This lesson plan features the film and book from the project, No Impact Man, which follows a family in New York City as they examine how they live, exchange old habits for more environmentally-friendly ones, and discover in the process that such changes actually make them happier and healthier. The lesson also incorporates Web site resources that build on themes that emerge from the family’s experiences. Educators can use this lesson to help students examine their consumption habits and consider strategies for acquiring necessities in ways that do less harm to the environment. This lesson was produced with assistance from our partner Center for a New American Dream.
By the end of this lesson, students will:
Geography, Current Events, Consumer Sciences, Language Arts
One 50-minute class period
“Intro to the Project” (length 4:30)
The clip begins at 2:12 with a scene of traffic in New York City and ends at 6:58 when the TV is being loaded on to a truck. To access this video clip, please find the link to it in the e-mail you received when you registered.
1. Ask students to journal for a few minutes on what brings them the most happiness during celebrations like birthdays, holidays, etc.
2. Invite a few students to share what they’ve written. Lead a brief discussion that seeks to determine whether the students’ happiness at these times comes from receiving gifts (acquiring “stuff”) or to some other factor like time with loved ones, etc. What brings us the greatest happiness?
3. Tell students that you are going to show them a brief video clip that will introduce them to the Beavan family of New York City, who set out on a radical experiment they called No Impact Man, where they exchanged old habits for more environmentally-friendly ones over the course of a year. Focus student viewing by having them take notes on the types of lifestyle changes the family decided to make. Then show the video.
4. Explain that getting rid of the TV was Michelle’s idea. Then, read the book excerpt to the class.
6. Explain that as part of the No Impact experiment, Colin and Michelle committed themselves to not buying anything new throughout the year, except for food. The idea was that by reducing their consumption of goods, they wouldn’t be asking industry to tap environmental resources and cause pollution to create and transport something they didn’t really need. Colin and Michelle allowed themselves to buy used or recycled items from local sources, from Craigslist or thrift shops, or to get necessities for free using services like Freecycle. Putting secondhand items to good use also helped the environment because they were then diverted from the landfill. The Beavan’s purpose wasn’t to deny themselves things that they needed, but rather to avoid being wasteful and consuming things unnecessarily, just because advertisements told them that they should. The result was that they found they had more money, more time to have fun with family and friends, and a greater sense of gratitude for what they already had.
8. Point out to students that when they buy something new, it is better for the environment to purchase products from companies that use resources responsibly. Such businesses often label their products as “green,” but such labeling can often be confusing because the business practices of many so-called “green” companies don’t fully support the values associated with that description. To help people make more informed purchasing decisions, organizations like Center for a New American Dream have carefully screened many companies for particular social and environmental attributes. They then feature products from the companies that meet their standards in the Conscious Consumer Marketplace. Shoppers who use this resource can also find tips on how to reduce, reuse, and recycle items to meet their needs.
9. Ask students if they’ve ever received a gift that they didn’t really want or need. Gift giving is a wonderful tradition, but it can also lead to excessive spending, waste, and harm to the environment. To prevent this from happening in the future, and to help students demonstrate what they have learned about environmentally-friendly consumption habits, have each student create an “alternative gift registry” using the [download id=”12″]
10. To complete the alternative gift registry, students should first determine the event for the gift registry, such as a birthday, a holiday, to help get ready for college, etc. They should then get ideas for the types of items they might include in their registries by reviewing the entries in the sample registries at the New American Dream Alternative Gift Registry site. Students should recognize that in an alternative gift registry, the idea is to encourage people to give presents that are non-material, secondhand, homemade, service-oriented (such as “fix my bike”), experiential (such as “take me to a concert”), or that come from companies that are socially and environmentally responsible. The description entry for each item should include detail about the item and where to find it (if applicable), and also explain why it is an environmentally-friendly gift based on what the students have learned in this lesson. Each registry should include ten items.
11. Students should finish their registries outside of class by a date of your choosing.
Students can be assessed on:
This article provides a succinct overview of issues related to commercialism that targets teens.
This organization focuses on limiting the impact of commercial culture on children. Site resources include information, articles, and PowerPoint presentations on school commercialism, materialistic values and family stress, and other related topics.
This organization provides resources and sponsors campaigns that help Americans consume responsibly to protect the environment, enhance quality of life, and promote social justice.
This resource from the National Wildlife Federation provides a brief explanation for how consumption and waste impact the environment.
This online marketplace includes everything from used items for sale to information on jobs and housing.
This article details estimated decomposition rates for a number of throwaway items that can be recycled.
This 20-minute video provides an informative and engaging overview to U.S. production and consumption.
These standards are drawn from “Content Knowledge,” a compilation of content standards and benchmarks for K-12 curriculum by McRel (Mid-continent Research for Education and Learning).
Behavioral Studies, Standard 1: Understands that group and cultural influences contribute to human development, identity and behavior.
Family/Consumer Sciences, Standard 4: Understand how knowledge and skills related to consumer and resources management affect the well-being of individuals, families, and society.
Geography, Standard 14: Understands how human actions modify the physical environment.
Geography, Standard 15: Understands how physical systems affect human systems.
Language Arts, Standard 1: Uses the general skills and strategies of the writing process.
Language Arts, Standard 4: Gathers and uses information for research purposes.
Language Arts, Standard 7: Uses reading skills and strategies to understand and interpret a variety of informational texts.
Language Arts, Standard 9: Uses viewing skills and strategies to understand and interpret visual media.
Language Arts, Standard 10: Understands the characteristics and components of the media.
Cari Ladd, M.Ed., is an educational writer with a background in secondary education and media development. Previously, she served as PBS Interactive’s Director of Education, overseeing the development of curricular resources tied to PBS programs, the PBS TeacherSource Web site (now PBS Teachers), and online teacher professional development services. She has also taught in Maryland and Northern Virginia.
This lesson is inspired by the work of Colin Beavan (aka “No Impact Man”), who got tired of listening to himself complain about the world without ever actually doing anything about it. So in November 2006, he launched his year-long “No Impact Man” experiment in which he, his wife, his two-year-old daughter and their dog attempted to live in the middle of New York City with as little environmental impact as possible. They tried to adopt new everyday habits that would be less harmful to the planet, and discovered in the process that such changes also make them happier and healthier. Along the way, Beavan blogged about his adventures and attracted broad public attention to environmental issues, including those related food, consumption, water, energy, and transportation. Beavan’s experiment in lifestyle redesign is the subject of his No Impact Man book and a Sundance-selected documentary by independent film producers Laura Gabbert and Eden Wurmfeld.
For over twelve years, New Dream has been helping Americans consume responsibly. New Dream works with individuals, institutions, communities, and businesses to conserve natural resources, counter the commercialization of our culture, and
promote positive changes in the way goods are produced and consumed. New Dream is dedicated to helping support and nurture an American dream that upholds the spirit of the traditional dream—but with a new emphasis on sustainability and a celebration of non-material values.