Over the summer, I read a book called No Impact Man. It was written by a man named Colin Beavan, who one day made the decision to walk his environmentally-concerned liberal talk and actually attempt to live a sustainable and ethical life. For one year, he and his family devoted themselves to examining every facet of their New York City lifestyle and modifying it, so that they did not create more environmental harm than good. There are many reasons why this book made an impression on me and why I decided to host a related event, No Impact Week, at Williams later this month.
One reason is that this book is specifically looking to “engage people who are not already tree-hugging, bicycle-riding, canvas-bag-toting, eco-warriors.” Before the project, Beavan did not consider himself an environmentalist. He was concerned about environmental issues like climate change, but mostly, he was a writer living in New York who watched TV, ate greasy take-out pizza that came in throwaway cardboard containers and drank three or more Styrofoam cups worth of coffee daily. Embarking on the No Impact experiment marked Beavan’s decision, despite his lack of a crunchy, eco-warrior background, to rethink what he was and was not capable of doing with regard to living sustainably and to try to make a difference. His example is important, because too often it seems that we choose not to take action because we believe that we do not fit the description of an activist or a leader.
The part of this book that I want to direct the Williams community’s attention to the most, however, is how Beavan’s experience transcends the issue of sustainability. Ultimately, the depth to which Beavan was forced to go in examining his lifestyle caused him to confront much larger questions: “How should I live?” “What is truly important?” One line I loved from the book was, “My life itself is a resource. How shall I use it?”
At Williams, we do not take the time to reflect on questions like these. The enormous workload, athletic commitments and other extracurricular activities mean that we do not have much time to spare in the first place. Moreover, reflection can’t be fit into a daily scheduler. You cannot allot yourself a 30-minute period to “reflect” because being able to slow down your mind enough to develop your thoughts and come to deeper understandings of yourself and the world around you requires unstructured time that is free from the need to keep an eye on the clock.
When I arrived back in the U.S. after being abroad for six months, the first thing I noticed was our culture’s obsession with time and efficiency. Everywhere I looked, people walked faster, interacted with others more impatiently and seemed generally more stressed out. Moreover, coming back recently from spring vacation, I noticed in almost every response to the question, “How was your break?” my fellow students brought up homework and jobs and admitted that they were not as productive as they had hoped. These responses made it seem as if it were a source of shame that they had not spent more of their time off from school doing school work.
In one section of No Impact Man that discusses the environmental problem of waste and of “disposable” products, Beavan grapples with the philosophical underpinnings associated with waste: “For every task I need to accomplish there seemed to be some throwaway item I could buy to help get it out of the way. My whole life appeared to have turned into a moneymaking machine intended to buy more convenience, with the seeming purpose of getting my life out of the way.” He adds, “When was it that I began to believe that the most important thing about what I was doing was getting it over with?”
Our lives don’t begin after finishing our reading, getting in a workout or doing the laundry; they are happening right now, and those moments that we normally try to speed through are part of our lives, too. What if our focus wasn’t to strive to do everything as quickly as possible? Beavan decided to make his priority doing everything as sustainably as he could, but there are a multitude of ways you could go about refocusing your day-to-day life, like doing things thoroughly and giving each task your full attention rather than multitasking.
Before the No Impact project, Beavan was living an unexamined life. The project, he writes, became a way to dissemble this default life and put it back together in a manner that forced him to figure out the life that was meaningful and right for him.
My intent in coordinating a No Impact Week event later this month is for students to take a moment to consider their lives in this light. I remember during my First Days class meeting four years ago, when one of the speakers told us he hoped that we would use our time at Williams not only to learn how to make a living, but also how to make a life. This is an opportunity for members of the Williams community to take a step back from their focus on GPAs, resumés and internship opportunities and focus instead on the relationships, passions and larger issues facing the world, on the lives that they are consciously or unconsciously making every day.
Lexie Carr ’13 is a history major from Dedham, Mass. She lives in Susie Hopkins.