Can Summer Reading Save the Planet?

Colin Beavan, better known as “No Impact Man,” delivered the Synergy Common Reading Keynote Address to a sold-out audience at Kenan Auditorium at UNC Wilmington on September 20. He earned his moniker when, in 2006, he launched a year-long experiment in which he, his wife, his two year-old daughter, and his dog went “off the grid” and attempted to live in New York City with as little environmental impact as possible.

At the end of his experiment, he wrote 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 in the Process, which was chosen by UNC Wilmington as this year’s freshman reading.

According to a spokesperson for the school, Dana Fischetti, UNCW chose the book for its Synergy Common Reading Program because the book would “get students talking about issues and spark passionate discussions of an interdisciplinary nature” and since the program directors received several requests for books about the environment and sustainability. The committee also liked the fact that students “could take action and get involved with the issues” in this book rather than simply reading about them. It “offers many opportunities for hands-on student experiences, discussion, interaction, and interdisciplinary connections to the university curriculum,” Fischetti said.

UNCW isn’t the only school using Beavan’s work. The No Impact Project (inspired by the book) offers an environmental education curriculum for middle and high school teachers. Other colleges, including Ohio State, also chose No Impact Man for this summer’s freshman reading. In addition to UNCW, Beavan will be speaking at other universities around the country: Illinois Wesleyan, UT-Austin, Texas State University, Ohio State University, Cleveland State University, OSU-Mansfield, Florida State Jacksonville, and Johnson & Wales in Providence, Rhode Island.

In an interview available on the No Impact blog, Beavan explains his philosophy: “We’re out of balance and out of touch. This has led to a system that is destroying our planet. Perhaps the sadder part is that it is destroying our souls, too.” Beavan’s philosophy differs from that of some environmentalists; he believes that humans come first, but that in order to save ourselves, we must save the planet.

Given the recent controversy surrounding climate science, some scholars question the wisdom of choosing No Impact Man for UNC-W’s summer reading. In its analysis of summer reading across the country, the National Association of Scholars included No Impact Man on its list of books about “Environmentalism/Animal Rights/Food,” which was the second-most popular category for summer reading books after “Multiculturalism/Immigration/Racism.” Both of these categories, they note, “reflect leftist political perspectives.”

NAS president Peter Wood panned No Impact Man and the bigger message it sends about college. He said, “No Impact Man exemplifies the intellectual frivolity of many colleges when it comes to selecting books for common reading. Beavan’s book is an account of an eccentric exploit framed by politically correct environmentalist ideology. A man who wants to do without toilet paper and who imposes his tissue-less lifestyle choice on his family teaches us mainly an alternative path to self-indulgence.” Wood believes that UNCW could have picked a better book on a similar topic. He said, “There are surely issues here that students ought to learn about, but Beavan’s book is a poor way to get to the really serious questions about stewardship of our natural resources.” He suggested that UNCW check out NAS’s recently published list of recommended “Better Books for Next Year’s Beaches” when choosing next year’s reading.

Paul Chesser, from the Heartland Institute, a research institute dedicated to free-market solutions to social and economic problems, says No Impact Man “looks like just a story about an amusing exercise carried out by a hypocritical enviro-nanny who could only put up with living that way for a year (I assume).” He wonders, “Is he riding his bike to Wilmington?”

He also notes that efforts like Beavan’s might not affect global temperatures at all. “Even if we all were to follow the ‘No Impact’ principles going forward, it would have no proven impact on the climate.”

But students disagree with the criticism. According to Fischetti, “Student readers strongly connected with No Impact Man, telling the committee that they felt it offered a fresh approach to the sustainability issue and they liked Beavan’s personal story about trying to find a way he can make a difference in his daily life.”

Beavan’s speech was co-presented by the UNCW Leadership Lecture Series and University College. Mr. Beavan’s contractual speaking fee is $10,000. UNCW is also paying for his travel and lodging, which is about $500, including flight, hotel, and ground transportation. The university showed the documentary based on Beavan’s book the day before he spoke on campus.