I don’t know what brings you girls and boys out to the cinema — maybe it’s a good drama, maybe it’s a good laugh, maybe it’s vampires (you know who you are, Twilight whores). But for me, nothing is better than a great documentary. So last weekend a couple of my peeps and I saw NO IMPACT MAN. I was so excited because this doc is all about eco living. I was thinking maybe I could pick up a tip or two… or three or four. Not that I don’t already try to reduce my own impact, but there’s always room for improvement.
The movie opens with our No Impact Man, Colin Beavan, and his family taking stock of how much trash they make. It’s horrific. The average American creates almost 5 pounds of trash per day. That’s 1,800 pounds per year. They do pretty well at reducing this by composting and reusing (and refusing) containers and bags. Then, they trade in their MetroCards for bicycles. I get that riding your bicycle uses no electricity versus taking the subway (note: half of all the electricity produced in the US is from dirty ass coal) but most Americans live in a car culture. I thought taking the subway was already “green” so there you go.
The next thing the Beavan family does is change their diet. I thought for sure they’d go vegan, even if just for the project. I was quickly disappointed however. Don’t get me wrong, they do go vegetarian and briefly talk about the effects of animal agriculture on the environment (you won’t see any of that in AN INCONVENIENT TRUTH or THE ELEVENTH HOUR). But for the rest of the film, they feast on cheese, milk, and eggs.
This floored me. I couldn’t believe that someone who labeled himself “No Impact Man” wouldn’t have done elementary research on the issue. Dairy and eggs as an eco-conscious food choice? Nuh-uh, girrrrl. Just a quick minute surfing online would have shown Mr. Beavan that dairy is a disaster when it comes to the environment.
First of all, dairy cows, even organic ones, are not usually grass-fed. They are given feed, mostly corn and soy. The feed might be grown locally, but chances are that for dairy cows in New York, it’s grown in the Midwest, over a thousand miles away. And let’s not forget about shit. Farm runoff is massive, toxic, and horrible. It seeps into water tables and pollutes eco-systems. Finally, all ruminants (sheeps, cows, etc.) emit methane gas which is twenty times worse than CO2 in terms of climate drama.
In the film, Mr. Beavan says that he inspects the farms where his dairy products come from, and that he’s OK with the way the animals are treated. This gives me fair grounds to talk about the ethics of dairy farming. He brought it up, after all.
All dairy cows need to be pregnant in order to produce milk, just like humans. They are artificially inseminated in an area of the farm called the “rape rack“. Nice. Cows are pretty much kept in stalls during their gestation period (9 months, just like a human) and are hooked up to metal pipes that suck the milk from their udders. When they give birth, they get a whopping 24 hours with their baby. After that, their newborn is taken from them so we can take their milk. Female calves become dairy cows. Male calves are sold for veal. Yeah, you heard me, veal.
After about 4 years of this treatment, dairy cows become “spent”. In other words, they stop producing as much milk, their bodies worn out from pregnancy after pregnancy. At this point, they are sent to the slaughterhouse and become hamburger.
“OK with the way the animals are treated.” Really, Mr. Beavan? And how about all the energy and fossil fuels that are used to transport these cows to slaughter, and refrigerate their meat once they’re killed? How’s that for no impact?
Eggs are another issue. I don’t recall the Beavan family visiting an egg farm in the film, but let me say this. Terms like “free-range” and “cage-free” are not regulated by any government or private agency. A “cage-free” hen might only be let out of her cage for 15 minutes a day. “Free-range” might mean that hundreds of chickens are in huge crowded sheds with hardly anywhere to go. No cages, yes, but ranging freely, I don’t think so.
There’s also the horrifying fate of newborn male chicks. Since egg-laying hens also become “spent” after some time (they get sent to slaughter after a year or two), new chickens are hatched to replace them. Since males obviously don’t produce eggs, they’re useless to the industry and are “disposed” of. Some are simply put into plastic bags to suffocate, others get tossed in machines and are ground up alive. Then there’s the massive environmental problems of chicken feces.
As the film progresses, our eco family gives up electricity and toilet paper. That’s right, they can’t give up cheese, but toilet paper, no biggie. Things wrap up with our family discussing what they’ve learned, and what they’re going to incorporate into their lives from now on. Electricity, toilet paper, and hot dogs (for Mr. Beavan’s wife) are definitely back in the picture. Biking to work sticks around.
When I got home from the theater, I went to the No Impact Man blog to see if someone, anyone brought up veganism during Mr. Beavan’s year-long sabbatical. In fact, someone had! Mr. Beavan responded that he was only buying food from within a 250-mile radius, and he couldn’t find any locally grown beans or nuts for protein. So, I went online and Googled. In 30 seconds, I found this place, a local organic farm that grows beans just outside Ithaca, NY (200 miles away). Did he just miss it? Kind of hard to believe, especially for someone who found directions online for how to construct a Nigerian double-pot refrigerator… don’t ask.
I also started thinking about the validity of being so rigid with mileage. Even if Mr. Beavan had to go 500 miles outside New York City for some food items, would that really be worse impact-wise than the methane gas, transportation, and refrigeration required for egg and dairy products? What about the feed that’s being transported to nourish the animals?
I applaud Mr. Beavan and his family for their efforts. I truly don’t mean to belittle his project or attack him, the film certainly had its eye-opening moments. But the vegan thing should have been a no-brainer.
Ari Solomon is the President and co-creator of the celebrated vegan candle line A Scent of Scandal After graduating from NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts, Ari first worked as an actor in New York and Los Angeles, and later hosted the wildly popular ARI’S HOLLYWOOD UPDATE on Miami’s Y-100FM. Now a prolific activist and writer for animal and human rights, Ari is a columnist for The Huffington Post.