In a previous article I talked about some of the potential problems facing us as the human population continues to rise (Seven Billion and Counting).
To solve these problems we need to get creative, to think differently and we need to think long-term. And we also need a mindset where we see opportunities rather than obstacles.
In 1996 Edward Tenner wrote a landmark book “Why Things Bite Back” (1), about the unintended negative consequences of technological advances. There are many examples we could use for the sort of thing he was referring to. The widespread use of antibiotics led to the rise of resistant and more deadly bacterial strains. Computers were meant to make our lives easier, give us the paperless office and more leisure time. But instead the rate of deforestation increased, we worked longer hours, got RSI (Repetitive Strain Injury) from lousy posture and became obese and non-communicative because we sat in front of the screen all day.
Unintended consequences don’t always have to be negative however. They can be just what we need to make us think differently.
In a TED lecture in February 2011, Edward Tenner described some examples where great opportunity came from adversity or from disasters. Click here to see the Edward Tenner TED lecture on Unintended Consequences.
During the Great Depression, which started in 1929 and lasted a decade, millions lost their jobs or had to change careers. Despite this, the greatest period of human ingenuity and innovation was during the Great Depression. Why? According to Tenner it was because people left one career and ended up in another career where their creativity could be expressed. In personal tragedy or upheaval they found their greatest opportunity. Many leaders teach your greatest opportunities lie in your greatest setbacks. The trick is to be ready for them and have the mindset to see them.
This was recently brought home to me while watching a DVD called “No Impact Man”. More information on No Impact Man can be found at www.noimpactman.com.
Click here to see the official trailer for No Impact Man.
For those unfamiliar with the story: Colin Beavan, a writer living in New York City, decides to stop talking about making a difference and puts his money where his mouth is to live a life in line with his values. For a year he sets out to live a life that makes no net environmental impact, while taking his caffeine loving, retail therapy obsessed, reality TV addicted wife Michelle Conlin, their 2-year old daughter Isabella and the dog along for the ride.
Living a life with no net environmental impact doesn’t mean rejecting all technology or denying the benefits some of our remarkable technological advances have brought us. For the purpose of Colin and Michelle’s experiment, living a life with no net environmental impact included, amongst other things, creating no trash or garbage (the average American produces 725 kg (1,600 pounds) per year), using no electricity generated from fossil fuels, creating no carbon emissions, no magazine subscriptions, no pollution, no new products, no packaging, no plastics, no TV, no food imported from the other side of the world, no air conditioning and no toilet paper. In fact none of the conveniences that make life comfortable, enjoyable or even worthwhile. All this to ask the question: Is it possible to have a good life without wasting so much? And can you do it without driving your family crazy?
Let’s just think about this for a minute. A year without toilet paper. A year without coffee. A year without retail therapy. No new iPod, Wii, PS3 or Xbox games or ring tones for your cell phone. No new designer label dresses. Did I mention a year without toilet paper? No new subwoofer for the car because there is no car! No take out food. No television. No lifts or elevators. No holidays in exotic locations. No nightclubbing. No new set of golf clubs. And don’t forget no toilet paper! Sounds ghastly. What’s he possibly hoping to prove? Why would I sit for an hour and a half watching a movie about someone living a pointless and unrealistic hair-shirt life you wouldn’t live in a blind fit?
The reason is because it didn’t turn out that way. The movie follows the family’s progress through the year as they work to reduce their environmental impact in stages. It follows their successes and failures, the reaction from their friends and colleagues, the interest from the media and the surprisingly hostile response some environmental groups had to the project. All this is interesting enough but there is something more, something special, a lesson for us all.
By living the No Impact Man life, something happened neither Colin nor Michelle expected. Something changed within them. By wanting to do something for the environment they unwittingly learnt something about themselves. They learnt how to be better people. They found a richness in their new life they had never known before that went beyond just being No Impact Man. According to Colin Beavan, he could have equally called the film:
“The year I lost 20 pounds without going to the gym once. Or the year we didn’t watch TV and became much better parents as a result. Or the year we eat locally and seasonally and it ended up reversing my wife’s pre-diabetic condition.”
While reducing their net environmental impact to zero, they saved money, lost weight, gained energy, improved their health, spent more quality time with their family and friends, invigorated their marital relationship and discovered an overall sense of freedom. Sounds like a pretty appealing hair-shirt existence to me. And none of it did they expect.
I’m sure Edward Tenner would approve.
And at the end of the year-long experiment, did Colin and Michelle say “I’m glad that’s over” and go back to the life they had before? No they didn’t. They liked the No Impact Man way of life and were very selective about which technologies they added back to their lives. They are now helping others re-evaluate their lives through the No Impact Experiment.
For more information on the No Impact Experiment visit: www.noimpactproject.org.
Click here to see a video introduction to the No Impact Experiment.
The American Civil Rights leader Dr Martin Luther King Jr. once said:
“Take the first step in faith. You don’t have to see the whole staircase, just take the first step.”
The experiences of Colin, his wife Michelle, their daughter Isabelle and the dog are testament to this thinking.
They started something they thought was going to be difficult. They thought of all the things they had to give up over the coming year. Of all the sacrifices they were going to have to make. They thought of all the negative reactions they were likely to receive. And they did it anyway. They took the first step in faith and because they had the courage to take that step, their lives will never be the same again.
No Impact Man challenges us in an engaging way to look at what we believe and what we do and the effect it has not just on the environment but on ourselves and those around us.
It poses the questions: Why do we do the things we do? Why do we believe the things we believe, hold the views we hold, live the way we live and want the things we want? Have we really thought about them or do we just do or believe them because that’s what we’ve always done? Do we do or believe them because that’s what our parents did or told us? Do we do or believe them because that’s what we were taught in school or in church? Do we do or believe them because that’s what some advert on television or in the glossy magazine said we needed to make us a better, more attractive or more desirable person? Or do we do or believe them because they’re convenient, they’re comfortable, they’re safe?
These beliefs may well be true – for them – but are they true for you? Are they in your best interests? Do they fit with your ethics, your beliefs? And how do they respect the interests, ethics and beliefs of those around you and the other species sharing our planet?
Living the No Impact Man life meant Colin and Michelle had no choice but to ask these questions and come up with honest answers relevant to them and to the way they wanted to live their lives. Everything was up for examination and everything had to stand the scrutiny of whether it supported them and fitted the ethics of the way they wanted to live their lives. The challenge and warning to us all is they came up with answers so different to the way society and the mass media says we should live or what we should aspire to. Ideas that on first inspection seem “out there”, “fringe” and “whacko”. So are they really fringe or whacko or does it tell us the message we are getting through the mass media and from those around us may not be in our best interests? Do we need to start asking the hard questions of ourselves? Have the lunatics taken over the asylum?
By undertaking the No Impact Man experiment, Colin and Michelle began to live a conscious life. Living a conscious life means being aware of the effects your decisions have on you and those around you. Living a conscious life also means you accept responsibility for your actions and the choices you make. Living a conscious life also means living a life you have consciously chosen to live. Not a life or belief system you were given when you were young or were told was “right” by the mass media or those in authority over you at the time. Living a conscious life means you have made a conscious decision about everything you do in all aspects and areas in your life. In doing so the various parts of your life begin to align and support one another. It can’t help happening. And as more and more areas of your life begin to align, something magical happens. As you begin to live your life with a unified ethic and purpose, all your efforts and energies begin to flow in the same direction. The answers to the questions of why you are here and what your purpose is in life start to reveal themselves. And you have the inner fire and energy all flowing in the same direction to make it happen and the courage to stand tall when people want to put you down.
So get out there are do something good for the environment. Who knows, along the way you may discover you’re also doing a whole lot of good for yourself as well. And you may also discover a courage you never knew you had.
As Edward Tenner says:
“Chaos happens: Let’s make better use of it”.
Until next time, stay happy and healthy.
(1) Tenner, E.: Why Things Bite Back: Technology and the Revenge Effect. Fourth State, London, 1996.