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'No impact man' after a year doing without -- what now?

To reduce its environmental footprint, No Impact Man and his family did without toilet paper, elevators, TV, and cars for a year. What did they learn?

By Samantha GrossAssociated Press Writer / October 21, 2009

Colin Beavan, with his wife, Michelle Colin, and their 4-year-old daughter, Isabella, who holds a giant zucchini grown in their community garden plot.

Yanina Manolova/AP

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NEW YORK

Colin Beavan sat under the light of a single bulb, freaking out.

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Along with his wife and young daughter, he had just spent a year trying to reduce their net environmental impact to almost zero. With a flip of a switch, they had cut their Manhattan apartment off from the electrical grid. They had stopped using anything disposable or buying anything new.

In a city of skyscrapers, they had given up elevators. They went everywhere by bicycle, bought food directly from local farmers, had even sworn off toilet paper.

It had been a year of rules, a year in which nearly every aspect of their lives had been shaped by what they were not allowed to do.

And now it was over.

So Mr. Beavan sat at home. If he had to get up to go to the bathroom, he would walk to the other room and turn on the light there — and then run back to turn off the first light. He just couldn't let himself light up more than one bulb at once. He walked around the apartment unplugging things.

Once, Beavan and his wife, Michelle Conlin, had lived lives of take-out dinners and taxi rides, recreational shopping and reality TV. But as his family cut back — and as he learned more about the devastation wrought worldwide by human consumption — he had found relief, and an easier conscience.

Now, as he turned the lights back on, he had to admit that he was once again part of the problem. The new freedom and the old guilt. It felt awful.

Beavan's experiment with the extreme had played out in public; he had blogged about it on his site "No Impact Man" (which would beget a book under the same name, published last month, and a documentary).

But now, like so many of us who are grappling with a growing awareness of the dangers faced by the planet and the damage our lifestyles cause, Beavan and his family were faced with the challenge of finding their own middle ground.

With their years of excess and their year of simplicity behind them, how would they choose to live?

Little Isabella was not yet 2 when the experiment began, but she already knew who "the man" was.

Nearly every morning, as her family prepared for the day in their one-bedroom, lower Fifth Avenue apartment, "the man" would arrive with a bag of breakfast bagels. At night, he'd pass their doorman carrying a plastic bag filled with cartons from Big Enchilada. Or with Chinese food. Or with deli fare.

On the street, Bella would spot a bicyclist riding by, and she'd point and yell: "There's the man!"

In the evenings, they'd settle down to eat in front of their TV. Conlin, a journalist who writes for Business Week, was obsessed with reality shows: "The Bachelorette," ''Paradise Hotel," ''Temptation Island."

One day, in the depths of "Bridezillas," she looked over and saw Bella wasn't just sitting next to her — she was watching intently. Conlin's heart sank a little. This wasn't what she wanted for her daughter.

Meanwhile, Beavan — a self-professed guilty liberal who had written books on the history of forensics and of D-Day — found himself railing about the travesty of global warming. But after returning to his apartment from a meeting with his agent only to discover he'd left the air conditioner running, he started to question whether he had any right to complain.

So Beavan arrived at the idea for the experiment, both as environmental activism and as subject for his next book. Mrs. Conlin, eager to eliminate what she felt were her addictions, suggested that shopping, TV and movies should be among the first things to go.

Instead of "the man," food now came from the farmers. They began eating vegetarian and shopping at the local farmers' market, eating only things they already had in their apartment or that were grown within 250 miles. At night, the three of them would sit around the table together and ... talk.

"The hearth was the TV before 'No Impact,' " Conlin says now. "After we gave away the TV, the hearth became our family table. ... I gave up reality TV for reality."