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A change of heart:
As the reporters on-screen combed the Exxon Valdez crew for the guilty, I looked across the
polished bar into the mirror and knew it was me. I drive. I fly. Four
intercontinental and three cross-continental flights in just this last year.
How could I plea bargain with a jury of 12 gasping whales? I knew the truth:
fossil fuels are part
of every item I consume. Of course, the entire industrialized world
stood indicted beside me —our "need" for ever-more mobility, ever-more
progress, ever-more growth had led us straight to this disaster. But in that
moment, all I knew was that I, personally, needed to step forward and own up
to the damage.
(Jim Merkel: Radical Simplicity, p. XVIII)
Let's face it: in North America it can be challenging to find products that
don't have a large, negative environmental impact. And just as challenging
is to say no to what is so easy for us to have... to say no to what just seems
normal to have. As we look more deeply into the products and
services we use, one question we can ask ourselves is: "Am I in control of
what I choose to put on my plate?" If not, then who is? Why do we feel such
a knee-jerk resistance to taming our appetites? This is a spiritual, social,
psychological, and emotional question. Does it come from internal fears of
not having enough? Or is it the product of pathological pressures generated
(Jim Merkel: Radical Simplicity, p. 5)
In essence, the serious practice of global living discontinues payments to
the oppressors, to polluting corporations, to the military industrial complex,
and to all their subsidiary brand names. Our day-to-day purchases, our
hard-earned dollars, as it turns out, are our strongest votes for the world
of our dreams. We can create change with each dollar we spend —or
better yet, don't spend. A tamed appetite is the core of global living.
(Jim Merkel: Radical Simplicity, pp. 11-12)
Global living seeks to integrate the material and non-material into a
healthy lifestyle. By getting the material aspects of life pared down,
prioritized, and in good order, we free up time to explore the non-material
realms. And, through attention to the non-material, you might find that
many of your perceived material "needs" were actually not needs at all.
Many who experiment in simplicity speak of an increased freedom, once they
strike the right balance. How do you feel about the balance in your
(Jim Merkel: Radical Simplicity, p. 13)
If technology is the silver bullet, then shouldn't the American family,
with its superior information and developments, have a smaller impact than
the Indian family? Although technology could drastically reduce human
impact, its applications in warfare, consumer goods and services, and
for-profit medicine result in serious side effects. While its benefits are
celebrated, its performance record is one of accelerated environmental
(Jim Merkel: Radical Simplicity, pp. 15-16)
On the parameters followed to design a radically simple lifestyle:
Design Parameter 1: There would be no losers; human, Earth or other
Design Parameter 2: Each step could be taken by everyone, everywhere;
not just by those with privilege.
Design Parameter 3: The steps and solutions had to prove sustainable,
(Jim Merkel: Radical Simplicity, p. 20)
On his experience in the Indian state of Kerala:
Forward thinking Europeans have formulated a business policy which holds
manufacturers responsible for their products, from cradle to grave. Here
there is no grave &mdas;what designer William McDonough refers to as cradle to cradle, waste =
food. There are no clearcuts, no factories, no fossil fuels, no insurance,
and no marketing. These processes took only the fruits and pruned fronds.
For six years, I was a process engineer in a high-tech factory in New York
and designed manufacturing systems. Now, I was in a real-world
sustainable-living factory. I linked yesterday's spun coconut fibers to
today's freed nuts. I had seen husks go into the fire to heat a curry pot
at the restaurant and tasted the coconut milk and meat in two meals. Fuel,
food, shelter, fishing nets, ropes —all from one tree— and they
never killed the tree!
(Jim Merkel: Radical Simplicity, p. 31)
I had always heard that the entire world wanted the American Dream. So I asked the young men what
"things" they dreamed of. One said, "Maybe a bicycle." I probed, "Would you
like a car?" They all chimed, "No, no." In the last decade, TV ownership rose from 0 to 13 percent in
Kerala. In Jerry Mander's book, In the Absence of the Sacred, he documents an organized
resistance to the introduction of TV by the Dene of northern Alberta (Canada). Within years of its arrival,
Cindy Gilday from the Native Women's Association had this to say:
In my brief time in Kerala, I saw evidence that television was beginning
to have this effect. Time will tell if their culture is strong enough
to survive the onslaught of advertising.
The effect has been to glamorize behaviors and values that are poisonous
to life up here. Our traditions have a lot to do with survival. Cooperation,
sharing, and non-materialism are the only ways that people can live here. TV
always seems to present values opposite to those. I used to be a
schoolteacher and when TV came to the villages, I saw an immediate change.
People lost interest in the native stories, legends, and languages, which are
really important because they teach people how to live.
(Jim Merkel: Radical Simplicity, p. 36)
On the cost of living in Kerala, compared to our own countries:
Imagine this scenario. What would happen if every worker were to offer
their services at a price as close to the average global income as practical
given their particularities, such as family size, geographic location,
etc.? In essence, this means setting the price for one's products or
services according to their needs, instead of attempting to maximize profits
(what the market would bear or as high of a salary as you can negotiate).
Costs would come down. Each household could work just enough to support
their basic needs, including a reasonable level of long-term security. By
having lower incomes, individuals would consume less. As product prices fall,
others can work less and earn less. The entire economy would gently slow
down, yet everyone would still have their needs met. It simply takes
each person limiting how much income they take and how much they consume.
I'm not really suggesting communism. But I am suggesting a voluntary taming of the appetite. There's
6.2 billion people behind me in that line.
(Jim Merkel: Radical Simplicity, p. 37)
Didn't he just describe Cuba
Talking to the indigenous people of Kerala, the Kani:
A 69-year-old grandmother, Chellamma, said through my interpreter, "As
children, we had free range of the forests to gather tubers, nuts, and fruits
—whatever we needed. We drank from the streams. The waters were very
clean. We would sow wild seeds in the valleys for grain. Now there is a
problem because each has a plot, and the areas for gathering are spread out.
Now, people are forced to grow food and cash crops." With "private property", the areas for gathering have become off-limits
to others. She continued, "We are no longer allowed to enter the national
forests. The wild pigs come down and dig up the tapioca roots." I asked if they had problems with the
pigs before they started planting. She said, "They ate the forest tubers,
like us, but there was no problem."
(Jim Merkel: Radical Simplicity, p. 40)
Or, in other words, how the spread of capitalism
obliterated their traditional lifestyle in the name of
a modernization that brought, at best, mixed results.
I have been warned, "Don't romanticize natives —their cultures are
full of oppression." That may be true in some places, but it hasn't been my
experience. Over the past 14 years I have lived, in total, a year's time
in a dozen native communities. I traveled on foot or by bike, and slept
outdoors or in their homes. I have seen some ugly things, most related to
alcohol, outsider oppression, and recovery from genocide. But I have never
felt threatened, and have received amazing generosity and hospitality. What
has grown inside me is solidarity with their sovereignty issues. Whether
tribals have anything to teach us, whether we like or dislike their ways, is
not the point. They have an intrinsic right to decide their own future
—but to do that they need their land base returned in large, generous
amounts. To accept that tribal cultures should eventually be assimilated
into modern society is ethnocentric violence; and selfishly, we may lose the
very wisdom that could save us.
(Jim Merkel: Radical Simplicity, pp. 42-43)
On an experiment at the Global
Living Project where the participants significantly reduced their
How were the teams able to reduce their footprint to a level six times
lower than the average North American, while increasing life quality? One
primary factor was that GLP teams were the size of a traditional extended
family and shared the infrastructures of a home. Participants shared one
large community hall, garden space, kitchen, shower and two vehicles.
This significantly reduced some of the big-ticket items —food, housing,
transportation and utilities. Team members slept in tents (footprints would
be higher in winter). The vehicles were used thoughtfully and sparingly.
Trips were planned well in advance so that errands were combined, vehicles
were full, and the most efficient vehicles were used first. Most of the
vegetables eaten were grown locally or gathered from the wild. Fruits,
grains, and beans were purchased in bulk from local, organic growers. Team
members took turns riding bicycles to the organic grocer 14 miles away,
always returning with heavily laden bike trailers. Other bike missions
gathered fruits, berries and wild greens. The team ate very few dairy
products and no meat. Consumer spending was minimized through creativity
and no distance from stores. For entertainment, they looked to each other
and to the land. Researches shared everything from recipes to yoga postures,
songs to thesis papers.
(Jim Merkel: Radical Simplicity, p. 46)
Reflections on how to share the Earth:
Although there are infinite ways to share, the easiest is simply to take
less. This will be our foundation, our first step. We take less (or
share more) when we:
- Earn less, taking less of the available work.
- Consume less.
- Make wiser choices.
- Purchase local products.
(Jim Merkel: Radical Simplicity, p. 52)
The 1960s heralded the
beginning of the Age of
Aquarius, a hopeful symbol that the tides were turning —humanity
was to usher in an age of harmony and understanding. Much awareness has
been raised over the last 40 years, however the gap between the 20 richest
and poorest percentiles has doubled. Income disparity stands at 250 to
1, measured in US dollars (74 to 1 using "purchasing-power parity", or "ppp"). The
amount of raw nature needed to provide the one billion wealthiest people with
an average of $25,000 worth of income could not be found within those
countries' borders; in fact, it requires the entire Earth's annual yield.
For the high-consumption twenty percent to take 250 times the GNP in US
dollars than what lowest-consumption billion gets; no nation, no culture,
no species is off limits. The World Trade Organization (WTO) and the General Agreement on
Tariffs and Trade (GATT) —elite, undemocratic groups— have
designed "legal" mechanisms to break down borders to ease raw material flows
toward the industrialized workd. The track record speaks for itself
—a further concentration of wealth at the top.
(Jim Merkel: Radical Simplicity, p. 61)
A list of "frugal tips from the experts":
- Buy what you need but don't "go shopping".
- Take care of what you own.
- Do it yourself.
- Anticipate your needs.
- Get it for less.
- Buy it used.
- Pay off your credit-card balance.
- Walk or bicycle to do errands.
(Jim Merkel: Radical Simplicity, p. 130)
The "triple bottom line test":
As you get into the process of radical simplification, you might discover
that when you set out to shrink your footprint, you also end up saving time
and money. During my engineering career, I had bought into a certain
set of cultural myths. First, I believed that clothes washers, computers,
riding lawn mowers, and cars save us time. Second, I believed that "economy
of scale" would make products cheaper —therefore, shop at Mall Wart. Third and last, I had heard
that environmental protection is expensive, so, expect to pay more for
"green" products and organic food. The first two, I more or less agreed with,
but this last one was too counter-intuitive. How could it cost more to
reduce impact? Doesn't it cost money to destroy nature or make pesticides?
Leave off the pesticides, it should cost less, right? Well, a trip to the
health-food store upheld the myth: a bag of organic chips or carrots did cost
more than the supermarket variety, but I remained skeptically puzzled as to
I began doing a systems analysis on this question and deciphered this puzzle
into an accounting problem. The costs of products from large manufacturers
are often kept artificially low until they eliminate competition. Because
they control so much wealth, they can influence public policy to get low-cost
access to energy, land, toxic disposal sites and raw materials. Often,
wasteful, polluting, inefficient processes are located where few
environmental regulations exist and low wages can be paid. If these
large-scale manufacturers had to be responsible for the implications of their
processes, their products would be more expensive, and possibly more so than
most bioregional products. What you don't pay over the counter you pay in
taxes, dirty air, dead animals, polluted water, clearcut forests, sweatshops
and strip-mined lands. Small-scale bioregional producers, although
their products might use less energy and materials and create less waste
because they wield less political influence, don't get big tax breaks and
bailouts or discounted access to resources. Although small businesses are
often over-regulated, some of the worst polluting can be done by small,
irresponsible outfits. Still, local products typically reflect a truer total
cost. Myth #3 was called into question. I returned to the first two myths
regarding conveniences and economies of scale.
(Jim Merkel: Radical Simplicity, p. 154)
On "the Wiseacre Challenge":
One thesis of this book is that it is possible to live on very small
footprints. This by itself has little appeal; I could sit on a couch and
eat macaroni and cheese until I die. What does have appeal is having a
great quality of life on a small footprint. This is the Wiseacre Challenge
—to become expert at getting the most from the least.
A wiseacre is someone who, even with a thousand people telling them they are
foolish and idealistic; and that their actions are futile, still attempts to
live by their own standards. She hasn't taken on a life of radical
simplicity to prove a point or to shame others, for she knows how tough it
is to live this way in America. Her life just feels good, and it works for
her. The "wise" part of "wiseacre" means paying attention to that inner
sense of what is right. The "acre" part refers to knowledge of spatial
limits. On a finite planet, how much is enough?
(Jim Merkel: Radical Simplicity, pp. 164-165)
A bit more on his own personal experience:
During the winter of 2000, Ivan Ussach, my partner Rowan, and I took on the
Global Living Challenge, a six-month attempt to live on one acre each. We
faced many of the tough tradeoffs illustrated in the scenarios of the last
chapter. Rowan and I were clear on our sustainability goal: one acre. But
our food EF [Ecological Footprint] was still 1.8 acres, due in part to the
amount of fuels used to grow and deliver our organic pulses, grains, and
vegetables. Our housing EF was 1.25 acres, including 0.8 acre for heating.
Our food would have to be sourced even closer to home and our house would
need better solar performance and more thermal mass. In the process we came
to more fully appreciate the level of changes necessary to get to a one-acre
ecological footprint and maintain it. I had dipped into the one-acre arena
for various short-term experiments, but would I be willing to stay with it
year after year? The hardest part of sustainability for me is to sat no
to what is so easy to have. My gut intuition said; "I can live year
after year on three acres; with some optimization of our current design,
two acres would be possible; and I could achieve one acre if I had to." But
given the context of the culture I was born into, I don't think I have the
will power to stay with one acre voluntarily. There are just too many
consumptive choices that present themselves every day. I could see myself
beginning to resent it. The old adage, "You can't expect someone else to do
what you are not willing to do yourself" hit home. During those months of
footprint shrinking it occurred to me that I needed to look more deeply into
the population side of the equation.
(Jim Merkel: Radical Simplicity, pp. 182-183)
That way, we get to the more political part of the book, where Merkel proposes
his "one-hundred-year plan" towards a systainable planet:
This chapter proposes a realistic path toward a sustainable planet. For the
plan to work, it needs to be adopted by rich and poor peoples alike, and the
work needs to be done on many levels: governmental, societal, and personal.
In keeping with this book's premise, I will focus on the power of the
individual to impact global life quality by making different personal
choices. In essence, my proposed one-hundred-year plan is a call for
individuals worldwide to voluntarily choose:
- Single-child families (on average) until population reaches one billion
(about 100 years).
- A personal ecological footprint not to exceed six acres.
After population levels approach one billio, two-child families could
(Jim Merkel: Radical Simplicity, p. 185)
A pie in the sky scheme:
The 100-year plan offers a clear win-win scenario. If humanity chooses
one-child families for the next 100 years, a footprint goal of six acres is
achievable without sustainability heroics. The high-income individuals, who
now have the most privilege, need to step up to the plate and reduce
footprints as an initial gesture of goodwill. Then, after sustained,
documentable reductions have been made, they will have the credibility to
ask low-income countries to reduce population.
The low-income individuals, those 3.5 billion living on $520 a year, will win
as our consumption becomes lower and more bioregional. A sufficient share of
their land, now engaged in exports, can then be allocated for local
self-reliance. And, with smaller families, their country's overextended
land base (currently heavily used for cash-crop exports) will be better able
to meet local needs. With smaller populations worldwide, every urgent issue
becomes less pressing. Sustainable communities will be much better places to
live than an over-extended landscape.
(Jim Merkel: Radical Simplicity, p. 192)
Entertainment Factor: 6/10
Intellectual Factor: 7/10