In 2009, Colin Beavan redesigned his entire lifestyle for one year to reduce his carbon footprint. He documented his experiment in his book No Impact Man. Since then, he has been an advocate for sustainability issues and consults regularly with businesses and other organizations on improving their eco-friendly and people-centred measures. We caught up with him at the launch of his new book, How to be Alive: A Guide to the Kind of Happiness that Helps the World, at UN Headquarters in New York.
Q: What tip would you give people who want to start living more sustainably?
CB: Usually there’s one area of our lives where we could live more sustainably and it would also make us, our communities and loved ones, safer and healthier. So if you live in a situation where it’s possible to walk and you happen to need to get more exercise – it might be that starting to bike would be right for you. The question becomes, what is something that you can do that is better for your habitat that is also better for you? Start there, but don’t stop there. Once you’ve adopted that habit, then look for the next habit that’s better for the habitat and better for you. It’s hard to do these things alone so if you care about sustainability, about your habitat and about your quality of life then gather together a group of friends and have conversations of what you can do together to make changes.
Q: Why does it seem like it’s hard to lead a sustainable lifestyle?
CB: To live sustainably should be as easy as the falling off a log. When you buy your electricity it should be renewably produced, when you transport yourself you should be able to do it in a way other than an automobile, but the reason why it’s hard for us is because the systems that are in place are not sustainable. Those of us that do find it hard to live sustainably when we want to need to be civically engaged in our democratic systems to help cause does things to be changed.
Q: So is sustainability more about collective action rather than an individual choice?
CB: It’s both. There are two types of change that happen in the world. One is cultural change: the way we think about how we live and the habits that we have. This actually happens by the amalgamation of lots of individual changes. Civic change comes partly becomes lots of individuals are forcing their politicians to make those changes too. So civic change itself can be individual change – how many of us are being civically engaged, say by going on a climate march, or insisting that our mayors only allow the production of renewable energy within city limits, etc. The kind of split between individual change and collective change is false in a certain way.
Q: Your second book links sustainability to happiness. Can you elaborate on this link?
CB: When I wrote No Impact Man I wrote it partly because I was concerned about climate change and our dependence on oil. Those things were both happening in the service of a particular way of life and I found that even in New York, a rich city, people were really unhappy. They were working 12-14 hour days, not spending enough time with the people that they love, they weren’t using their talents and the passions they care about, even in this so-called rich place. The idea is that we work really hard to buy as much stuff as we can, and that’s what’s screwing up our world. The resources involved in that mean that we have climate change, we have deforestation, we have oceans depleted and so the roots of unsustainability and the roots of certain types of unhappiness are actually the same. So if we do it smartly, at both the individual and the societal level, quality of life and sustainability are completely in line with each other.
Q: What would you tell people that feel consuming stuff is necessary for economic growth?
CB: Well, the thing about this is that originally economies were invented in the service of humanity and now we think that humanity is in the service of economies. What we have to remember is that when we talk about growth in the economy we are just talking about money flowing through the system. It doesn’t mean that it’s money flowing through the system to do good. Increase in consumerism per se, does not increase quality of life. What we need is better access to healthcare, clean water, education. Those things are more likely to contribute to us being happy than all of us working to buy more stuff. So the question is how do we unlink the consumption of resources from the services and things that actually contribute to our quality of life? For example, it’s nice to go surfing, but actually owning a surfboard is a pain. You have to store it, you have to carry it around, so sharing it with others might be a better solution.
Q: So a sharing economy would be one way to get around this?
CB: Yes. This is definitely a great example. Other things are important too like the societal measures of progress. Worldwide we use Gross Domestic Product (GDP), but this does not necessarily mean that the quality of life and the safety and happiness of the citizens are increasing, so adopting new measures of progress is another thing that can contribute to a robust non-consumptive economy that actually contributes to higher quality of life.