Book Review: Radical Simpliciy: Small Footprints On a Finite Earth

Gabriola Island, B.C.: New Society Publishers 2003, 248 pages, $17.95


Sometimes it's easier not to know. It's comfortable to have a vague idea that a bit of recycling and fewer miles in the car constitute sustainable living. Those who are satisfied with a few small things should not read Jim Merkel's Radical Simplicity. The book is radical in both meanings of the word: Merkel's analysis is both revolutionary and directed at the roots of our way of life.


Merkel starkly outlines the unsustainability of our current path. Were the productive acreage of the Earth divided evenly among its human inhabitants, each would get 4.7 acres. If all humans used their full 4.7 acres, nothing would remain for the other species. The average American consumes the productive capacity of nearly 25 acres. Put another way, America's 300 million people consume the share of more than 1.5 billion people (or more than 5 times their fair share). Merkel notes that his $5,000-a-year lifestyle—unimaginable poverty for most Americans—ranks him in the wealthiest 17 percent of all humans.


Is it even possible to reduce one's ecological footprint by more than 80 percent? Merkel forthrightly admits having the same question when he began to attempt it. He also admits that he's not there yet, although his ecological footprint is now three acres, small enough that if every human did the same, there would still be something left to support non-human life. He recognizes the tension between the impulse to sustainable living and the pervasive culture of consumption.


Merkel charts his own evolution, from a weapons engineer on a fast track to material wealth to a person who lives on less than $5,000 per year. His transformational moment was the Exxon Valdez oil spill. As he watched the news of that disaster, he realized the deep connection between the oil-based American model of consumption and the destruction of habitats and species, including homosapiens.


Merkel set out to find another way, a pilgrimage that took him from the Indian state of Kerala to the Native American Dineh Nation in Arizona, from the Himalayas to the Sierra Nevada, and from British Columbia to Maine.


Radical Simplicity shows the result of that journey: the discovery that life on a fair-share footprint, although austere by American standards, is not only possible, but satisfying. The alternative is to continue as we are, with the one billion richest consuming 80 percent of the goodies now available (which represents the whole of the Earth's carrying capacity), leaving the other five billion to eke out a mere existence on the remainder.


Merkel applies his engineering background to produce a systems analysis, detailing the present reality and the steps available to change it. He relies on the work of others—the Ecological Footprint analysis of scientists Mathis Wackernagel and William Reese and the money/life-energy paradigm of Joe Dominguez and Vicki Robin's Your Money of Your Life (YMOYL)—along with his own third element, reconnection with nature.


YMOYL is familiar to most in the sustainability movement (for those coming to it new, Merkel includes a stripped-down model); the concept of the ecological footprint is more familiar as a concept than a detailed reality. The latter is the linchpin of Merkel's book.


This book is not a jeremiad. It's a manual, an engineer's text written with grace and good humor. Unlike many books on voluntary simplicity and sustainability, this one provides tools to quantify the effects of your consumption choices. Readers can measure their ecological footprint—the number of acres of usable land occupied in supporting their standard of living.


Merkel provides diagnostics: his “Sustainability Sweatshop” helps set goals (and does it early in the book, before revealing what it takes to reach them); he offers Wackernagle and Reese's “Ecological Footprint Quiz,” followed by detailed instructions for calculating an ecological footprint. His chapter “The Wiseacre Challenge” discusses how life looks lived with one-, three-, and six-acre footprints. The materials from YMOYL show how to reclaim your life energy from the effort to earn and spend money; the chapter, “Learning from Nature,” demonstrates how to turn that freed-up energy toward a better relationship with the natural world. Finally (what engineering text would be complete without them?) there are extensive appendices providing worksheets for calculating your ecological footprint, taking the Wiseacre Challenge, and applying the principles of YMOYL.


Existing work on sustainability, resource justice, and escaping the consumer lifestyle has opened the door to the possibilities of a simpler life. Merkel invites the reader to step through the door and follow him down the path to realizing those possibilities.


Reviewer Doug Pibel is a YES! contributing editor.
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