“No Impact Man” – the heart of the problem

I had been following Colin Beaven’s blog for a while, before I picked up his book: No Impact Man. Both tell the story of him working toward having no environmental impact on the planet. He does this over the course of a year while living in NYC with his wife and young daughter. Along the way they stop using paper (even napkins at restaurants), eat only local food, and eventually switch off the power. His aim was not necessarily to live this way forever, nor start a movement of city dwellers who live completely without modern conveniences. Rather he doesn’t want to be another person waiting to see what might curb waste and help the environment, but to go “stumbling forward and beginning to try to make a difference.” [p68]

This is what is truly inspiring about his journey. So many of us see the problems in our lives and society. But rather than doing something we throw our hands up when there is no easy solution and remain troubled, hoping someone else will show us the way. But Colin, seeing the problem without the solution, was willing to commit to eliminating the conveniences of the problem, and struggle through the solutions. What is encouraging is that, though difficult, the new way of life proved to be better in so many essential ways.

The extra time spent in biking to work and taking the stairs was gained back with health and vitality. The convenient entertainment of television when abandoned was replaced by meaningful conversation and new closeness with friends and family. Likewise the extra labour of cooking and cleaning brought more opportunities to come together. Taking a step back he found “we’re too busy for love because we’re working to get the stuff that the ads say will bring us love.”

There is one point, though, that I must disagree with the author on. Through the book he expresses an optimism for human nature. He does not believe that we are driven first by selfishness, but that “most of us, in our hearts, want peace and harmony for ourselves and for everyone else.” [p64]  At our core we are all driven to do good. The problem with this belief is it begs the question, if we all want to do good and “believe that we should take good care of the planet,” then why are we in this mess in the first place? We are all aware in some part of the consequences of our actions, so if we all are basically good why don’t we start working toward changing our actions?

He points to the fact that most of us love our children and want to be polite to our neighbors, but I was reminded in Sabbath school yesterday how deceptive these outward actions can be. The story was told of an ADRA worker in Rwanda; one of the few who stayed behind throughout the genocide. Before things got bad he felt absolutely safe there. He could let his children roam and forget about them because the neighbors would not harm them, and would even care for them and teach them. He was in the company of many good people. Yet when the president’s plane was shot down and selfishness was unleashed the paper would say each morning “8,000 people died last night,” “8,000 people died last night,” “8,000” people died last night.” Day after day, again and again and again.

This is not to call Colin’s mission hopeless, but to point out the real problem. Though no where near the magnitude, we see the same root of selfishness that lay hidden in the safe streets of Rwanda in the responses to his project. His wife gets mad at times how her husband’s project is inconveniencing her. His sister calls him up angrily over the phone to tell him he’s “ruined [her] baby shower” with his travel limitations. [p83]  Even Colin gets angry that “everybody else [was] allowed to have what they want but not [him].” [p69]

His family we can understand. They are close to him, and his personal decisions have the greatest effect on them. And thankfully they do come around, realizing what’s important. But what is most surprising, and strikes at the heart of his argument, is how friends of a common mindset also get angry. If friends who believe the same way about our environmental problems, yet are far enough removed to be unaffected personally by his actions get angry, what hope is their that the goodness of our hearts will drive us to solve these problems?

One such friend who had the presence of mind to consider his rash reaction explains the heart of it so well:

We’re all in a fragile state of denial. We all know on some level that people elsewhere are starving to death and don’t know where dinner is coming from. Meanwhile, we go and spend ten dollars on a CD that we will listen to maybe three times. That same ten dollars could have saved someone’s life.

We all know this and we don’t know what to do about it and then this dumb No Impact project comes along and shakes us up and makes us remember, and then our fragile denial comes tumbling down and we feel guilty and our first reaction is to feel angry and irritated with the person who has made us feel that way. [p183]

At the heart of the problem is our selfishness. We may not be robbing and murdering outright, but we choose ease over aid, and convenience over change. Pollution, hunger, war, these things are just the symptoms of the problem of a selfish heart. If it were true that people at their core were good and waiting to do good, we would only need to inform them of how to do good and they would move. But as Colin’s experience reveals, people needed to be confronted with their selfishness and choose to abandon it for a better way.

Unfortunately people do not always choose the better way. In the life of Christ we see the responses to the unveiling of selfishness. Some in the light of his unwaivering selflessness are humbled and respond with selflessness in kind. Some are ashamed, but not enough to change. Others, horrified that their true character has been exposed, seek to blot out the source of revelation, putting Christ on the cross.

To fight against selfishness is challenging and can even turn dangerous. But in the end it is the only work that can have the hope of turning people from wrongdoing. And its impact will be further reaching than tackling one symptom at a time. If we convince a selfish man to stop being so wasteful, he will become a friend to the environment because he is convinced it is in his own best interest. But if he gains the spirit of selflessness he will not only be a friend to the environment, but to the needy in his community, and those in his home. This work will have the greatest impact on future generations, and this one also.


4 Responses to ““No Impact Man” – the heart of the problem”

  1. 1 Annie
    February 14, 2012 at 11:19 pm

    I really have started to walk away from the whole selfish/selfless dichotomy. I think it is a false choice. I don’t think I can care for myself without caring for others, nor can I care for others without caring for myself. I think our society is confused between caring for yourself and harmful self-indulgence. The harmful self-indulgence we see in people (be it over eating, or wasteful living) is sometimes a coping mechanism so they can mask the basic discomfort they have with themselves. However if I truly care for myself in the right ways I both make choices as a consumer which benefit myself and others, and I gain the kind of self esteem which allows me to trust myself enough to help others. I did write a lot more but I have a habit of tackling to many issues at once. So I will just put this out there and see how you respond.

    • 2 rcmosher
      February 16, 2012 at 8:55 am

      I think in some ways this is just a difference of semantics. What I call selfishness does not really benefit oneself in the long run, but is motivated by personal interest, albeit misguided. So if you truly sought your self-interest you would do something not labelled “selfish.”
      I like to be careful with the idea of properly caring for oneself to care for others. If we truly did what was best for us it would lead us to be more generous and caring, but to the harmfully self-indulgent, a call to proper self-care will often be interpreted as a need to be even more harmfully self-indulgent. Presenting “selflessness” as a means to benefit ones self helps lead back to this harmful thinking
      Patience is also important. When self-indulgence fails, there is a need of willingness to struggle through the difficulties of change, rather than returning to the quick fix of indulgence while knowing in the back of the mind it will fail again. Ignorance that good things come out of effort is a lesson that far too often goes unlearned.

      • 3 Annie
        February 19, 2012 at 9:28 am

        As a teacher I often ask my student to do things which they interpret in entirely different ways, and sometimes don’t understand altogether. I don’t know how “Go to your seats,” gets interpreted as “Wander aimlessly around the room” but in first grade it happens. People are going to interpret what we say through their own filters. Yes, I agree that some have taken the message of self-care and interpreted it as a license to self-indulgence. People have also taken the idea of being selfless to mean self-denigration and self-abuse. I hope that my students will become better listeners overtime, and I hope that people in general will start really listening to the needs of our planet. But people are going to do what they want to do and hear what they want to hear. Still, I think it’s worthwhile to try and educate others but I can’t do this effectively unless I am working on myself as well.

        I agree with you that effort and patience are practices that many in our society have lost. The problem of how we build those practices back up is a difficult question to answer, not only for society but for myself.
        Asian societies are often better at teaching their children the values of hard work and persistence, but they have high suicide rates too. Right now many educators are thinking about how to build these values back into the school system. I try and praise my children for being hard workers more than for being smart. I want them, especially the girls, to know that even when something is tough for them, if they work hard they can do it. Too often children are told they are smart, then fall into despair when things become difficult for them. In addition they say the way we surf the web is chaining our brains, making it more difficult for people to concentrate on long term tasks. How is this going to effect my students as they grow?

        As you know, we don’t magically become patient and persistent when we come into a faith. It takes time, and effort. For me, part of learning to become patient has been learning not to give into despair. When I despair I am way more likely to return to my own self-indulgent habits to comfort myself. I am learning to be more patient with myself, and to value myself more. The phrase, “I am worth the effort.” has been a kind of mantra for me. This doesn’t mean I avoid things which are out of my comfort zone, or only try to change in ways that are easy for me. It just means, that when I do take on a challenge I trust myself more to see it through and am less prone to despair when there are setbacks.

        Well, you can tell I have a four day weekend by the length of this comment. We elementary school teachers have to seize on moments of contemplation when we get them, otherwise the extent of my moral and ethical discussions are “No, the bathroom is not a playground.” and “Stop chewing on your pencil.”

      • 4 rcmosher
        March 8, 2012 at 9:07 pm

        “I try and praise my children for being hard workers more than for being smart.” I think that sentiment hits the nail on the head. What are the goals we are setting for people? I always think about the stories from law schools where students get ahead by ripping pages out of the only copy of a book necessary for the test so they’ll set the curve. If behavior like that is rewarded then we train them to do whatever it takes to get ahead, rather than to do what’s right whatever the circumstances.

        Unfortunately so many of us need to be reeducated out of thinking what’s fast, what’s easy, what gets me ahead of others, etc. is what’s best. I’m glad you’re taking thought of how to educate your kids of how to be good people, not just successful.

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