Wednesday, April 04, 2007

Zero Is the New Black

If you haven't already heard about NoImpactMan, you will. Colin Beavan, his wife and young daughter live in a small but swanky New York City apartment where they've been enjoying a very comfy, sophisticated urban lifestyle without giving any thought to how that lifestyle was affecting the environment. Now, in a fit of upper-middle class guilt, they've decided to give it all up (except for the apartment - whaddayou, nuts?) during a year-long experiment to reduce their impact on our planet's resources to the absolute minimum, thus the moniker, "NoImpactMan."

Their plan is a radical effort to cut back gradually to the bare essentials required to survive in the city and it's caused quite a stir on-line and in the press. Is it possible to live in a major metropolitan area without creating trash, eating only locally grown organic food, using no subways or cars, no elevators, buying nothing in plastic packaging, watching no television, and much more (or much less)? Controversy rages on numerous websites and within the comments on the NoImpactMan blog: Is this the noble experiment of a modern-day Thoreau or nothing more than a physically demanding publicity stunt? Is there a contradiction between trying to have no impact while simultaneously filming a documentary, planning to publish a book, as well as using a computer to blog regularly? And, let's get right to the most often asked and debated question: How (and why) does one survive without toilet paper?

The personal hygiene issue I addressed on this blog in a lengthy response to a comment on my "Ethical Spending" post in which I was introduced to NoImpactMan. Suffice it to say that I am not in favor of any choice that jeopardizes one's own health, that of others in the family, and perhaps the larger society in the name of "simplifying" life. Sometimes progress is just fine with me, thank you, with or without impact.

But I'm always fascinated by the questions raised by people willing to push the concept of minimalist living to the extreme. Exactly what would we be willing to give up if we felt it would help sustain the Earth? How do the realities of city living affect our decisions? How do we determine what areas of sustainable living are our personal responsibilities and what areas are corporate or government responsibilities? When does righteous protest against consumerism tip over the edge into slightly loony behavior that makes even the most devoted environmentalists cringe? These are questions worth pondering.

Amidst all the brouhaha surrounding NoImpactMan, what I consider to be the most encouraging response is the subject of a commentary by marketing expert Seth Godin on his blog. "Zero is the new black," he pronounces. It's simply no longer cool to live large and have too much stuff. As people become more aware of the significance of the choices they make, the more absurd some of those choices seem. We know that people may not always be motivated by social responsibility but they are quite reliably motivated by the cool factor. And once marketing and advertising get involved, you can bet your big old SUV that very soon, throughout our society, "more" will be "less."

Of course, for people living in homes still packed to the rafters with excess possessions, it's hard to imagine the changes the Beavan family has committed to make. Just creating some livable space is enough of a challenge. But by making a space livable, isn't that making a contribution to a sustainable culture? Okay, tossing out tons of trash is adding to the landfill, but we are all recycling whenever we can - aren't we? And what about all those donations of clothing, furniture, toys, dishes, collectibles? That's just recycling on a larger scale. More importantly, unburdening ourselves of all that unnecessary stuff and enjoying our new-found freedom will make us more thoughtful about our future purchases, most likely reducing them to what's necessary.

And that, of course, always leads us back to the main challenge: defining what is necessary. How much do we need to live? How much to live "comfortably?" Everyone will have a different answer to those questions, but they are the heart of the issue. As we already know, for most of us the honest answer will be: less. But now, less is not only more, as architect and designer Ludwig Mies van der Rohe famously said; finally, less is also cool.

(c) 2007 Cynthia Friedlob


Alex Fayle said...

You ask: what is necessary.

Technically, nothing is necessary. Everything is a choice. The first choice you make each day is the choice to live. Once you make that choice then you choose how to live and what to use.

The problem of overconsumption often happens when people stop consciously making choices about their lives and start making choices without thought or based on keeping up with the Joneses.

I very much enjoy reading your blog Cynthia and thanks for the recent visit to my own.


Cynthia Friedlob said...

Thanks for stopping by, Alex.

I agree completely with your comment. Blogging is a wonderful opportunity to spread the word about making conscious choices and I think people are beginning to understand that those choices are significant not only for themselves but for future generations.

Let's blog on!