The man of the documentary No Impact Man is Colin Beavan, the guy who came up with the arguably naïve idea for his family to live a year in New York City with as little environmental impact as possible. But the star of the film is his wife, Michelle Conlin, a senior writer at Business Week, whose candid bitching about not being able to consume (meat, coffee, clothing, TV) provides the film with a welcome dose of humor. Conlin spoke to Mary Kaye Schilling.
How much convincing did it take to agree to a year that would make Little House on the Prairie seem decadent?
Colin claims I was reading a book when he asked me and I barely looked up. But honestly, I didn’t know what I was getting into. I was excited that he was so excited. And I had just seen An Inconvenient Truth, so the groundwork was laid. It didn’t take a lot of convincing. I had a concern that it would be perceived as wacko. What I got to learn by being inside of this experiment was that it is extremely valuable to drop out of the culture, to stop listening to it, and redesign our lives. You know the Slow Food movement? I felt like No Impact was the Slow Life movement.
You have a great line about having to say good-bye to the person who wants things.
There was this weird period in the beginning when the muscle or the impulse to be a consumer died, and it really did feel like there was a vacancy. It was sad—I had been a voracious consumer. But then new things filled it that were better and made me happier, like spending a lot of time together as a family. In many ways, it was the perfect preparation for the post-subprime era because it got me off the stuff treadmill. And I have to tell you that I really miss that year. I’m kind of shocked by the joy it brought me.
You got a lot of criticism—some of it quite vicious, especially from bloggers.
At the time, it really devastated me. I hadn’t developed a thick skin about it.
What sparked the most controversy?
We got so much flak over [not using toilet paper] that Colin won’t discuss it anymore, and I don’t want to reignite the whole thing. But there are things you can do—like a jerry-rigged bidet that more than half the world lives with.
There’s a scene of the three of you [including daughter Isabella, 3] stomping your laundry in the bathtub. Is that honestly how you did it for a year?
I have to say that Colin washed the clothes. And he made me my vegetarian lunch every day and I came home to beautiful meals at night, all prepared with locally grown food. I’ve never eaten better! I have to give it to him for being the perfect 1900s housewife.
Has No Impact stuck?
I still ride my bike everywhere. I eat meat only once a week. I’ve certainly purchased things since we stopped. A material object can still put a song in my heart, but I’m not as bad as I was.
Are you drinking coffee?
Totally [laughs]. I’m a heavy, heavy abuser.