One Family’s Daring Experiment: Christmas Without All the Stuff

StoryDecember 24, 2008
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And finally, on this Christmas Eve, I’m joined by a man who makes a compelling environmental case for a non-consumptive Christmas. Colin Beavan is also known as the No Impact Man. Beavan, along with his wife, their two-year-old daughter and dog, spent a year attempting to minimize their ecological footprint while continuing to live in the heart of New York City. [includes rush transcript]

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: Finally, on this Christmas Eve, I’m joined by a man who makes a compelling environmental case for a non-consumptive Christmas. We’re joined by Colin Beavan, also known as the No Impact Man. Together with his wife and his little girl, spent a year attempting to minimize their ecological footprint while continuing to live in the heart of New York City.

Well, Colin Beavan, I’m going to have you tell us your story, what you did, as YES! magazine wrote about your attempts to have, what, a Christmas without presents, “one family’s daring experiment: Christmas without all the stuff.” What did you do?

COLIN BEAVAN: Well, for one year, we tried to live as ecologically as possible in response to our environmental crises. And as part of that one year, we tried to consume as little as possible. And the idea was not to take any new resources out of the ground. So that meant when Christmas came along, we had to figure out what to do, especially in light of the fact that we had a little girl.


COLIN BEAVAN: She’s three-and-a-half now.

AMY GOODMAN: So what did you do?

COLIN BEAVAN: Well, you know, it’s funny. In our rule, in terms of not pulling new resources from the ground, what we decided was two things. One was that we would buy as gifts for people experiences, as opposed to things, you know, theater, massage — but my little girl doesn’t like massage — and secondhand things.

And this particular Christmas, we were with family, and what we did was we took a lot of her cousin’s old toys and wrapped them up, because we wanted to make sure she had as many toys to wrap up as they did. But what was really interesting — and research bears this out, in terms of what people really enjoy at Christmas — was that when it came time to open presents, she, you know, undid the wrapping paper for a while, but really what she wanted to do was sit on the piano bench and sing with her uncle. And the research shows that this is true. We tend to think of environmentalism as some sort of deprivation. But the fact of the matter is, is that this emphasis on stuff that we have at Christmas, research out of Kent University shows it doesn’t make us happier. What tends to make us happier at Christmas is time spent with our families. So if we change the emphasis, we can be happier and save the planet at the same time.

AMY GOODMAN: So, you spent a year eating only locally produced food.


AMY GOODMAN: No elevators?


AMY GOODMAN: No subways, cars, trains, planes, buses, or no packaged products, no plastics, no air-conditioning. But I want to — no elevators?

COLIN BEAVAN: Well, it was an experiment. So the idea in our experiment was to reduce our ecological impact as much as possible, which meant not using fossil fuel-powered electricity. I mean, if our elevators were powered by wind turbines and solar panels, we would have had no problem, but, you know, they’re not.

And the experiment, part of the experiment was to say, what that our culture provides us that has ecological impact do we actually need, because the real definition of “waste,” by my terms, is if we use resources that don’t even make us happy. So, for example, we, in New York, New Yorkers use taxicabs a lot and — or even subways. And we didn’t use them. Instead, what we did was we biked everywhere, and biked and walked and used a foot scooter. And although it was an extreme, in terms of the fact that even when it was raining we biked, and even like this, what we discovered is that the alternative to mechanized transportation was that we got exercise; we got to see our neighbors, because we weren’t whizzing past them; we got to be part of the cityscape; and that actually some of the so-called conveniences that we have don’t necessarily always make our life better.


magazine piece, you’re quoted as saying one-sixth of all American retail sales and, as a consequence, a hefty proportion of our national planetary resource use occurs during the holiday season.



COLIN BEAVAN: Mm-hmm, that’s right, so many of our resources. And here’s the thing. The question, when it comes to the whole, you know, Christmas present thing is, again, it’s not just about the planet; it’s about whether it makes us happy. This whole — you know, everybody — I know that everybody today is waking up stressed with this last-minute rush to go and get what they feel they’re obliged to get. But the research actually shows that the more money we spend at Christmas time and the more money — get this, the more money that is spent on us at Christmas time, the less we actually enjoy Christmas. So it turns out that if we could take all this time that we’re spending at the mall and instead use it to spend hanging out with our friends, hanging out with our families, singing, playing charades, whatever it is we do together, that we might enjoy it actually more.

AMY GOODMAN: So you did this last holiday season.


AMY GOODMAN: What about this holiday season?

COLIN BEAVAN: This holiday season is largely the same. You know, once you spend a year, you know, thinking about how your actions affect the planet and combine that with whether those actions are making your life better or not, you know, it’s kind of a mind-changing sort of thing. So, similarly, this Christmas, we’re giving experiences, we’re giving secondhand things, we’re not buying things in packaging, just because — not necessarily because it’s better for the planet, but because it feels better.

AMY GOODMAN: And how does your daughter talk about it?

COLIN BEAVAN: Oh, my daughter, you know, for example, you mention the elevators, you know, going up and down the stairs, she was just — you know, she always would ride our shoulders going up and down the stairs. She loved that kind of thing, riding around. We ride around New York City. She rides on — I have a rickshaw, like a three-wheeled bicycle, and she rides on the back like a chariot. She loves that. You know, little kids — people often ask me how will I teach my little girl about this stuff, but the fact of the matter is she taught us.

AMY GOODMAN: And does she know that she’s doing this differently than her friends?

COLIN BEAVAN: Part of the no impact living is not eating meat, because meat production is one of the top sources of greenhouse gas emissions. So we used to do this chant, “We’re vegetarians. We don’t eat meat. We love cheese,” Isabella used to say. And then, one day she noticed that all her friends were eating meat, and she said, “Dad, I don’t want to be a vegetarian anymore. I want to eat meat.” So, last Thanksgiving, I said, “OK, you know what? You can have turkey.” And she was all excited. “I’m going to have turkey! I’m going to have turkey!” And then, it got to the moment, and she took her fork, she lifted the turkey up to her mouth, and as soon as she got a smell of it, she put it down. And she’s never objected to being a vegetarian since.

AMY GOODMAN: So, this is Christmas Eve. What do you recommend to people right now? I mean, some people have gone out and bought all their gifts, or they’re racing out right now.


AMY GOODMAN: What are places they can go, thoughts they could — or should they just stop in their tracks?

COLIN BEAVAN: No, I think the way to live life is to really look inwardly and to ask ourselves, how do we want to live our lives? So, I would say, at this stage, especially as it’s Christmas Eve, and everything’s been done and planned, tomorrow, when Christmas comes, ask — ask yourself, what part of this day am I enjoying the most? Because I remember when I was a little kid, we would have — you know, we would have the Christmas present opening, and then there would be this kind of deflated feeling, like the presents were done. It didn’t make my day as great as I thought it was going to make it. You know, now what? And if we then move onto singing together, eating together, having family time together, then we can see which actually are we enjoying the most. So I would say, tomorrow, ask yourself during the day, is it the presents that you enjoy the most, the family that you enjoy the most, the friends that you enjoy the most? And then, next year, you can choose which you’re going to prioritize.

AMY GOODMAN: I didn’t even realize, Colin Beavan, that there was a Journal of Happiness. It’s quoted in YES! magazine.


AMY GOODMAN: This study by researchers Tim Kasser of Knox College and Kennon Sheldon of University of Missouri-Columbia. “After studying the Christmas experiences of 117 individuals, they found that people who emphasized time spent with families and meaningful religious or spiritual activities had merrier Christmases.”

COLIN BEAVAN: That’s right. And that’s what everybody can find tomorrow if they just evaluate their own experiences.

AMY GOODMAN: Your website?

COLIN BEAVAN: My website is
P>AMY GOODMAN: And what are you, overall, trying to do with this, with your blog?

COLIN BEAVAN: Overall, I’m trying to encourage us all to participate in our cultural response to the environmental crises that we have. And it’s not just an environmental crisis anymore. We’re seeing with the economy now, actually we have a crisis in our way of life. So the question is, is this way of life that we’re leading — we know that it’s not doing the planet any good, but is it doing us good, too? And I think that to find the answers to this, we have to work together, and we all have to participate. And that’s what we talk about on my blog.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to thank you very much for being with us, and have a happy holiday. Colin Beavan, aka No Impact Man, he blogs at His book about his experiences is out next September. His latest article for YES! magazine, “A Christmas Without Presents?” which could be the greatest present of all to yourself, your family and to the planet.

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