In theory, the idea of going a year without common–but wasteful–consumer products and writing about it is a good one. Throughout the documentary, Beavan makes it clear that he doesn’t want everyone to emulate the lifestyle shown in the film. He merely wants them to be more conscious of how much waste they’re producing, and make smaller changes such as biking instead of riding in vehicles and buying food at a local farmer’s market. While Beavan’s intentions are good, this plan is shown to be a rather shallow attempt at raising awareness when you examine the experiment on a deeper level.
Throughout the documentary, people who work at charity-based organizations for much longer than just a year and maintain entire farms are shown on camera. Even so, they remain in the background, and really only exist to further Beavan’s experiment in the context of the movie. In my opinion, these people are the ones who should be getting publicity, especially when one considers that Beavan’s escapade is motivated largely by the production of new material for his next book. If it wasn’t, he would have done a lot of the things that were in the documentary on his own, and out of the media spotlight. Not only that, but he wouldn’t have pulled his wife and child into the experiment as well. The idea is much more appealing when it’s presented as a family affair rather than some dude roughing it in the middle of New York City.
In addition to all of this, there are people living with the same restrictions that Beavan experienced in areas all around the world. They often don’t have a choice in doing so, and sensationalizing a lifestyle that isn’t that revolutionary doesn’t add much to the conversation. In fact, it reduces it to “Holy crap! Did you see this guy living without toilet paper in the news?!” In the end, it’s doubtful that the documentary and book will motivate people to give up their morning coffee or the convenience of a car, and the people who do will be a fringe group not nearly big enough to make an impact.
In the end, I have to agree with the caretaker of the garden that Beavan helped cultivate in the middle of New York City. The real enemy here is politics, and the policies that prevent organizations like the Environmental Protection Agency from doing their job. Lobbying prevents many companies from being called out on the huge environmental impact that their products result in, whether that applies to a factory spewing smoke or improperly disposing of a chemical byproduct. While the documentary is interesting to watch, it’s also a very kitschy attempt at raising awareness that doesn’t even attempt to touch on these issues. Giving up tissues might save a few trees, but it doesn’t stop massive corporations from cutting them down in the first place.
If you want a good read that actually does address a number of different topics while including scientific and political analysis, try Fast Food Nation. There’s no experiment, no stubborn wife, and no baby drama. Just good, old-fashioned research coupled with stories about people working in the fast food industry that will make your stomach churn.