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Radical Simplicity: Small Footprints on a Finite Earth Paperback – September 1, 2003

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Editorial Reviews


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 tangible way of 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.

About the Author

Jim Merkel quit his job as a military engineer following the Exxon Valdez disaster, and has since worked to develop tools for personal and societal sustainability. He founded the Global Living Project to further this work, and conducts workshops around North America on this topic.

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Product Details

  • Paperback: 288 pages
  • Publisher: New Society Publishers (September 1, 2003)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 9780865714731
  • ISBN-13: 978-0865714731
  • ASIN: 0865714738
  • Product Dimensions: 6 x 0.7 x 9 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 14.9 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.5 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (35 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #743,441 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

Jim Merkel is an American author, volunteer, and engineer that moved from involvement in the military industry to pioneering in simplicity. His book, Radical Simplicity: Small Footprints on a Finite Earth offers a path to deeply sustainable way of living respectful of all life. His recent work helped Dartmouth College earn high grades on the Sustainability Report Card issued by the Sustainable Endowments Institute. Jim founded the Global Living Project and currently writes, lectures and consults with campuses and municipalities on sustainability initiatives. His loves include gathering wild edibles, being in the wilds, playing bass and digging potatoes.

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

Format: Paperback
Merkel is a gentle soul whose moment of truth came when he saw the Exxon Valdez disaster on TV. Realizing his lifestyle contributed directly to this sort of environmental destruction and a host of other world problems, he set out to do something about it. Travels in Kerala (in India) and among the Chumash taught him how to live a simpler life with less waste, fewer things, and greater connections to the land and people. As he reduced the environmental stress that his life caused, he also found that his life became less stressed.

But he doesn't leave it at that. He's an engineer, and he gives you the analytical tools he used to evaluate the effects of his lifestyle on the world. First the bad news: if you make more than $10,000 a year or have more than one child, you're almost certainly using more than your share of Earth's resources (pages 70 and 84), which contributes to starvation and extinction. Now the good news: using tools borrowed from two other books (Your Money or Your Life and Our Ecological Footprint), Merkel shows how you can take charge of the flows of material in your life. He walks you through examples such as the environmental cost of e-mail vs. snail-mail (in his case, snail-mail had the smaller footprint; in my case, e-mail did).

Let's face it, the process of coming to terms with your own plunder of the world is stressful: a combination of accounting and soul-searching. But the end goal is a sustainable relationship with nature and a simpler, less stressful life. Radical simplicity provides the tools you need to get started.
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"The year 1978" says author Jim Merkel, "was a special year in both Earth's history and human history, and it passed without notice. It was the year humans claimed the entire sustainable yield of Earth." Since that time, the stakes have only risen. Humanity now gobbles up some 20 percent more than of the earth's bioproductivity. "Why, then, hasn't the system begun to collapse?" you ask.

The short answer is that it is, although the word collapse is a bit misleading. Over the last century, wars have claimed 175 million lives; and most, if not all, of those wars were fought to eliminate other humans, gain control land and resources, or maintain geopolitical and economic security. A third of the world's children suffer from malnutrition, of which tens of thousands die everyday, while, in the same amount of time, an estimated 100 to 1000 species vanish from the face of the planet. These are just a few symptoms of ecological collapse.

In order to talk about sustainability, says Merkel, we have to talk about ecological footprints. Your ecological footprint is the amount of bioproductive land and sea area in continuous production to supply all you use and to absorb all you waste. Global sustainability, then, is a combined ecological footprint of humanity that does not tax earth faster than it can regenerate. When humanity takes from the earth faster than it can replenish, things breakdown: fisheries collapse, soils erode, species vanish, aquifers run dry, etc. - things you might read about on page A-14 of the newspaper everyday.

"But how would I know if I am taking too much?" you ask. Ecological foot printing, says Merkel, is the best way to take the guesswork out of sustainability. "It allows us to measure our progress." But then, what is progress?
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I have been waiting for this book for a long time. Seriously, there is a hole in western consciousness and in our publications about REALITY---the fact that western culture is ruining the planet, and how do we as individuals make a new way? With more calculaton tables than I liked, but interspersed with interesting, inspiring, thought-provoking world experience, philosophical musings and present-day challenges in carving a sustainable lifestyle, Merkel's book arrests the imagination of the reader. I think about this subject every day and I have Merkel to thank for pointing me toward concrete ways to `live as if life truly matters.' If you're looking for related hardcore simplicity (which isn't really so simple in this culture, is it?) check out [...] (more of Merkel's work) and Primal Conscious Living on the web---a couple in Georgia making sustainability real in their daily lives: [...]
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I read the story in my local paper about the awakening of the military engineer and how he now lives comfortably on $5,000 a year. Intrigued, I bought the book eager to find out how he did it, and some color commentary about his trials and tribulations. However, that is not what this book is about!

This book is a top-level commentary about how evil middle class Westerners are, an endorsement of carbon footprinting, a view of the world as a zero-sum game, and, of course, the placement of the "nobel savage" on a lofty pedestal.

I am interested in downsizing, but not because of a guilty conscience.

I read "your money or your life" a few years ago, and found it much more helpful. Oddly, "Radical Simplicity" summarizes the earlier book in one chapter, and uses "your money..." as 1/3 of the book "how-to" content! The author should divulge that a large portion of the book is a summary of a previous work.

On the plus side, I really enjoyed the story about the Kerala area of India, where people are able to sustain a very comfortable society on very little money.
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