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Radical Simplicity: Small Footprints on a Finite Earth -- Jim Merkel

Imagine you are first in line at a potluck buffet. The spread includes not just food and water, but all the materials needed for shelter, clothing, healthcare, and education. How do you know how much to take? How much is enough to leave for your neighbors behind you -- not just the six billion people, but the wildlife, and the as-yet-unborn?

In the face of looming ecological disaster, many people feel the need to change their own lifestyles as a necessary step in transforming our unsustainable culture. Radical Simplicity is the first book that guides the reader to a personal sustainability goal, then offers a process to monitor progress to a lifestyle that is equitable amongst all people, species, and generations. It employs three tools to help readers begin their customized journey to simplicity:

  • It builds on steps from Your Money or Your Life so readers can design their own personal economics to save money, get free of debt, and align their work with their values.
  • It uses refined tools from our Ecological Footprint so readers can measure how much nature is needed to supply all they consume and absorb their waste.
  • And by advocating time alone in wild nature, it opens readers to another reality with humanity as one species among many on a complex and inter-related planet.

Combining lyrical narrative, compassionate advocacy and absorbing science, Radical Simplicity is a practical, personal answer to 21st century challenges that will appeal as much to Cultural Creatives and students as to spiritual seekers, policy makers and sustainability professionals.

Books with chapters written by Jim Merkel

Voluntary Simplicity – the poetic alternative to consumer culture, edited by Samuel Alexander, Stead & Daughters Ltd, New Zealand, 2009. (Contains two chapters from Radical Simplicity) Click here to purchase.

Less is More – Embracing simplicity for a healthy planet and a caring economy and lasting happiness, edited by Cecile Andrews &Wanda Urbanska, New Society Publishers, Canada, 2009. Click here to purchase.

Advancing Sustainability in Higher Education: New Directions for Institutional Research, edited by Larry Litten, Dawn Geronimo Terkla, Wiley Periodicals, Inc, San Francisco, 2007. Click here to purchase.

Forward by Vicki Robin, co-author of the best-selling book Your Money or Your Life

Open to page 136 of Material World (the book of photos by Peter Menzel showing people and their possessions from around the world). Don't have a copy? No problem -- I'll tell you what the picture is. It's the Skeen Family from Pearland, Texas, selected because they are "deep in the heart" of the American experience. Their income approximates the average US level. They have two children -- Michael, age 7 and Julie, age 10. Like all of the 30 families representing 30 countries that were selected for this coffee table book, they stand in front of their home with all their furniture and appliances arranged in the cul de sac behind them. It's a nice but modest array, nothing compared to the stage set of many sitcoms. Every family from around the world was asked what their most valued possession was -- for the Skeens, as for many Americans, it's the family Bible.

Now turn to page 14. Mali, in Africa. The Natoma family of eleven (two wives, eight children, one father) sits on the roof of their mud and straw adobe home, surrounded by cooking pots, baskets and various kitchen and farming implements. Perhaps half of these everyday items were made by the family themselves. In the background is a bicycle, which is Papa's most prized possession. The clothes on their bodies and on a makeshift drying rack (a pole balanced between the house and the mud wall) are colorful. Their faces sport big smiles. They have a radio but no TV, no telephone, no VCRs and no automobiles.

These two families are separated by many thousands of miles, many years of development and many layers of creature comforts. If you are like me, you can appreciate the simplicity of the Mali household and even wonder at their apparent delight in circumstances that would send most any American into helplessness and despair. Almost everything arrayed behind the Skeens would have to be plucked out of the picture to put them on a par with the Natomas. Best to close the book.

But we can't close the book. You, I, the Natomas and the Skeens, along with perhaps 6.3 billion other humans and hundreds of billions of other creatures, live together on one planet. The "have-nots" can be out of sight and even out of mind, but they breathe the same air, drink from the same scant supply of fresh water, and birth children who will grow up to work with our children to finish the job we've barely started; they will have to find a way for all of us to live well within the Earth's means.

Jim Merkel, a former weapons engineer, accepted this challenge 14 years ago. He whittled away at his stock of possessions and reduced the sheer volume, complexity and toxicity of the stuff that flowed through his life. He did it with gusto and good spirit, guided by passion and curiosity. His engineering background gave him the mentality and the tools to assess which of the changes he was making actually lowered his impact on the Earth. He lobbied his city council for bike paths so everyone who wanted to could choose to do without a car. He organized Earth Day celebrations that attracted hundreds of volunteers and thousands of people. His high spirits, humble integrity and winning ways were dished up along with his facts and figures about the devastating impact on the Earth of the American lifestyle.

He learned everything he could and experimented with every method he could find. In the process he met Mathis Wackernagel and Bill Rees who taught Jim about the Ecological Footprint, a relatively accurate way to actually measure how much of the planet's resources it takes to support us in the style to which we have become accustomed. He also sought out Joe Dominguez and me after reading Your Money or Your Life. Our method for lowering consumption while increasing quality of life was another key piece in the puzzle he was pondering: how do we get people to live within the means of nature and not feel deprived? Jim also jumped at the chance to go on a study trip to Kerala, India, to learn from the people in that state who have a quality of life almost as high as ours in North America -- but do it on just over $500 a year per person.

From these building blocks he dreamed a big dream -- starting a research and education center to teach people the skills of living lightly and the ways to know how much of everything it takes to support their lives. But from here on, how about I let Jim tell you his own story? What I really want you to know is that Jim makes living on less seem like so much fun that you'll want to try it yourself. He shares compelling facts through telling vivid stories about his own successive awakenings to both the peril and the promise of living on this Earth.

People, animals, plants, soil and the all the rest of the critters together make up this precious mantle of life on our exquisite planet. We all live here together -- now, and now, and now. So now what? Jim has some answers. Listen to him and you'll see how plausible sustainability is -- and how necessary. You'll want to do your part, because by then, Jim will be your friend and his plans will seem like the greatest adventure on Earth.


Jim Merkel offers a special mix of practicality and idealism: a workable mix. I defy you to read this book and not come away thinking of ways your life might change for the better.
—Bill McKibben, author of The End of Nature

Jim Merkel has written the most persuasive argument I have yet seen for all of us to radically change the way we live day-to-day. Radical Simplicity joins the evidence of science to a fertile imagination.
This is a profoundly important book.
—Howard Zinn, author of A People's History of the United States

Jim Merkel takes us beyond extended vacations and cleaning closets to hardcore simplicity that aims to save the planet. Radical Simplicity gets to the root of our sustainability dilemma and proposes practical ideas for boosting our quality of life, caring for Mother Earth, and practising right livelihood based on justice and love. A wonderful contribution to the voluntary simplicity literature.
—Mark A.Burch, author of Simplicity: Notes, Stories and Exercises for Developing Unimaginable Wealth, and Stepping Lightly: Simplicity for People and the Planet

Radical Simplicity is the best thing since sliced bread — but with a much smaller Ecological Footprint! It gives you the tools you need to make this planet the world of your dreams; a world that provides vitality to all people and all species. And, even better, you can start living this dream today! This book shows you how.
—Mathis Wackernagel, Ecological Footprint Network and Redefining Progress

Radical Simplicity is about the discovery of abundant choices, the adventure of reclaiming a meaningful life, and the fulfillment of connecting social values to life practises. This is a powerful and convincing case for living consciously and lightly on the Earth, for beyond gentle persuasion it provides the tools for both assessing the impact of life choices and asserting the real possibility for change. We need this book now more than ever.
—John Saltmarsh, author of Scott Nearing: The Making of a Homesteader.

In the tradition of the Nearings and Donella Meadows, Jim Merkel’s Radical Simplicity is a compassionate, hands-on, compelling argument for ecological and spiritual living. This is must reading for anyone who is concerned with environmental quality, global equity, and social justice. I would like to see this book in every high school and/or college classroom in North America. There is no better hands-on, learn-by-doing curriculum guide for ecological citizenship.
—Mitchell Thomashow, Chair, Department of Environmental Studies, Antioch New England Graduate School, and author of Bringing the Biosphere Home: Learning to Perceive Global Environmental Change

Most Americans want the life that Jim Merkel knows is possible: one that expresses what we really love, what inspires us, what matters most. Radical Simplicity offers a clear vision for what we can restore to our lives and how we might imagine our lives differently. Jim Merkel is an important teacher and practitioner. In helping us to bring radical simplicity into our lives, he is helping each of us to renew our sense of service, tolerance, humility, and joy.
—Peter Forbes, a leader in the American conservation movement, and author of The Great Remembering