No Impact Man

For the first several years after  my family moved to Massachusetts in 1997,  New York became a place we passed through as we drove between our new home in Bridgewater and our relatives in Maryland. Sometimes these trips would include a stay near the scenic Hudson with our geographer friend Jeff, who is a planner for, well, Scenic Hudson. In more recent years, we have spent a lot more time exploring the center of the state, as we take our daughter to and from a camp in the Adirondacks. One of those outings, in fact, led me to post a Concept Cache about a coffee shop in rural central New York.

During all of this time, our visits to New York City have been relatively few, though we have enjoyed the visits when we have enjoyed The City (as it is often known) immensely when we have made the effort. The “effort” has to do with two main factors: expense and transportation. Both of these barriers can be lowered with a bit of ingenuity and experience, of course, but so far our visits have been very special treats. Recently, I watched the film No Impact Man as part of my wife Pamela’s Celebrating the States blogging project, and it led me to think critically about the role of New York City — and cities in general — in human-environment interactions.

In my course on the geography of environmental problems, I use Andrew Goudie’s Human Impact Reader anthology to help my students examine the spatial aspects of a variety of impacts humans have on the environment. In simple terms, the impact of humans on the environment can be summarized as I=PCT, which is to say that the human impact is a function of population, per-capita consumption, and the technology used for that consumption. As we read the anthology’s seminal scientific articles on a wide variety of human impacts — from coastal erosion and soil degradation to flash floods and climate change — I emphasize the spatial dimensions of each of these impacts.

No Impact Man — which should really be called No Impact Family — is the story of one year in the life of Colin Beavan, his wife, and their young daughter. As the title implies, the goal of the family’s year-long approach was to reduce their net impact on the environment to zero, by a combination of reducing negative impacts and increasing positive impacts, with an emphasis on pursuit of the former. Their effort leads to some important findings about the spatial dimensions one the other side of the equation. Specifically, how might high density mitigate or enhance the relative contributions of population, consumption, and technology?

In my earliest thinking about the environment, I viewed cities mainly as sources of environmental problems, given the high density of some sources of air and water pollution.  I have since learned that low density can also be problematic, as  suburban sprawl tends to increase the use of private vehicles, among other effects. From an environmental-impact perspective, the clearest advantage of urban density is the ability to reduce or eliminate automobile dependency and thereby eliminate a major source of climate-changing greenhouse gases. The Beavan family gave up airplanes and automobiles for the entire year, used trains only for long distances, and used walking and biking for almost all of their transportation needs. To do this while still enjoying access to many cultural, educational, and employment opportunities, it is almost essential to live in an urban place, where a great number of such opportunities can be found within a short travel distance.

In reducing their impact, the Beavins also focused a lot of their effort on food — growing some of their own and buying from nearby sources. The spatial dimensions of this are a bit more complicated. Food that is grown locally does not have to be transported very far, reducing the use of fossil fuels for transportation. Food that is grown organically does not require chemical inputs (and therefore eliminates chemical waste streams). Eating low on the food chain — that is, vegetarian or vegan — further reduces the use of both energy and chemicals. An advantage of pursuing these goals in an urban setting is that a critical mass of like-minded consumers can be found, creating enough demand for farmers from the region to supply urban farmers’ markets. Whether such efforts could ever be scaled up to supply the entire food needs of major metropolitan areas, however, remains to be seen.

Colin Beavan hopes to have an impact beyond the one-year experiment. His No Impact Man blog is an effort to build on the experience.

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