The new documentary No Impact Man is about a man who tried to reduce his environmental footprint as much as possible for a year. Actually, as Jonathan Hiskes pointed out at Grist, it's a documentary about an entire household (husband/father, wife/mother, and child) who tried to reduce their environmental footprint for a year. And actually, as quite a few people pointed out when this household got attention in the New York Times and big morning TV shows during their year-long experiment, it's about a white, liberal, class-privileged, urban, U.S.-based family who tried to reduce their environmental footprint for a year.
If you believe the journey of privileged liberals as they discover more progressive or radical or social-justice-oriented ideas is a useful story to tell in popular culture -- perhaps because such stories might lead to other privileged liberals' being provoked to paradigm shifts or changes in behavior -- you'll likely appreciate how the film shows No Impact Man's awareness that individual action must be linked to collective action and structural change, as well as his discovery (via Majora Carter) of environmental-justice movement, which addresses how racism and economic exploitation connect to "green" issues. I haven't sorted out my beliefs on that matter.
What I want to talk about here is how No Impact Man reveals and shores up a very privileged-American culture of individualism rooted in the isolated, heteronormative nuclear family, and a related lack of critique of capitalism and consideration of broader visions of sustainability and interdependence.
"If I tried not to hurt the environment, what would that feel like?" No Impact Man wonders early on. I wonder whether that is even beginning to approach the right question (and I wonder that thinking of this challenging column by Derrick Jensen from Orion, which argues that "How should I live my life right now?" is precisely the wrong question to ask in facing ecological crisis -- which leads me to think of this compelling critique of Jensen's gender problem by Julia Glassman).
There's this obvious way No Impact Man's project is limited by its rather obsessive (though self-conscious) focus on individual lifestyle change as a response to a massive global problem -- which is not to say that individual behavior changes are meaningless or useless (or even that this engaging documentary is either of those things, entirely).
But No Impact Man is rooted in individualism and social hierarchy in a way that's more complicated than that.
There's the thread of misogyny that runs through the entire piece -- the way the audience is encouraged to laugh smugly as No Impact Man's wife struggles to live out her husband's vision. I saw the film in a room full of (progressive) people who laughed at her addiction to expensive espresso drinks, laughed at her anguished face the night her husband announced he was getting rid of all her cosmetics, and etc. ... I don't relate to her brand of conspicuous consumption myself, but I also think the way she is framed as a trifling creature struggling to get with the supposedly deeply ethical and serious program of her husband relies on some tired, misogynistic ideas of the silly feminine.
Further, No Impact Man is the story of a single nuclear family isolated in their urban U.S. household. We see their friends at one dinner party, and there's an old hippie who helps No Impact Man learn to garden, but for the most part this family is presented as disconnected from any larger community or social context.
They're framed by heteronormativity within capitalism -- the atomized nuclear family that aims to meet all basic needs within the space and relationships of the household. True to this frame, the husband and wife's relationship is rooted in the idea that they, two halves of a coupled whole, are meant to meet most of each other's needs, and this involves each making major compromises and intense negotiations when it turns out their desires happen not to coincide -- when, say, the husband decides to embark on a massive, lifestyle-altering project household-wide, although his wife is afraid it will affect her social life, career, and more... or when, say, the wife decides she wants another child and uses her participation in her husband's "no impact" project as leverage to argue for it although he has no interest in a second child.
The kinds of enormous compromises and weird negotiations shown here are rather horrifying to me. It doesn't look like sustainable interdependence, this isolated negotiation of huge desires behind the closed doors of a single apartment, disconnected from community, in which a single other person is meant to fulfill almost every need, and huge decisions (to have or not to have a child, to engage as a household in a huge lifestyle-altering experiment) are made in the space of a single relationship and an insular household.
Might more flexible models of domesticity and relationship allow lovers/coparents/friends/etc. to interrelate and be interdependent without having to be enmeshed in others' projects -- or entire new lives -- they don't want?
Doesn't No Impact Man have a huge impact on his wife and child? Don't we all, being interconnected, impact each other's lives? Might we do this in different ways, in structures that allow us to get different needs met in different relationships, that are not as exclusive and isolating as the limited and limiting kind of marriage/family shown in this film? (Are people really fighting so hard for the right to assimilate to, uh, this?)
If we're talking about ecology and sustainability, let's talk about challenging a model of domesticity and relationship that shores up individualistic capitalism (which, as the aging hippie in the film points out, is largely responsible for the ecological destruction No Impact Man means to resist). Let's talk about rooting all relationships in community, about models of interdependency that are not about imposing on others or resigning ourselves to others' desires that don't fit or even do damage, but asserting and affirming desires/dreams/needs within relationships that are multiple and flexible.
There's some compelling stuff in No Impact Man, no doubt. But it falls quite a bit short of a vision of a radically new way of being in the world.