No Impact Man (2009)

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We recycle. We carry our groceries in cloth bags. We shop local farmers’ markets. And we’ve even traded our traditional light bulbs for long-lasting, energy efficient spiral fluorescent bulbs. We do the best to reduce our carbon footprint and be more ecologically-sound. Still, we know we’re making an impact on our planet. Could we possibly make no impact?

Colin Beavan, a Manhattan-based writer, decided to become more “green” and lessen his family’s impact on the planet. In fact, he wanted to make no impact at all, thus becoming “No Impact Man.” Beavan began his experiment in 2006 and blogged about it soon gaining media attention from both the New York Times and Good Morning America. And his (and his very patient family) journey is captured in the Justin Schein and Laura Gabbert documentary No Impact Man.

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Beavan’s experiment went a bit further than most of us would be willing in the pursuit of making no impact. He and his family lived without electricity, public transportation, driving, television, toilet paper (yes, toilet paper) and new clothing other than the bare necessities. Beavan rode his bike everywhere, bought local produce at the farmers’ market, walked up countless stairs instead of taking the elevator and composted food scraps.

Along for the ride is Beavan’s wife, Michelle Conlin, and their adorable toddler, Isabella. Not surprisingly, Michelle is less than thrilled with her husband’s grand scheme. She’s a writer for Business Week, and is a girl with a yen for Starbucks and retail therapy. But she loves her husband, and figures she can do this experiment for a year even as she goes through serious caffeine withdrawal, and expresses her desire for another child.

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Not quite sure what he’s getting into, Beavan embraces his experiment with giddy zeal. Using no toilet paper? How exciting! And it’s not long before his blog gets media attention. Though some people find his experiment intriguing and inspiring, many write him off as an affront to capitalism, abusive towards his family and a smug, humorless yuppie. Or as Michelle plainly puts it, “They’re calling us bourgeois fucks.”

Beyond the media attention, things don’t always run smoothly. Beavan and his wife bicker about having another child. Milk gets spoiled when the family relies on using two clay pots for refrigeration. And remember, no toilet paper, which makes them subjects for ridicule.

But still, the family soldiers on in their quest to lessen their impact on the environment. It’s not long before they find out that some things about their experiment are pretty cool. They enjoy spending time at the park and riding their bikes together. Even an old-school games of charades turns out to be more fun than a night in front of the boob tube watching reality TV.

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No Impact Man can at times be exasperating (no toilet paper), but you can’t help but come away with some more awareness. It helps that Beavan (and his family) is rather likable, frustrating, yet likable. Sure, Beavan can be a bit rigid, but he’s no finger-wagging scold. He knows what he’s doing is experimental. Sure, Michelle whines at times (that must be the caffeine withdrawal), but she’s no bitchy shrew. In the end, you see a family that truly loves and appreciates each other, and you also learn a few things. Shop at local farmers’ markets? Why yes. Stop using toilet paper? You’ll get my Charmin Double-Ply when you take it from my cold, dead hands.

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Food, Inc. (2008)

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You think food can’t be scary? Guess again. Food, Inc., the Oscar-nominated documentary, proves the food we put in our bellies can be more frightening than any ax-wielding horror flick bad guy.

Made by film maker Robert Kenner, Food, Inc. shows a disturbing and ugly vision of how food gets to our grocery stores. And it’s not the simple farmer who is providing us with our eggs, veggies, meats and grains. It’s huge corporations who are often very cozy with the government, and it’s profits that win out, not the well-being of the American citizens.

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The seemingly innocent vegetable, corn, is huge crop to agri-business. So we shouldn’t be surprised to find out that corn, especially the unhealthy high fructose corn syrup, is found in many of the things we eat. Sure, we expect it to be in our soda, but I certainly didn’t expect to find it in a loaf of supposedly good for me whole wheat bread. Corn is also the primary food source for animals like cows even though they are grass eaters. And why is corn such big business? It’s because it made cheap to produce by the government and therefore very profitable for agri-business.

Cows and chickens are brought up in conditions that are positively barbaric. Both are often raised in claustrophobic close quarters, pumped up with hormones and anti-biotics and literally living in their own excrement. Vegetables are often treated in ways that look like science experiments gone awry.

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Not surprisingly, this is not good for us. E coli, something we never heard of decades ago, is constantly in the news. If it’s not beef tainted with E coli, it’s spinach. And in one absolutely heartbreaking segment, a young mother tells her story of losing her son to E coli tainted food.

And it’s the smaller farmers who are working for large agri-business who are often suffering under the draconian regulations of their bosses. Not surprisingly many of the agri-businesses profiled, Tyson, Perdue, Smythfield and Monsanto, refused to be interviewed for Food, Inc. If you see this movie you’ll know why. They don’t come across too favorably.

Michael Pollan and Eric Schlosser, two cheerleaders for eating locally and organically, are interviewed. However, often eating locally and organically isn’t always feasible. Not everyone has access to farmer’s markets, and buying organic can really bruise the wallet. To emphasize this Food, Inc. introduces us to a struggling working class family where buying off the dollar menu at a fast food joint is more economically sound for them than buying whole grains, vegetables and fruits at the grocery store.

However, all is not lost. Despite its dire warnings Food, Inc. has moments of hope. One person featured is Joel Salatin, an independent farmer in Virginia, who refuses to do things agri-business wants. His farm is operated in a way that is both humane to livestock and Salatin’s employees. Salatin is also probably one of the most fun and entertaining characters in the movie.

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Furthermore, average American citizens are demanding grocery chains carry organic food. People are planting their own backyard gardens. And community gardens are now being built in urban areas where McDonalds, KFC, and convenience stores are the only food options.

The whole idea of eating locally, organically and in a sustainable manner has often been seen as an elitist, hippie, lefty thing. But the food we eat shouldn’t be an issue of money nor should it be a political issue of left vs. right. Food is a human issue that concerns us all. And Food, Inc. opens a dialogue that is definitely food for thought.