Living environmentally sound - without toilet paper (so you think you can live green?)
The Year Without Toilet Paper – by PENELOPE GREE/NY Times
DINNER was the usual affair on Thursday night in Apartment 9F in an elegant prewar on Lower Fifth Avenue. There was shredded cabbage with fruit-scrap vinegar; mashed parsnips and yellow carrots with local butter and fresh thyme; a terrific frittata; then homemade yogurt with honey and thyme tea, eaten under the greenish flickering light cast by two beeswax candles and a fluorescent bulb.
A sour odor hovered oh-so-slightly in the air, the faint tang, not wholly unpleasant, that is the mark of the home composter. Isabella Beavan, age 2, staggered around the neo-Modern furniture — the Eames chairs, the brown velvet couch, the Lucite lamps and the steel cafe table upon which dinner was set — her silhouette greatly amplified by her organic cotton diapers in their enormous boiled-wool, snap-front cover.
A visitor avoided the bathroom because she knew she would find no toilet paper there.
Meanwhile, Joseph, the liveried elevator man who works nights in the building, drove his wood-paneled, 1920s-era vehicle up and down its chute, unconcerned that the couple in 9F had not used his services in four months. “I’ve noticed,” Joseph said later with a shrug and no further comment. (He declined to give his last name. “I’ve got enough problems,” he said.)
Welcome to Walden Pond, Fifth Avenue style. Isabella’s parents, Colin Beavan, 43, a writer of historical nonfiction, and Michelle Conlin, 39, a senior writer at Business Week, are four months into a yearlong lifestyle experiment they call No Impact. Its rules are evolving, as Mr. Beavan will tell you, but to date include eating only food (organically) grown within a 250-mile radius of Manhattan; (mostly) no shopping for anything except said food; producing no trash (except compost, see above); using no paper; and, most intriguingly, using no carbon-fueled transportation.
Mr. Beavan, who has written one book about the origins of forensic detective work and another about D-Day, said he was ready for a new subject, hoping to tread more lightly on the planet and maybe be an inspiration to others in the process.
Also, he needed a new book project and the No Impact year was the only one of four possibilities his agent thought would sell. This being 2007, Mr. Beavan is showcasing No Impact in a blog ( noimpactman.com ) laced with links and testimonials from New Environmentalist authorities like treehugger.com . His agent did indeed secure him a book deal, with Farrar, Straus & Giroux, and he and his family are being tailed by Laura Gabbert, a documentary filmmaker and Ms. Conlin’s best friend.
Why there may be a public appetite for the Conlin-Beavan family doings has a lot to do with the very personal, very urban face of environmentalism these days. Thoreau left home for the woods to make his point (and secure his own book deal); Mr. Beavan and Ms. Conlin and others like them aren’t budging from their bricks-and-mortar, haut-bourgeois nests.
Mr. Beavan looks to groups like the Compacters ( sfcompact.blogspot.com ), a collection of nonshoppers that began in San Francisco, and the 100 Mile Diet folks ( 100milediet.org and thetyee.ca), a Vancouver couple who spent a year eating from within 100 miles of their apartment, for tips and inspiration. But there are hundreds of other light-footed, young abstainers with a diarist urge: it is not news that this shopping-averse, carbon-footprint-reducing, city-dwelling generation likes to blog (the paperless, public diary form). They have seen “An Inconvenient Truth”; they would like to tell you how it makes them feel. If Al Gore is their Rachel Carson, blogalogs like Treehugger, grist.org and worldchanging.com are their Whole Earth catalogs.
Andrew Kirk, an environmental history professor at the University of Nevada , Las Vegas, whose new book, “Counterculture Green: The Whole Earth Catalog and American Environmentalism,” will be published by University Press of Kansas in September, is reminded of environmentalism’s last big bubble, in the 1970s, long before Ronald Reagan pulled federal funding for alternative fuel technologies (and his speechwriters made fun of the spotted owl and its liberal protectors, a deft feat of propaganda that set the movement back decades). Those were the days when Stewart Brand and his Whole Earth writers, Mr. Kirk said, “focused on a brand of environmentalism that kept people in the picture.”
“That’s the thing about this current wave of environmentalism,” he continued. “It’s not about, how do we protect some abstract pristine space? It’s what can real people do in their home or office or whatever. It’s also very urban. It’s a critical twist in the old wilderness adage: Leave only footprints, take only photographs. But how do you translate that into Manhattan?”
With equals parts grace and calamity, it appears. Washed down with a big draught of engaging palaver.
Before No Impact — this is a phrase that comes up a lot — Ms. Conlin and Mr. Beavan were living a near parody of urban professional life. Ms. Conlin, who bought this apartment in 1999 when she was still single, used the stove so infrequently (as in, never, she said) that Con Edison called to find out if it was broken. (Mr. Beavan, now the family cook, questioned whether she had yet to turn it on. Ms. Conlin ignored him.)
In this household, food was something you dialed for.
“We would wake up and call ‘the man,’ ” Ms. Conlin said, “and he would bring us two newspapers and coffee in Styrofoam cups. Sometimes we’d call two men, and get bagels from Bagel Bob’s. For lunch I’d find myself at Wendy’s, with a Dunkin’ Donuts chaser. Isabella would point to guys on bikes and cry: ‘The man! The man!’ ”
Since November, Mr. Beavan and Isabella have been hewing closely, most particularly in a dietary way, to a 19th-century life. Mr. Beavan has a single-edge razor he has learned to use (it was a gift from his father). He has also learned to cook quite tastily from a limited regional menu — right now that means lots of apples and root vegetables, stored in the unplugged freezer — hashing out compromises. Spices are out but salt is exempt, Mr. Beavan said, because homemade bread “is awful without salt; salt stops the yeast action.” Mr. Beavan is baking his own, with wheat grown locally and a sour dough “mother” fermenting stinkily in his cupboard. He is also finding good sources at the nearby Union Square Greenmarket (like Ronnybrook Farm Dairy, which sells milk in reusable glass bottles). The 250-mile rule, by the way, reflects the longest distance a farmer can drive in and out of the city in one day, Mr. Beavan said.
Olive oil and vinegar are out; they used the last dregs of their bottle of balsamic vinegar last week, Mr. Beavan said, producing a moment of stunned silence while a visitor thought about life without those staples. Still, Mr. Beavan’s homemade fruit-scrap vinegar has a satisfying bite.
The television, a flat-screen, high-definition 46-incher, is long gone. Saturday night charades are in. Mr. Beavan likes to talk about social glue — community building — as a natural byproduct of No Impact. The (fluorescent) lights are still on, and so is the stove. Mr. Beavan, who has a Ph.D. in applied physics, has not yet figured out a carbon-fuel-free power alternative that will run up here on the ninth floor, though he does subscribe to Con Ed’s Green Power program, for which he pays a premium, and which adds a measure of wind and hydro power to the old coal and nuclear grid.
The dishwasher is off, along with the microwave, the coffee machine and the food processor. Planes, trains, automobiles and that elevator are out, but the family is still doing laundry in the washing machines in the basement of the building. (Consider the ramifications of no-elevator living in a vertical city: one day recently, when Frankie the dog had digestive problems, Mr. Beavan, who takes Isabella to day care — six flights of stairs in a building six blocks away — and writes at the Writers Room on Astor Place — 12 flights of stairs, also six blocks away — estimated that by nightfall he had climbed 115 flights of stairs.) And they have not had the heart to take away the vacuum from their cleaning lady, who comes weekly (this week they took away her paper towels).
Until three weeks ago, however, Ms. Conlin was following her “high-fructose corn syrup ways,” meaning double espressos and pastries administered daily. “Giving up the coffee was like crashing down from a crystal meth addiction,” she said. “I had to leave work and go to bed for 24 hours.”
Toothpaste is baking soda (a box makes trash, to be sure, but of a better quality than a metal tube), but Ms. Conlin is still wearing the lipstick she gets from a friend who works at Lancôme, as well as moisturizers from Fresh and Kiehl’s. When the bottles, tubes and jars are empty, Mr. Beavan has promised her homemade, rules-appropriate substitutes. (Nothing is a substitute for toilet paper, by the way; think of bowls of water and lots of air drying.)
Yet since the beginning of No Impact, and to the amusement of her colleagues at Business Week, Ms. Conlin has been scootering to her office on 49th Street each day, bringing a Mason jar filled with greenhouse greens, cheese and her husband’s bread for lunch, along with her own napkin and cutlery. She has taken a bit of ribbing: “All progress is carbon fueled,” jeered one office mate.
Ms. Conlin, acknowledging that she sees her husband as No Impact Man and herself as simply inside his experiment, said she saw “An Inconvenient Truth” in an air-conditioned movie theater last summer. “It was like, ‘J’accuse!’ ” she said. “I just felt like everything I did in my life was contributing to a system that was really problematic.” Borrowing a phrase from her husband, she continued, “If I was a student, I would march against myself.”
While Ms. Conlin is clearly more than just a good sport — giving up toilet paper seems a fairly profound gesture of commitment — she did describe, in loving detail, a serious shopping binge that predated No Impact and made the whole thing doable, she said. “It was my last hurrah,” she explained.
It included two pairs of calf-high Chloe boots (one of which was paid for, she said, with her mother’s bingo winnings) and added up to two weeks’ salary, after taxes and her 401(k) contribution.
The bingo windfall points to a loophole in No Impact: the Conlin-Beavan household does accept presents. When Mr. Beavan’s father saw Ms. Conlin scootering without gloves he sent her a pair. And allowances can be made for the occasional thrift shop purchase. For Isabella’s birthday on Feb. 25, her family wandered the East Village and ended up at Jane’s Exchange, where she chose a pair of ballet slippers as her gift.
“They cost a dollar,” Ms. Conlin said.
It was freezing cold that day, Mr. Beavan said, picking up the story. “We went into a restaurant to warm her up. We agonized about taking a cab, which we ended up not doing. I still felt like we really screwed up, though, because we ate at the restaurant.”
He said he called the 100 Mile Diet couple to confess his sin. They admitted they had cheated too, with a restaurant date, then told him, Yoda-like, “Only in strictness comes the conversion.”
Restaurants, which are mostly out in No Impact, present all sorts of challenges beyond the 250-mile food rule. “They always want to give Isabella the paper cup with the straw, and we have to send it back,” Mr. Beavan said. “We always say, ‘We’re trying not to make any trash.’ And some people get really into that and others clearly think we’re big losers.”
Living abstemiously on Lower Fifth Avenue, in what used to be Edith Wharton country, with early-21st-century accouterments like creamy, calf-high Chloe boots, may seem at best like a scene from an old-fashioned situation comedy and, at worst, an ethically murky exercise in self-promotion. On the other hand, consider this response to Mr. Beavan’s Internet post the day he and his family gave up toilet paper.
“What’s with the public display of nonimpactness?” a reader named Bruce wrote on March 7. “Getting people to read a blog on their 50-watt L.C.D. monitors and buy a bound volume of postconsumer paper and show the filmed doc in a heated/air-conditioned movie theater, etc., sounds like nonimpact man is leading to a lot of impact. And how are you going to measure your nonimpact, except in rather self-centered ways like weight loss and better sex? (Wait, maybe I should stop there.)”
Indeed. Concrete benefits are already accruing to Ms. Conlin and Mr. Beavan that may tempt others. The sea may be rising, but Ms. Conlin has lost 4 pounds and Mr. Beavan 20. It took Ms. Conlin over an hour to get home from work during the snowstorm on Friday, riding her scooter, then walking in her knee-high Wellingtons with her scooter on her back, but she claimed to be mostly exhilarated by the experience. “Rain is worse,” she said.
Perhaps the real guinea pig in this experiment is the Conlin-Beavan marriage.
“Like all writers, I’m a megalomaniac,” Mr. Beavan said cheerfully the other day. “I’m just trying to put that energy to good use.”