Radical Simplicity
Jim Merkel
New Society Publishers, Gabriola Island (Canada), first edition, 2003 (2003)
248 pages, including index.

Presentation on Slideshare.

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 externally?

(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 life?

(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 impacts.

(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 species.

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, indefinitely.

(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:

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.

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.

(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 ecological footprint:

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 why.

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 resume.

(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