The trouble with a No Impact Planet

China is rapidly expanding, but the concern about its environmental impact is misplaced

The trouble with a No Impact PlanetOutdoorsy types have for ages practised no-impact camping, with its charming motto, “Take only pictures; leave only footprints.” The rationale is not complicated: the central conceit of going camping is you are entering the “wilderness,” a realm free of civilization with minimal evidence of human activity. If you vacate your campsite and leave a bunch of used flashlight batteries and empty Chef Boyardee tins lying around, it kinda spoils the effect for the next group. In short, no-impact camping is the only way to make the experience sustainable for everyone.

But this idea, that what matters to sustainability is the effect our activities have on our future welfare and our descendants’, is one we often forget when it comes to thinking about the economy and the environment as a whole. Which is a bit weird, since the Brundtland commission, convened by the UN in 1983, explicitly defines a sustainable economy as one “that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.”

But lately, environmentally concerned folks have taken to treating low-impact living as a virtue in itself, with the hope of humans leaving no footprint on earth at all serving as a utopian ideal. The trend has led to a number of increasingly extreme stunts in lifestyle minimalism, including the Compact, a project that began when some environmentally conscious friends in San Francisco decided to go an entire year without buying anything new, and the popular 100 Mile Diet, which was started by two Vancouver writers.

Now comes No Impact Man, in which a writer named Colin Beavan convinces his wife and daughter to spend a year in their New York City apartment depriving themselves of all mod cons, including electricity, newspapers, even toilet paper. Writing in the New Yorker a few weeks ago, Elizabeth Kolbert tore the No Impact Man book to shreds, and the just-released No Impact Man documentary has received similarly bad reviews.

And for good reason, since Beavan is an idiot. His experiment is full of pointless exercises that are totally disconnected from any actual environmentally sound agenda. In a typical example, Beavan climbs 124 flights of stairs in one day—no elevators—but plugs in his laptop at a local café to write.

You don’t need a degree in logic to spot the contradictions in No Impact Man. But the underlying intuition—that the sum of our consumption and emissions should ideally net out to zero, regardless of their ultimate effect—remains widely held. It has been transposed recently into the idea that the activities of businesses or other organizations (the Vancouver Olympics, say) should be carbon neutral, and it won’t be long before we start hearing about the “No Impact Corporation.”

Starbucks is probably a good contender to head down this path. My local outlet recently put up posters advertising the company’s ongoing attempts at making the world a better place for everyone, but they have cleverly built the campaign around the guilt-trippy slogan, “Everything we do, you do.” (Translation: our impact is your impact, so if Starbucks pollutes the earth, it’s your fault for shopping here.) Starbucks is absolutely right: the environmental footprint of any corporation is ultimately just the collective footprint of its customers, whether it sells coffee, consumer electronics, or gasoline. All consumption is personal consumption in the end.

There’s no question we should be concerned about the sustainability of our activities. But the problem with the “no-impact” meme is that it embodies such a crudely literal and materialistic conception of what that involves. So we worry about the exhaustion of fossil fuels, metals and minerals, the depletion of arable land, the shortage of suitable landfill space, when what we should really be worried about is whether living standards are going up or down. Britain used up entire mountains worth of coal in the 19th century. That resource is largely exhausted now, but so what? We got the Industrial Revolution in exchange, something that continues to pay serious dividends.

A lot of the recent concern about the environmental impact of the rapidly expanding Chinese economy is similarly misplaced. Yes, it is a dirty and inefficient expansion right now, but it will become less so as the economy matures. In the meantime, the high levels of pollution and emissions are probably a necessary trade-off for a country that needs to modernize as quickly as possible.

Far from compromising the needs of future generations, for centuries now our activities have steadily made life better, by any reasonable set of measures, for a geometrically increasing number of humans.

The truth is, humans make a huge footprint on the earth. We could never be the “no-impact species.” And the real question is, why ever would we want to be? What we really want is for that impact to have a positive trade-off, making our lives better not just immediately, but for generations to come. If the past is any guide to the future, there is little reason to think that’s not possible.