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Q & A with Colin Beavan aka No Impact Man: Saving the World to Save Ourselves

Tamar Samir
July 13, 2011
Tamar Samir
Written by
July 13, 2011

In November 2006, Colin Beavan (aka No Impact Man) and his family began a yearlong experiment in living a zero-waste lifestyle in New York City. Colin's experiment became the subject of his provocative, award-winning blog, his book No Impact Man: The Adventures of a Guilty Liberal Who Attempts to Save the Planet, and the Discoveries He Makes About Himself and Our Way of Life Along the Way and a Sundance-selected documentary by the same name. Colin’s story provided a narrative vehicle by which he could attract broad public attention to the range of pressing environmental crises including: food system sustainability, climate change, water scarcity, and materials and energy resource depletion.

MBG: You have been a practitioner of Zen for over 13 years. How does your Zen practice intersect with, or influence your environmental practices?

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CB: In all the great religions, there are guidelines for ethical behavior (which we wouldn’t need if we were all centered in our practice, all the time). These guidelines help us when we get caught up in worldly affairs and veer temporarily away from our practice. In Christianity and Judaism, it’s the Ten Commandments. In Buddhism, it’s the Five Precepts. They have great similarities–don’t kill, don’t lie, don’t steal. In Buddhism, the “don’t steal” is phrased as “I vow not to take that which is not freely given”. 

Funnily enough, we don’t keep these precepts for the sake of other people. We keep them for ourselves. Think of your mind like water. If you keep the precepts, the water doesn’t get agitated, it can become still. When your mind is not encumbered by conflict and agitated thoughts, you have a chance of discovering your self, your true nature and purpose.

If we use oil that we have to fight wars for, than the oil is not freely given. And if when we burn the oil, it causes the habitat that we depend upon to lose its balance, then it’s not freely given. If you know that it’s not freely given and you take it anyway, then it takes your peace away. To live a life not in integrity with your values is not peaceful. In some ways, I would say that we (myself included) are living a way of life that is disturbing to us all. If we want peace, we have to live a peaceful life.

What advice do you offer to people who want to start living in an environmentally conscious way, but feel that they don’t know how?

To live environmentally is context sensitive. It depends on what you do now, and where you live. I generally tell people to look at their own lives, and ask themselves how not living environmentally is causing them distress or unhappiness.

If you’re veering towards obesity or have high cholesterol, don’t eat beef, because it’s bad for the planet and bad for you. If you have pocketbook problems, then stop drinking bottled water. If you need more exercise, start riding your bike. But those are simple things.

If you’re really sincere, then it’s time to start asking the question: who are you, and what’s the truth about yourself, and are you living a life that’s in integrity with yourself? Do you do things at work that you don’t believe in? Do you carry your values into work, or do you tell yourself “that’s just business, it doesn’t count”. Are you living in integrity with your values? If we’re not, it will cause us to be unhappy, and to be spiritually disturbed. It will cause our communities and our habitat to be disturbed. So the question to ask ourselves is: what can we do to bring ourselves in line with our values?

You’ve said: “being optimistic is the most radical political act there is”. How do you sustain your optimism and drive as an activist?

If you’re pessimistic about change, then you don’t take any sort of action. Being pessimistic is to be conformist, the opposite of radical.

If you live a life according to stories that you tell yourself, and you’re concerned about the problems of the world, sooner or later, instead of living in the moment, the story you’ve told yourself will calcify. Then you live in the miserable story that you’ve told yourself about the world, (“the world is a terrible place, we’re doing terrible things to the planet each other, nothing will ever change”) instead of actually living in the world. If you live in that calcified version of the world, your energy will burn out.

If you live in the moment and you pay attention, then right now there’s actually a cool breeze blowing in through the window, and a beautiful little girl sleeping upstairs, and my friend sitting on the couch next to me. And everything is just like this. Moment to moment you see the world for what it is and you pass through heaven and hell and all the stages in between. When moments come when it’s time to help, you just help. When helping time is over and fun time comes, you have fun. When fun time is over, and sleep time comes, then you sleep.

They say that a peaceful mind, makes a peaceful man, a peaceful man makes a peaceful family, a peaceful family makes a peaceful village, makes a peaceful region, makes a peaceful country, makes a peaceful world. To do any kind of work in this area, you have to work on finding a peaceful mind, otherwise what you manifest in the world will reflect your non-peaceful mind.

If you make an enemy of the people you consider to be enemies of the environment, then you’re perpetrating war. How can you find a way to be at peace with the way the world is, so you don’t do violence against yourself and you don’t do violence against the world? Instead, treat the world with love and compassion. If you can find that (and I’m not saying that I always do) then you can sustain yourself,

There’s plenty to be grateful and happy for. If there wasn’t, what would be the point of saving the world?


Colin Beavan will speak at Jivamukti Yoga School on Tues, July 19 at 8pm. The talk titled “Saving Ourselves to Help the World; Saving The World to Help Ourselves” is by donation, with all proceeds going to Beavan’s non-profit The No Impact Project.

Jivamukti teachers Tamar Samir and Ximena Savitch will lead No Impact Week, a one-week carbon cleanse, inspired by the book and film No Impact Man. at Jivamukti July 24-31. Free.

More info on both events here.

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Tamar Samir author page.
Tamar Samir

Tamar Samir is a designer, an environmental activist, and a longtime professor at Parsons School of Design in NYC. In association with The No Impact Project, Tamar has lead No Impact Weeks, weeklong ‘carbon cleanses’ that empower citizens to make choices which better their lives and lower environmental impact.