No Impact Man: The Documentary

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4 January

Thomas Edison electrocutes Topsy the elephant, 1903

On this day in 1903, the American inventor genius Thomas Edison electrocuted a live elephant to death with electricity. And filmed the whole event. The purpose was to demonstrate how dangerous electricity delivered by alternating current (AC)was. Edison was very much wedded to direct current (DC) and had been making a bundle in licensing payments from cities in the USA that were increasingly going electric, many using his system. And in the other corner we had George Westinghouse (and behind him the patents of Nikola Tesla), who reckoned that AC was the way to go. Since the late 1880s this so called “battle of the currents” had raged, with each side claiming one victory or another. AC’s breakthrough had come with the invention of the AC transformer, which allowed AC current to be transmitted at high voltage over long distances with little loss en route, and then stepped down to a working voltage where it was needed. Because no comparable DC transformer could be made cheaply, suddenly AC had the advantage. Which is where Edison’s “experiment” comes in. It was part of a campaign of disinformation waged by his company, to “prove” that AC was dangerous. The public electrocution of dogs and cats, cows and horses became routine. But it wasn’t so much a sign of confidence, more a desperate measure put in place by a company that knew it was losing the battle. By the time of his 1903 elephant stunt even the company he had formed, Edison General Electric (which had since become General Electric) had gone over to AC. On the day itself, the 36-year-old elephant was led out and had copper cables attached to each leg. A 6,600 volt AC charge was then sent through her and seconds later she toppled over dead. Little did the 1,500 onlookers realise, but Topsy had also been fed with carrots laced with cyanide, just in case the electricity failed to kill her.

No Impact Man (2009, dir: Laura Gabbert, Justin Schein)

A New York family decide to withdraw from modern life for a year, to make no impact on the environment. Can it be done? Will they fall apart? Is it more than a stunt designed to get No Impact Man Colin Beavan, a freelance writer, a book out of the experience? This documentary is fascinating because rather than tackle our misgivings head on – this is just another masturbatory middle class fantasy experiment of the sort that mid-range newspapers love to feature, surely? – directors Laura Gabbert and Justin Schein take their time getting round to them. So we’re intrigued as the family slowly starts to reduce its environmental impact, first buying all food unpackaged, then going back to the old razor and strop for shaving, replacing toilet paper with washable cloths, walking up the stairs at the skyscraper where wife Michelle Conlin works. And, without Gabbert and Schein overtly telling us, we see how much more zealous Colin is than Michelle. She likes make-up, iced lattes and is a shopaholic – she enjoys the urban buzz. What’s more, she goes out to work for a living; whereas he is self-employed and works from home, which makes things way easier for him. Then we advance a little into the experiment and things get a bit more reality TV. The camera records what look like a few staged discussions – she wants another child, he says no. She’s 40 years old and so… they stop using the contraceptives. And then, at six months in, they finally stop using electricity and things get very interesting. I’m not going to detail every step of they way on this family’s journey, because that’s what the film does. But I will say that it is remarkable how much sheer hate these people attract for trying this little experiment. It’s also noticeable how their family dynamic changes. The two adults and their two-year-old daughter Isabella become much more loving, much more a family unit. Can we all live like this? Of course not. Should we perhaps take a step in that direction? Maybe. This documentary shows how hard, and how rewarding, that might be.

Why Watch?

  • Informative, educational, entertaining
  • It’s impossible, surely, in New York?
  • A great advertisement for taking the foot off the pedal
  • Washable cloths instead of toilet paper? Really?

No Impact Man: The Documentary – at Amazon

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© Steve Morrissey 2014

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