Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Radical Simplicity

Radical Simplicity - small footprints on a finite Earth by Jim Merkel is the second of two books I read this month for Green Bean's Be a Bookworm Challenge. In 1989, Merkel, a military engineer on a business trip in Sweeden, decided to walk away from his lucrative position after watching news of the Exxon Valdez in his hotel bar.
As the reporters on-screen combed the Exxon Valdez crew for the guilty, I looked across the polished bar into the mirror and knew it was me. I drive. I fly... I knew the truth: fossil fuels are a part of every item I consume. Of course the entire industrialized world stood indicted beside me - our "need" for ever-more mobility, ever-more progress, ever-more growth has led us straight to this disaster. But in that moment, all I knew was that I personally needed to step forward and own up to the damage.
Upon quitting his job, he liquidated the majority of his assets, rented out rooms in his house (though he eventually sold his house), and reduced his expenses to the point where he could live on his savings (not only did he stop contributing to the military through his work, but he reduced his income to the point that he no longer had to pay the taxes that support it either). At the age of 30, he completely retired from paid employment.  Now that's radical!

He now volunteers, runs sustainability workshops to teach others about living simply, and just about anything else his little heart desires. His book is a helpful blue print on how we can reach our own individual level of simplicity based on our own personal values. 

So, what did I think about the book? To be honest I have mixed feelings.  Let me take you through the three book sections and explain along the way.


Section 1: Journey to Simplicity. This was my favorite section of the book. It was here that Merkel talks about some of his own efforts to reestablish his relationship with nature as well as his experiences in countries like India where he views first hand what a smaller ecological footprint looks like. The principal lesson? We have a choice about how we live. He goes on to describe the buffet scenario that first drew my attention to this book.
Imagine you are at a potluck buffet and see that you are the first in line. How do you know how much to take? Imagine that this potluck spread includes not just food and water, but also the materials needed for shelter, clothing, healthcare and education. It all looks and smells so good and you are hungry. What will you heap on your plate? How much is enough to leave for your neighbors behind you in the line? Now extend this cornucopia to today's global economy, where the necessities of life come from around the world. Six billion people, shoulder to shoulder, form a line that circles around the globe to Cairo, on to Hawaii over ocean bridges, then back, and around the globe again, 180 times more. With plates in hand, they too wait in line, hearty appetites in place. And along with them are giraffes and klipspringers, manatees and spiders, untold millions of species, millions of billions of unique beings, all with the same lusty appetites. And behind them, the soon-to-be-born children, cubs, and larvae.
Basically, it comes down to sharing the Earth. Am I am taking more than my share of food, money, available work, other resources? If so, what are the areas in my life where I still have serious pruning to do? This first section of the book resulted in some serious soul-searching. It's something I'm still struggling over. 

Section 2: Three Tools. Here's where Merkel lost me. In section 2, he introduces three tools to help us determine first where we presently stand financially and ecologically, and second how to set goals to reach a financial and ecological footprint that is more in line with our individual values. Though I completely support the effort to delve deeply into our consumptive behaviors to determine where we are doing well and where we fall short, some of the methods are pretty labor intensive (one of the three ways to measure ecological footprint includes weighing furniture, appliances, everything I put in my mouth, etc). I have a tendency to be a little OCD about things as it is and weighing everything I eat and writing down everything I do over periods of months would make me (and as a result everyone I come in contact with) completely crazy! If you need a jolt to really jump start your move into a more simple, environmentally-friendly, fiscally-responsible lifestyle, then by all means, go through each of the exercises, but I'm afraid to do so would only make me completely neurotic. Besides, it's this very thing that I've done (albeit nice and slowly) over the course of the last 10 years.

I did work my way through the second ecological footprint assessment (the first was strictly based on income, the third was the one where you weigh everything). This second assessment asks a series of 12 questions and takes you through some simple math to determine your footprint. The average American uses roughly 24 acres of Earth to support his/her lifestyle (Merkel states that based on current population, however, the Earth can only sustainably offer 4.7 acres and that doesn't take into account any beings other than humans). After taking this second assessment, I came in at 13 acres. Not too bad, but certainly not the 6 acres he encourages everyone to aim for.

Merkel also goes through a shortened version of Your Money or Your Life (Vicki Robin and Joe Dominguez), a book devoted to simplifying life, concentrating on the things that are most important, to achieve financial independence. Having done a personal version of similar assessments over the last ten years, again, I read right through this section without punching numbers.

The final tool is to simply spend more time in nature (he has suggestions of things to do there), commune with it as a reminder of what we are looking to achieve - a renewed relationship with it.

Section 3: Integration.  Once away from all that OCD-inspiring number crunching, I relaxed and enjoyed the final section of the book which was full of ideas on how to implement changes in our lives and how, using the measures in Section 2 to make educated decisions about how any changes will impact our overall footprint (i.e. how does having children factor in; is it better to use email or snail mail, etc.)


Overall, and most importantly, the book made me think. Although I effectively fast forwarded through the second section, I feel a continued and inspired need to be vigilant. I'm not convinced that number crunching is the answer, but it can be a tool for those who choose it. I've spent ten years in this effort to be mindful about my lifestyle and it seems almost every day I learn something new.  As my life has evolved over those years, I've come such a long way, but my journey is far from over.  There is so much left to be learned; so much compassion to be given; so much sharing to be done.


Green Bean said...

Great review. You know, I'm with you. I don't feel a big need to constantly be measuring my footprint. I know it's better that it was but could still be a lot better. The book sounds like a worthwhile read if only for the first and third section. The idea of waiting in line at a buffet, alone, makes you stop and think. Thanks for sharing your thoughts.

Beany said...

I just finished section 1 and began #2. I think I should be prepared with calculator and pencils in order to get through this.

Its a bit like the exercises in Your Money or Your Life except a bit more intensive? The YMOYL calculations took be quite a while to get through.

Heather @ SGF said...

Beany - yep, section 2 is where it gets complicated, but numbers should be your strength, right? Let me know how you do and which methods you try to calculate your footprint. I drew the line at weighing all my stuff!

Theresa said...

The buffet analogy is very useful...I know I'll be using that one when I talk to other people about sustainability/fairness issues. Thanks for reviewing this book Heather :)