What Does It Take to Make an Impact?

Orwell went down and out in Paris. Today, bloggers and filmmakers are following his lead, taking the plunge into voluntary poverty. To what end?

Doing without is big in the world of food activism. So the fact that Colin Beavan and Michelle Conlin-the couple behind the recently released documentary No Impact Man-centered their year-long project to reduce their impact on the environment largely around food will come as little surprise to many.Beavan and Conlin appeared on the big screen in a handful of major cities this week, and their story-converting to locavorism, learning to compost, discovering their farmers' market, and volunteering in an urban garden-was nothing if not familiar. For all its grandiose promises and dramatic scenes showing the family huddled in their unheated New York apartment by candlelight, No Impact Man may just be the latest high note in a chorus of similar projects.The 100-Mile Diet made waves several years back, and new variations on that theme, such as the 250-mile Eat Local Challenge, have sprung up all over the country since. This week, in San Francisco, a handful of bloggers are taking the week-long Hunger Challenge, which asks them to cook and eat on $4 a day (the average amount food stamp recipients spend). Johns Hopkins' Bloomberg School of Public Health wants all Americans to go meatless on Mondays. Even Mark Bittman, whose Minimalist persona implies nothing but ease in the kitchen, has begun acting like a vegan before 6 p.m.Bu what exactly does this trend toward cold-turkey abstinence mean?In his film, Beavan stands in for all those who sincerely believe personal responsibility can compensate for a lack of systematic change if turned up to 11. But his wife Conlin-who most viewers will find compelling-is a useful foil. She deals with Beavans's showy extremism, by cheating, bucking the process, and complaining. And yet, about six months into the family's year-long experiment, we see her perspective start to shift. Conlin begins to embrace their all-local, meatless meals, has a transformative-if not cliché-city-girl experience on a nearby farm, and goes from being a pre-diabetic lover of takeout to learning to roast her own vegetables.Viewers of the film start to realize that while Beavan, whose drive to "do more good than harm" is stronger than his need for creature comforts, Conlin would never have made this change gradually. But the extreme change managed to open her eyes.Michael Dimock, the president of the Roots of Change network, blogged earlier this week about a having similar experience while tackling the Hunger Challenge. After the humbling experience of bringing a $1.50 portion of pasta to an elaborate dinner party at the home of his foodie friends, Dimock wrote:I guess the hunger, and the glimpse of a world with much less freedom, has cleared out my mind. I am feeling more empathy and compassion for those who require [food stamps] to eat. It is not just a mental construct today. ... I will become even more committed to food and social justice in the time ahead.Like Colin Beavan, who wonders aloud throughout the film whether his stunt will make a meaningful or lasting impression, it's easy to doubt this work. Will it really make a difference? After seeing No Impact Man, and considering the larger context of projects like it, I find myself asking, can there really be too many of us doing this work? And can we get enough people to exhibit the same level of commitment?Drastic measures are sometimes necessary to break the loop, to shift our awareness and behavior. So many mechanisms-Big Food, advertising, U.S. food policy, subsidies-make it easy for us, ensuring we make the wrong choices as eaters, consumers, and citizens. Knowing how all-encompassing and big those forces are makes me wonder just how large and "extreme" the work might have to be to provide a real counterbalance. Just how many No Impact Men and Women will it take to eliminate hunger, or to really create a sustainable food system?Guest blogger Twilight Greenaway writes a weekly newsletter about sustainable food for the Center for Urban Education about Sustainable Agriculture. Her writing can also be found at Culinate, Civil Eats, and Ethicurean. She lives in the San Francisco Bay Area.
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