The title refers to his yearlong effort to drastically curtail the earthly footprint of his family, and the film is one result of that effort. I saw it in August at a preview, and though it ain't the best film I've ever since (there's your ad copy tagline: "'it ain't the best film I've ever seen.' -- Michael Prager, michaelprager.com") I do recommend it without reservation.
Though Beavan carries the narrative, the star of the film is his wife, Michelle Conlin, a BusinessWeek magazine writer who is taken along on his ride, not entirely enthusiastically. In the course of the year, she goes from reluctant whiner ("I can't eat anything that tastes good.") to transformed planet citizen ("My worldview has been totally flipped on its head. I'm rethinking everything about what's important.)
That's what changing just one thing, then another, can — will — do for most people willing to take that first action, and is a reason to hope that widespread change is possible from small beginnings. Just recycling the newspapers, by itself, won't save the planet. But I know that when I did a few things, my outlook starting changing, and I became curious about what else I could do. That's what happened with Conlin, too.
Beavan also changes over the year, but his is a less even arc. Just about the first view of him is of an anguished guy fretting that "we're cutting down too many trees." (Apart from legacy forests, we're actually better off with a growth/harvest cycle, but that's a tangent I'll forgo for now.)
In midstream, when they unplug the electricity, he starts losing his mojo: "It's stupid. Who's going to do that? ... It's just going to be another irrelevant book," for which he needs his wife's bucking up.
By the end, he's sanguine again, concluding that "the most radical political statement is to be an optimist" and averring that the one thing for people to do (if they're looking for one thing) is to volunteer for a grassroots environmental group, which will not only address the issue, but also promote community.
Community, of course, is at the core of the locavore movement. It not only cuts down on food-miles, a very significant contributor to one's carbon footprint, but it's also investing in the local economy, meeting neighbors at farmers' markets, buying from growers rather than grocery workers. (It's just different — walking from booth to booth, grower to grower, outdoors, among like-minded customers — than at a supermarket. That has been doubly clear at the Seattle farmers' markets I've been to this month — they're busy, thrilling, fulfilling places.)
Not all of the family's forays work out, but that's part of the entertainment. They live in New York City, which leaves vermiculture as their composting option, which brings them bugs. They try a pot-in-pot method for refrigeration that attempts to cool with moisture, but it fails utterly. Then they get a cooler for which Conlin "mooches ice" from a neighbor, a method that keeps their pain without the planet's gain. Beavan and daughter Isabella do laundry in the bathtub by walking on it — a la grape stomping —and Conlin is aghast. Ever the sport, she climbs in, but complains it's cold and not at all fun.
Vacations, essentially, are out, since most travel is carbon-intensive, but they do decide to take a train upstate for a few days on Hawthorne Valley Farm. Before leaving, Conlin is again uneager in extreme, but the experience is a turning point: "There's no going back," she says. "This is for our family, not just the project." She muses that her grandparents were homesteaders, and says "I feel like I got to reconnect with something."
It's not just with her lineage. Going without electricity means they are more in rhythm with the sun. Going without imported foods means they are in rhythm with agricultural seasons. Getting around on bicycles puts them more in connection with the streetscape they live amongst.
At the end of their year, the family has changed, though they are not unrecognizable. They are delighted to have electricity back — so would I be! — but they decide to keep a number of strategies.
Though I think the film could have benefitted from a bit tighter editing — I found myself wishing for the end just a bit before it arrived — I did see experiences of mine mirrored in their experience, and I was entertained, informed, and surprised.
I do have a quarrel with the title, though: Beavan clearly had an impact, on himself, his family, in his circle, an influence that no doubt will continue via the film. That impact may not yet extend to climate change itself — an individual can only do so much — but who knows where little changes lead.
Beavan will be at the Boston Public Library on Tuesday, the 6th, from 6 to 7:30. He and David Owen, author of "Green Metropolis," will each speak for about 15 minutes, followed by questions and signings. Beavan will also lead a Q&A following the 7:15 showing of the film at the Kendall.