I love this movie.
Colin and Michelle are a very real couple, but also very reasonable people trying to make a difference in the world by having absolutely no impact for a year - or as little as humanly possible when you live in New York City. The film didn't just show the crazy stuff they were willing to do, it got to the heart of and tried to understand many issues to do with activism in general. They were featured in a New York Times article, and they had to deal with a serious backlash at the same time as forgoing elevators and coffee. It's hard to be different.
SPOILERS GALORE (but it won't affect viewing pleasure)
Colin was seen as an extremist hurting the cause - a loony fanatic. He was slammed by environmentalists for making them look bad. Instead of showing how easy it is to be environmental, he was shoving a bigger reality in their face - that we're consumer junkies hooked on crap, and we'll do anything to avoid seeing that for what it is. People will fight to maintain this addiction. Be warned.
Michelle was obviously really hurt by how much people hated them for this experiment. "Why do they hate us so much?" she asked several times. There are few social rewards for doing what's right. Anytime someone acts with integrity, goes an extra mile, it makes the rest of us look bad. Crabs in a bucket, we are. They're deviants for refusing to fit in with the status quo. We have to hate them to maintain balance in the system we're all sucked into to relieve ourselves of cognitive dissonance. Either that or we have to change our lives. Hmmm...
Michelle, we find out near the end, writes for a business magazine supporting all the capitalist consumerism that got into this mess in the first place. When confronted with this irony, Colin is forced to look at his efforts on a larger scale than just cutting back personal consumption.
The grief that Michelle expresses for losing her wants, that she missed that part of herself, is an important part of the transition to be seen. Even when we're improving, any change is hard, and it leaves behind something we'll miss even if we hated it when it was part of us. But after she struggled for months with the project, the best part was watching Colin hit a wall, and Michelle laugh out loud. I felt so badly for her at the beginning because Colin's disdain was palpable.
Michelle's epiphany at the farm is a whole other post.
Beyond the environment, their relationship was lovely to watch. I never showed my students the film Garbage after I bought it for just that purpose because I couldn't stand the bickering between the couple. These two don't bicker; they discuss intelligently. That's rare to see on the big screen. But in Michelle's quest for a baby, when Colin finally gets that she needs her desires supported too, I was surprised that he didn't once mention the environmental impact of having kids. Maybe that would have been hitting below the belt, but most environmentalists see the population explosion as the number one problem. This raises the conundrum many couples face at one time or another: what do you do when your dreams are oppositional? I don't think it was just that he was so into his project he forgot to pay attention to his wife's project - and I love how she convinced him to get rid of the fridge pots - that makes "I'm willing to discuss it" as far as he would go for some time, but that her goal of a second child is antithetical to his goal of being no impact. Then what do you do?
Students that have seen the film commented mainly on the missing steps in Colin's plan. The first comments were about wanting to see them make it through winter without electricity. They stopped the project in November, and Michelle seemed to spend most of her time under a comforter. Colin shunned electricity and fossil fuels, but wait, didn't he use the stove? Some were concerned with breathing in all the candle smoke. I'm pretty sure they were beeswax which isn't a problem in that sense, BUT what about all those matches? Ah HA! And they have a dog nobody mentions. Is it a vegetarian dog? And what did they do with the dog poop? Did it end up with the worms in their vermicomposter? Is that why they got flies? And how come nobody ever mentioned hot water? I think they had some!! They were showering, the buggers! Colin and Michelle weren't extreme enough for this crowd.
I was particularly impressed that they changed to cloth diapers with a toddler. First of all, it's hugely impressive to me that they did this with a kid mainly because all my excuses hinge on my children. "If I didn't have kids, I wouldn't have any garbage." That sort of thing. And I had all my kids in cloth diapers but since birth. I never knew any differently. To be used to disposables then switch takes this commitment to a whole other level. Most people were struck by the lack of toilet paper, but much of the world does without just fine - some use a cloth, and a good 30 or 40% of the world use their hand.
Colin's message at the end hit me. He posited what to do if you can only do one thing for the environment. I was guessing in my head, "eat less meat." And I was so engrossed in my obvious rightness, I barely heard him say, "Volunteer with a local environmental group." Nothing will happen until we re-engage with community. Hence, a neighbourhood viewing is a must! Pass it on.
I also reviewed the book, which is a different kettle of fish.