Living no Impact?
Seminar: 'Governing Sustainable Cities'
University of Potsdam, Winter-Term 2012/2013
My first statement concerning the documentary 'No Impact Man', and the various possibilities to adopt this kind of radical environmentalism is very crucial. I am convinced, that even the Beavan-family - regardless of how far-reaching their efforts are - does not live without leaving an impact on the environment, as they still too heavily rely on the industrialized society they live in to actually be able to realize their experiment. Every kind of consumption - e.g. the food (even from the market for local organic goods) and cooking it; their bicycles; their clothes; their candles - causes environmental impacts. The sole way to nearly achieve living a 'no impact'-way would be living in complete autarky (not necessarily isolated from other human beings), which is quite unrealistic but still possible, as some people really do live that way.
Even before the industrialisation mankind left a remarkable impact for example in terms of methane-emissions, as research recently acknowledged after having analysed samples of Greenland's permanent ice1. So the title of the documentary or the question of this assigment rather should rather be modified to radically minimising human impact. However, even if the Beavan-family depends on the society of producers and consumers around them or on the media to spread the message in order to raise awareness of the issue, there are quite a lot of possible and positive attempts and approaches in the film, which could be applied in common everyday life.
For me personally, living in Berlin, there are promising opportunities to copy some of the steps of the phases presented in the documentary. As I am a country-bred person coming from a family owning a horticultural farm, which is surrounded by a bit of (nearly farm-) land and two quite large greenhouses, I feel like having a solid background to compare city to country life regarding their respective advantages and disadvantages. So the point I mentioned above - staying dependent on the society around you - is valid in a different perspective, too. Berlin, having a relatively big creative and partly alternative-thinking share of its population, offers the chance to cooperate with similar-minded people. While, in theory, there would be no big problem to live vegetarian in the city or in the country in order to resign from being a client of the meat-(and GHG-) producing industry, it already becomes more complicated, if one tries not to purchase new things. Regardless of being able to repair technical items or damaged clothing, which is possible in both locations, a city like Berlin has far more creative projects for e.g. exchanging things like flee-markets or second hand-shops to buy and sell used products. Furthermore, similarities exist for the attempt to live without electricity produced by burning fossile ressources and for the issue of waste-reduction. This can be realized without having to install your own solar cells, as providers offer green energy-tariffs, guaranteeing the delivery of emission-free electricity. Still, by contracting with these companies, one supports an economic actor which largely relies on a more classical energy-delivery. Actually the four big providers of electricity in Germany (even if they offer green energy) run nuclear-, coal- or gas-plants as well. So, supporting these companies by being their client strengthens them to go on with their everyday-business, changing only slowly and incrementally.
Moreover, the Beavan-family clearly shows, that one can live in a city without creating new waste by avoiding wrapped products and by running your own compost for organic waste. This effort can be reproduced in the city and in a small village. In the case of Berlin, one could shop at local markets that provide more or less local food and one could easily copy the compost shown in the documentary. In the country there are even farmers and local producers of goods left in the village I come from. Compared to shopping at Berlin markets, there would be really few emissions generated by consuming their products. Moreover, my family owns some big fruit-bearing trees and the greenhouses, which even could assure gradual autarky in terms of growing our own vegetables. The organic waste could actually be used to (re-)fertilize the soil. Regarding aspects of cooperation and the diffusion of ideas and life-styles to other individuals, we could even sell or trade home-grown vegetables and fruits from the big family-garden and the greenhouses.
To sum it up - living 'no impact' seems to be easier in a city on the one hand, in consideration of mutual assistance and cooperation, but on the other hand, country-life facilitates aspects of autarky and the achievement of reducing emissions of greenhouse-gases close to zero. This leaves a mixed account, and the hypothetically best practice might be realized by living in a country-like residence on the outskirts of a big city to be capable of combining the advantages and minimizing the disadvantages related to the respective location. Basically, an individual could proceed through all phases as the Beavans did, too. However, a possibility to produce your own food seems to be the most promising single aspect of minimizing environmental impacts. Except for urban gardening projects, a city offers only few possibilities to achieve this capability. Mr. Beavan, being an author, seems to be able to live on documenting his experiment and experiences. Moreover, his wife has a regular job. Living 'no impact' as shown in the documentary is very time-consuming and mostly hard to combine with a regular employment, which demands for a regular life-style - making it your profession seems to be a solution for this dilemma. Having the capacity to produce (and therefore to trade or sell) your own agricultural products, thereby promoting your idea, raising awareness and triggering a behavioural change of the people around you seems to be a key to success and to make the experiment itself long-lasting and sustainable.
In his interview with New York Public radio, Colin states, that he didn't want to wait for politicians and big companies to improve the situation, but rather start individually. There can be no doubt, that first steps towards more sustainable consumption and living in general have to be taken on a micro-level. Without individuals changing their attitudes and behaviour there is no incentive for the market to react, and there are no electoral costs for politicians who refuse to take these changes into account. Peer group-diffusion seems to be the key-factor - not only to spread a certain way of thinking and acting more consciously and sustainably, but also to create social movements and to convince decision-makers or even to create new political parties. It's hardly imaginable, that it could work the other way around - a politician announcing major changes in environmental policy without an obvious need or a public demand.
The case of Germany and its Green Party seems to be a good example for this simplification. The political institutionalisation of the environmentalist- and peace-movements of the late 1970s2 led to competition among established parties with the result, that even the conservatives3 and liberals4 have developed environmental agendas or that conservatives and social democrats form coalitions with the Green Party. Even the neo-fascist party argues with environmental issues in order to protect the German populace5. The first federal secretary for environmental protection in the 1980s, Klaus Töpfer, was a member of the conservative party. Nowadays, a conservative chancellor is responsible for the shutdown of nuclear power plants (in response to potential electoral costs in the aftermath of the disaster in Fukushima), a Green prime-minister governs the economically important state of Baden-Württemberg (in reaction to the infra-structural project Suttgart 21 and protests against it) and the former working-class-party SPD (with related interests in the protection of industrial interests) is the favourite partner of the Greens. Ideas and opinions, formerly advocated by individuals forming movements with their peers and institutionalising and establishing these movements, have been literally disseminated throughout the whole political sphere. Of course, this establishment does not occur without compromises and trade-offs, which can be criticized from the standpoint of radical environmentalism, as it is supported by authors like Timothy Luke (2008).
 One could consider examples like the German participation in the Kosovo-War during the term of the socialdemocrat-green coalition, or more recently and locally the conservative-green coalition in the State of Hamburg which planned a new power-plant running on coal.
1 DER SPIEGEL (44/2012) - Wissenschaft / Technik: Erderwärmung. Antike Klimasünder, S. 114.
2 http://www.gruene.de/partei/30-gruene-jahre-30-gruene-geschichten/30-gruene-jahre-1-gruendung-der-gruenen.html (access 14.12.2012)
3 http://www.cdu.de/politikaz/umwelt.php (access 14.12.2012)
4 http://www.fdp.de/Umweltpolitik/345b127/index.html (access 14.12.2012)
5 NPD (2002): Aktionsprogramm für ein besseres Deutschland, URL: http://www.npd.de/inhalte/daten/dateiablage/Aktionsprogramm.pdf (access 14.12.2012)