-martyrs—without electricity, the Internet, or movies? On the contrary; Beavan doesn't want to renounce those things either. One of the unlikely lessons of his project is that it can actually be fun to live like Robinson Crusoe in the big city, to improvise one's way in the concrete jungle with cunning and second-hand materials. But Beavan also admits it's exhausting and time-consuming, which is why few will follow every step of his green path.And it's easier, after all, to make jokes about toilet firstname.lastname@example.org
No Impact Man Runs Fri., Sept. 25–Thurs., Oct. 1 at Varsity. Not rated. 90 minutes. Colin Beavan will also appear Friday at Roosevelt Whole Foods (12:30 p.m.) and University Book Store (7 p.m.), and attend screenings that night.