Experiments

Twenty simple years an interview with Jim Merkel

Jim Merkel was an arms salesman until 1989, when the Exxon Valdez disaster changed his life (see Geez Spring, 2006). He realized that the oil spilled on those Alaskan shores was, in essence, oil spilled by his life. “I drive. I fly,” he wrote. “Fossil fuels are part of every item I consume.” So he quit his job, radically downshifted his lifestyle – cutting his income to $5,000 a year – and reduced his ecological footprint, the amount of productive land and water needed to support the resources a person uses, and absorb the waste discarded.

Jim Merkel was an arms salesman until 1989, when the Exxon Valdez disaster changed his life (see Geez Spring, 2006). He realized that the oil spilled on those Alaskan shores was, in essence, oil spilled by his life. “I drive. I fly,” he wrote. “Fossil fuels are part of every item I consume.” So he quit his job, radically downshifted his lifestyle – cutting his income to $5,000 a year – and reduced his ecological footprint, the amount of productive land and water needed to support the resources a person uses, and absorb the waste discarded.

Almost two decades after Merkel’s initial conversion, we checked in with him for an update on his experiment.

Are you still living on $5,000?

Since taking a job at Dartmouth College in 2005, my spending doubled for two years, and since leaving in 2007, it is making its way back down. My footprint still fluctuates between three and six acres and like my spending, I’m working it back down over time.

I’m coming up on my 20th anniversary of committing to simplicity. In many ways it all gets easier as new skills are learned, networks are made, information and inspiration is shared and community is built. Society tugs at us: “buy this, do that, more stress, more status, more stuff.” However, I am in control, ultimately, of what I put in the shopping basket or in my schedule book. I have total control over the three primary factors determining my impact: 1. Affluence – No one can force me to earn or spend more. 2. Population – No one can force me to have more children. 3. Technology – No one can force me to use technology inefficiently. I can’t be forced to drive a gas guzzler. No one can force me to not insulate my attic or seal the drafts in my home. Ultimately I have choice.

For 20 years I have mostly lived off the interest earned from playing small-time banker for homesteaders and by holding the mortgages when I sold my homes at various times when I’ve moved. My nest egg is still intact and I’ve not suffered in any way for want of stuff or experiences.

Swimming in a sea of North American culture, I find it tough to stick to my program. Surrounding myself with folks dedicated to sustainability, everything gets easier.

Why did you choose a systematic approach to simplicity – living on $5,000 – rather than just the more general “live with less?”

My burning question since leaving the offense industry has been, how would I know if my lifestyle was actually sustainable, considering I share earth with 6.5 billion other people, 25 million other species and thousands of generations to come? Income in North America is highly correlated to our ecological impact – the more I earn, the more energy, carbon emissions, clear cuts, mining, habitat impacted for all the groovy things I purchase.

I did shift from focusing on income to monitoring ecological footprints as it is a more accurate way to compare my impact to what the earth actually has available in terms of bio-productive acres of land per person.

The $5,000 number also meant I didn’t have to pay taxes that, in America, support brutal and obscene military terrorism. After working in the Military Industrial Complex… I simply could not bring myself to give my money to directly support such brutality. This number also put me at the average of all the world’s people in terms of per capita GDP, though $5,000 a year is still 10 times higher than the poorest 60 percent of humanity. It is just the best I’ve been willing to do so far.

Do you also have other experiments you’re planning, or new things you’re trying?

I get around a lot these days, speaking on campuses, at churches and at community centres. I find the interest in Radical Simplicity growing all the time. “The Hundred Year Plan” to sustainability, the second to last chapter of Radical Simplicity, is one area I am evolving. The essence is this: world peace, end poverty and halt the accelerated species extinction rate. How?

#. Humans choose freely to limit family size to an average of one-child for the next 100 years. World population would go from 6.5 billion to around 1 billion. After this, a two-child family average could return. #. Humans limit their footprints to a six-acre average with no individual below 3 acres.

With these two conditions, in 100 years, 80 percent of the biosphere would be left wild for the other 25 million species. Species extinction rates that are now 1,000 times faster than natural rates would slow again. Currently, humanity consumes 120 percent of Earth’s annual bio-productivity. In other words, we consume more than Earth produces annually.

Is our culture’s slow movement toward “living with less” actually working, or do we need a more serious dive into “radical simplicity?”

The numbers are not encouraging. Human numbers and global GDP have been steadily rising. At the same time “locavore” was Webster’s word of the year, 100-mile diets gain traction and campuses commit to carbon neutrality and green building. This “economic downturn” has motivated many to simplify. Our leaders would like us to consume more and save less to save the economy. However, people are not so foolish and are cutting their consumerism and increasing their savings.

Radical simplicity gets more pertinent every day the economy slows down. People are worried. I doubt change based on fear will stick. However, change made from caring for our planet might stick. If the world’s wealthy billion decide to limit their inequity out of love and compassion for our world neighbours, this type of change is beginning to find a way into the hearts of North Americans. I see positive signs. My book Radical Simplicity was assigned as first-year reading at Longwood University in Virginia. Twelve hundred college freshman read it and then I got to hang out with them on campus for a few days. What inspiring conversations I had. Youth can dream of fancy cars and vacation houses or of an adventurous life dedicated to solving humanity’s toughest problems. I find youth hungry to have a life with purpose, once provoked.

Jim Merkel is the author of Radical Simplicity: Small Footprints on a Finite Earth (New Society Publishers, 2003) and director of the Global Living Project (radicalsimplicity.org). He lives in Vermont.

Issue 13

This article first appeared in Geez magazine Issue 13, Spring 2009, Experiments with Truth.

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