In the homo ecos: library, you can find a whole range of ‘green classics’. These books (and magazines/films) are available to browse and borrow for any bookworm who considers themselves a friend of homo ecos:. For those people who do not enjoy the art of reading, our EVS volunteer Janny will read and review one sustainable page-turner every month.
This month: Radical Simplicity by Jim Merkel.
First published in 2003, Radical Simplicity is a classic when it comes to sustainable living. Its author Jim Merkel was one of the first environmental activists to popularize the term “Ecological Footprint”, and he uses this scientific method to evaluate and downsize his own personal footprint.
4,7 acres per person
The main premise of the book is quite simple. The Earth we live on can provide only a limited amount of resources (either renewable, such as agricultural produce, or non-renewable such as petroleum). Anything that we use – food, electricity, equipment, living space – can be expressed in the number of acres/hectares that is necessary to produce it. Scientists have calculated that, with our current population, every person has 4,7 acres of bioproductive land available to him. Use more than that, and we slowly deplete our Earth’s resources, leaving none for future generations.
Merkel frequently uses the metaphor of a buffet dinner: imagine being the first in line at a buffet which the entire planet’s population has to eat from. You can eat your belly full, leaving nothing for the last people in line – or you can choose to moderate, leaving enough for everyone to enjoy, and even something for our animal friends. The term that Merkel uses is “equity” – intergenerational, interhuman and even interspecies “fairness”.
Merkel describes how he had an epiphany in 1989, when he saw the images of the big Exxon Valdez oil spill on TV and realized that he was to blame, too, because was driving a car, drinking from plastic bottles, and using all of the other products made from petroleum. He made the radical decision to live ‘simply’, attempting to reduce his personal footprint to only 1 acre. The second half of the book provides tools for those who want to do the same (Merkel emphasizes the fact that it must be a free choice to live simply, never an obligation).
So far, the book is quite inspirational, and I was very keen to read on to learn how to better calculate my own footprint and how to (radically) reduce it. However, the second part of the book is mostly filled with arithmetic and tables (not that I’m afraid of numbers) and offers fewer practical tips than I had hoped. My burning question ‘so how do you do it?’ was never really answered.
The first thing Merkel advises is to do a “sustainability sweatshop” to determine your own footprint. This includes closely tracking all your expenses (food, clothes, energy) and also taking stock of the things you own and use for a longer time (your home, furniture, appliances). Although I believe it’s a good wake-up call to realize exactly which aspect of your life is making which impact, I think it’s rather absurd to go around weighing your sofa, cabinets and bed to calculate their EF. Luckily, nowadays there are plenty of EF calculators available on the internet that can give you a more general insight. For instance, I used the Footprint Calculator from the Global Footprint Network to calculate my own footprint at 10.6 acres. They put the average for Latvia at 13.8 acres.
Simple living in practice
Merkel tries to make the reader realize that we waste many of our productive live working for money which we use to pay for things we don’t like (driving our car to work) or need (the latest fashion, gadgets, processed food). He set the radical example by quitting his job and claims to be living on just 5000 dollars per year (according to Wikipedia, he is now working as a sustainability professor and revised his personal goal to 10.000 dollars). Just 5000 dollars seems like an impossibly small amount (especially to American readers), but it is actually quite close to the global average income. Merkel claims that his new lifestyle still allows him all the comforts he needs and has made him much happier. For instance, he now has time to bike to friends and grow his own vegetables.
However inspirational this radical example is, it doesn’t really offer many tools for my personal life. For instance, Merkel can initially quit his job because he rents out rooms in the house he owns, and he can live off the interest he gains from his savings. Being a ‘poor EVS volunteer’ and renting a room in an apartment, I don’t have this luxury. Nor do I have the space to grow more than a small herb garden, so becoming self-sustaining for food would be quite the challenge.
The final chapter provides three “wiseacre” scenarios for a person wanting to live on a very tight EF budget. The 1.6 acre scenario includes only locally grown food, 15m2 of living space per person, no car, very frugal heating, perhaps an hour of computer/TV time per day, no health insurance and about 10 hours of air travel per year. This makes me wonder how Merkel himself traveled to Kerala, India, for a study visit, and what the EF of writing and publishing his book is.
Inspired yet confused
Finally, Radical Simplicity is still quite the eye opener. I think everybody knows by now that we are heavily over-using the Earth we live on, but seeing the actual numbers made it very real to me.
However, the tools and tips that Merkel provide do not really seem to offer a solution for the average person. Many of the great ideas that Merkel provides (buying only local food or growing your own, building a cold storage, quitting your job) are just not available to city dwellers who are willing to do their part, but are not ready to turn their lives completely upside down. In that sense, the book really is quite ‘radical’.