Radical Simplicity by Merkel

Jim Merkel. Radical Simplicity: Small Footprints on a Finite Earth. Foreword by Vicki Robin. Gabriola Island, Canada: New Society Publishers, 2003. Paperback, xxi + 248 pages.

How big is your footprint—your ecological footprint, that is? I was horrified to find I am leaving a giant’s tracks, when I had assumed I was doing pretty well. The concept of “ecological footprint”—the impact on Nature caused by our individual or collective lifestyle—was conceived in 1992 by William Rees and Mathis Wackernagel at the University of British Columbia. This standard was first used in sophisticated analyses of the environmental impact of the world’s nations. It can also be usefully applied to individuals.

Jim Merkel, a former weapons engineer with the US military, was jolted into ecological awareness by the Exxon Valdez disaster. Boldly and radically, at the age of 30, he turned his lifestyle upside down. Radical Simplicity, published 14 years after this metanoía, is both Merkel’s story and philosophy and a practical toolkit for the reader who feels inspired to follow suit. And Merkel does his best to inspire and encourage through facts and figures and not least his own good example.

Even though we are already in the midst of an environmental crisis, which I believe will reveal its vicious bite soon, it is not too late and certainly not irrelevant to make personal lifestyle changes NOW.

Here is Merkel’s rationale in brief: of the 126 billion acres of land, only about 32 billion acres are bio-productive, which, given our present world population of 6 billion, amounts to 5.3 acres per person. If we leave 80% of usable land for the nonhuman species of our planet, each person ends up with only a single acre. The fact is that on a global level humans use an average of 6.9 acres per person. Of course, the United States and Canada have rather larger footprints than anywhere else in the world. The US comes in with 24 acres as compared to China’s 4 acres and India’s 1.9 acres. Except for Bangladesh, with 1 acre per individual, we all are vastly overconsuming and stealing from others! The environment is running at an enormous deficit.

Merkel admits that “global living”—that is, an ecologically sound lifestyle with a miniature footprint—is a very scary thing, especially when a whole family is involved. He is realistic enough to realize that very few people will have the guts to follow his example, but he urges the reader to start somewhere and not simply sit back and wait for the catastrophe to become unleashed. “If we want a sustainable future, sharing Earth with all is humanity’s only compassionate, long-term choice. Our intellect, back by the best of science, concludes that economic growth on a finite planet is suicide. . . . If we make these changes now, the damage can be minimized” (p. 9).

The bulk of the book is a detailed quiz with full instructions on how to calculate your ecological footprint—a sobering exercise whatever the outcome or resultant action. Especially spiritual practitioners, who subscribe to mindfulness and conscious living, owe it to themselves to go through this exercise.

Merkel, who manages to live on $5,000 a year and cycles everywhere, argues passionately but also compassionately. I myself certainly feel challenged by, but also grateful for, his arguments. I am now actively looking at ways in which to shrink my footprint before I am forced to experience the fate of the dinosaurs. Here comes the garden complete with compost heap. A new yoghurt maker is already on the kitchen counter.

Copyright ©2006 by Georg Feuerstein. All rights reserved.
Reproduction in any form requires prior permission from Traditional Yoga Studies.

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