None of the practical questions about no impact living would be relevant if my wife Michelle, my daughter Isabella, our dog Frankie and I intended to approach the challenge by becoming ascetics. Until now, we have been your typical convenience-addicted, New York City take-out slaves. Asceticism is not a realistic way forward, not for my family and not for the world.
Saving this planet depends on finding a middle path that is neither unconsciously consumerist nor self-consciously anti-materialist. The idea for No Impact Man is not to be anorexic but to be abundant, not to be eco-efficient but “eco-effective,” in the words of the environmental scientists William McDonough and Michael Braungart.
In their book Cradle to Cradle, McDonough and Braungart discuss the Menominee tribe of Wisconsin, who have harvested wood for sale from their forested land for many generations. In 1870, the Menominee inventoried 1.3 billion standing board feet of timber on their 235,000 acres. Since then, they have harvested nearly twice that amount—2.25 billion board feet. Considering the “clear-cutting” methods of the corporate lumber merchants you hear about, which completely strips land of its trees, you’d expect that the Menominee would have barely a single tree left, not to mention any forest wildlife. In fact, they have 1.7 billion board feet left, more than they had in 1870, and a thriving forest ecosystem.
That’s because the Menominee tend to cut only the weaker trees, leaving behind the strong mother trees and enough of the upper canopy for the arboreal animals to continue to inhabit. They have figured out what the forest can productively offer them instead of considering only what they want to take from it.
This is largely how every other species on earth lives—in harmony with the environment. Lions neither starve themselves nor gorge to the point of wiping out the gazelle population. Instead, they promote the health of the gazelle herd by culling its weaker members and preventing herd overgrowth which in turn prevents overgrazing of the savannah. Animal waste does not poison the ground but fertilizes the soil so that it can produce more vegetation for the animals to eat. Bees feed on the pollen of flowers but far from damaging them they provide the crucial service of pollinating them.
This is what I mean by “eco-effective.” The philosophy is based not only on restricting consumption but on changing what is consumed so that it actually helps or at least does not hinder the world. If bees had the idea that they wanted to save the planet, they would not go on crash diets and start eating less pollen. They would continue to live their lives abundantly, because their lives are already eco-effective.
That is the philosophy Michelle and I hope to realize during our no impact experiment. The emphasis will ultimately not be on tightening our belts so that our consumption does not poison the earth—although there will certainly be an element of that—but on trying to change our consumption patterns so that our abundance helps or at least does not harm the planet in the first place. We will, like the Menominee, figure out what our world can productively offer us rather than considering only what we want.