New Release Review: How To Be Alive

Colin Beavan, How To Be Alive (2016)

How to Be Alive coverWhen I was in high school I took an English class called “Utopia.” After exploring the utopian and dystopian visions of writers from Thomas More to Aldous Huxley to Charlotte Perkins Gilman, our assignment was to create a plan of our own for the “perfect society.” Having heard all our grandiose ideas, our teacher asked if we’d like to hear about her own notion of utopia.

She said that rather than moving to a distant island or making sweeping societal changes, she’d start with her own Seattle neighborhood, by strengthening the ties of community, sharing more and consuming less. Not every house on a street needs its own lawnmower, for example. While not advocating that we throw away the benefits of individualism — not everyone needs to move into the same house — she argued that we can’t create a better world without working together. And who better to work with than the people we already know?

Her idea has stuck with me for all these many years since, as an example of how to create change in the only way we truly can: starting from where we are. And when I read Colin Beavan’s new book How To Be Alive, I recognized exactly the same impulse. Beavan believes that ideas like my English teacher’s are not just nice ideas, but the way to realize our true selves while making the world a better place.

Colin Beavan APHaving taken some rather dramatic action himself — he’s the author of the bestselling book No Impact Man, which chronicles his year of trying to live as lightly on the planet as possible, and founder of the No Impact Project — Beavan has some impressive practical experience in which to ground his ideas. But it’s not necessary to go so far in order to follow in his footsteps. Indeed, the point of this book is to help people take that first step toward change, no matter how small.

Beavan incorporates research, real-life examples, and step-by-step exercises in chapters that touch on all the basic needs of our lives, which include meaning, purpose, and community as well as food, shelter, and transportation. He asks us to rethink the conventional wisdom that’s gotten us into our current mess — that selfishness and competition are the driving forces of human nature — and consider that cooperation and sharing are not only truer ways to realize our highest potential, but also make us happier.

You don’t have to be “alternative.” All that makes you a lifequester is that you actively choose what is authentic to you.

Are you alive to who you really are? Are you awake to the world around you and its needs? Do you do things because they are what everyone else does? Or do you do things because you are awake and conscious and want to do the best by yourself and everyone else?

Most of the information Beavan presents is not new. Some of it is thousands of years old, as all religious and meditative traditions exhort us to remember that we are part of one another and that our truest selves are found through that awareness. It’s his way of combining ancient philosophies, humanist psychology, scientific discoveries, and true stories of people changing their lives and the world that made for a fresh and compelling presentation. Although I wasn’t always enamored of his word choices or casual writing style (I couldn’t call myself a “lifequester” with a straight face), his points were clearly made, well organized, and thought-provoking.

Not all of his suggestions are applicable to my particular situation — it would be pretty difficult for me to go car-free, for example, as I live in a rural area with no public transportation — but this book is not a blueprint to be mindlessly followed. It’s meant as inspiration for each of us to get more creative with our individual lives, to realize how precious and incredible are the opportunities we have just through being here on this planet, and to stop being paralyzed by loneliness and fear. What will happen if a significant number of people take up this challenge? I don’t know, but I do hope we’re going to find out.

Thanks to TLC Book Tours for the opportunity to join in their tour for How To Be Alive. Click on the link for more tour stops and information.


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11 thoughts on “New Release Review: How To Be Alive

  1. I’m pretty sure that I saw a documentary on his year of No Impact a few years ago. It was good, but I remember wondering how into it his wife really was. She didn’t usually look very impressed, but was a good sport and went along with it. They also had a toddler at the time, I think.
    My husband is always saying the same thing about how we should be sharing with our neighbours instead of each of us owning one of everything. It does seem pretty silly, if you think about it. And, it’s nice to feel part of a community. We know our neighbours pretty well, but I know not everyone is so lucky. Sounds like a good book to get people thinking.


    1. Well, in the interval between that book and this one he split up with his wife, so your impression seems correct.

      The question of how to build community (without breaking up marriages) was the most interesting thing for me about this book. It’s not easy to overcome our inertia and take the first steps, but there are some good ideas here.


      1. I wanted to ask that question, actually, but didn’t think it was a very kind one, so I didn’t. So thanks for letting me know! It makes me wonder if they would have split up anyway, or if it was spurred on by his project. Hmm.


  2. I wish I lived in a special type community (dang, I forget the term I read applied to this concept) where the residents have front porches to see their neighbors, they can walk to so many stores and parks, or take public transportation, but it’s more of an enclosed area–not in the city.

    Why do we have to “keep up with the Joneses”, crave what we don’t have, and not appreciate what we have already? I also like the idea of sharing items and leaving a small footprint on this Earth. Anyone still think global warming and its consequences are fake?


    1. One of the points of this book is to figure out how to want what you really want. And then have the initiative to make it happen! It can be scary, but exciting.


  3. This sounds like a book with some good suggestions! As I’m looking forward to graduating in May and moving out to live my husband, I like the idea of reading a book like this to help us find ideas for how we want to do things as we set up our adult lives together 🙂


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