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No Impact Man and the Idiotocracy

On Tuesday night, I got to moderate a spirited Q&A at the Pelham Picture House with Laura Gabbert, co-director of the documentary No Impact Man (opening 9/11 at the Angelika), and Michele Conlin, wife of the film’s main subject, Colin Beavan. (She looms large in the movie as well.) I’m now reading Beavan’s book, which carries the chewy subtitle: “The Adventures of a Guilty Liberal Who Attempts to Save the Planet and the Discoveries He Makes About Himself and His Way of Life in the Process.” It’s an entertaining, amusing, provocative film (I’ll be reviewing it in next week’s mag), but one of its most fascinating aspects was, for me, upsettingly evocative. Beavan’s project — to live with his wife and young daughter in Manhattan and yet, for a year, never take an elevator or drive or watch TV or buy clothes or eat anything grown non-locally, etc. — makes him a figure of fun in the media and among his friends and acquaintances. Almost from the start he needs to defend his project — and himself.

That brings back a time. In the eighties, I shared an apartment in New York with my dear friend Bill McKibben, around the time he was getting in touch with his inner Thoreau. (He was also writing for The New Yorker and running a homeless shelter.) When his seminal book The End of Nature was published, it was no surprise to see it attacked by Rush Limbaugh, who called him “an environmental wacko.” (I imagine Limbaugh consumes more in a day than Beavan in a lifetime, and that his trips to the loo generate more methane than most dairy farms.) What was striking, though, was that Bill was also ridiculed by the then reliably snide New Republic and those fearless pseudonymous crusaders at Spy, who calculated the number of trees killed to print his book. (Ho ho ho, what a witty idea!) In other words, journalists who likely masquerade as progressives seemed to have a vested interest in knocking down a true idealist — calling him “sanctimonious” and “preachy.” (Later, an especially egregious fool at the Washington Post pretended to be a fan and then, in print, made fun of his clothes and the spare breakfast he ate.) Bill was, of course, way ahead on the issue of global warming, and from the start challenged us to “live more lightly on the Earth.” But to the mainstream media's idiotocracy, he was wide open. (Bill now works tirelessly with former Middlebury students on behalf of the earthwide carbon-emissions-reduction campaign 350.org. Click on the link and see what they’re doing.)

Something like that happens in No Impact Man, too. After a writer for the New York Times read Beavan’s blog and wrote a story, the headline was “A Year Without Toilet Paper.” How unhygienic! (A colleague of Conlin’s told her that his wife warned him not to shake her hand.) In the film, we see Stephen Colbert in his ironic right-wing blowhard persona refer to the non-consumer Beavan as an enemy of capitalism. That was hilarious — but watch, as No Impact Man opens in New York next week and then goes wide, how many people will ridicule Beavan as a “limousine liberal” or an “environmental wacko” or “sanctimonious.” They’ll make fun of his breakfast, too. Watch them fiddle while the planet burns.

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