Radical Simplicity, by Jim Merkel

radical simplicity“At the heart of radical simplicity is discovering how you would like to share the Earth.”
– Jim Merkel

Radical Simplicity: Small Footprints on a Finite Earth, by Jim Merkel, asks us to imagine that we’re first in line at a potluck buffet for the world’s resources. How much do we take? How much do we leave for others?

Because the book was published more than 10 years ago, its numbers aren’t up-to-date, but according to Merkel when the book was written, if we divide up the productive acreage of the Earth evenly among its human inhabitants, each would get 4.7 acres.

If all humans use their full 4.7 acres, nothing will remain for other species. The average American consumes the productive capacity of almost 25 acres.

“In modern society, you will be lured away from your sustainability goal a hundred times a day. Keep your focus on porcupines and violets, not on numbers.”
– Jim Merkel

Merkel offers the “Sustainability Sweatshop” worksheet for readers to determine how much of the earth’s productive capacity they would like to use.

That is, you can decide how many productive acres you’d like to consume, which is called your sustainability goal. Once you complete the sustainability workshop, you’re introduced to three tools: ecological footprinting, Your Money or Your Life and learning from nature.

The book goes on to offer ways for us to calculate our ecological footprints. Few of us are likely to measure and weigh everything we own, but reading about the process is interesting. OK, truthfully, skimming it is interesting. Reading it all is terribly dry.

An easier, though probably less accurate, method is to use a website calculator such as Global Footprint Network or Ecological Footprint.

You can skip the section on Your Money or Your Life if you’re already familiar with the book. It talks about how to decide whether the time you spend for money and the resulting stuff (or experiences) is worth it.

The chapter on the third tool, learning from nature, talks about a variety of experiences from walking meditation to eating wild foods.

“It’s comfortable to have a vague idea that a bit of recycling and fewer miles in the car constitute sustainable living. Those who are satisfied with a few small things should not read Jim Merkel’s Radical Simplicity.”
– Doug Pibel, Yes Magazine

Realistically, few of us will do the Sustainability Workshop or other calculations. Nor are most of us going to cut our ecological footprint down to one or two – or even three – acres.

However, the book provides extra incentive to live more simply, even if you’re not into radical simplicity. Also, Merkel acknowledges that living simply is difficult and takes time (even decades) to perfect, so you’re less likely to feel overwhelmed and more likely to make some changes in your life.

Merkel also provides some useful suggestions for reducing our ecological footprints, though some are obvious (drive less) and others are unlikely to be implemented (wash your dishes with wood ash).

If you’re interested in learning more about global sustainability, I’d recommend this book. Otherwise, you’ll probably find your time better spent reading books that offer advice targeted specifically to those looking for less radical solutions.

11 thoughts on “Radical Simplicity, by Jim Merkel

  1. Hello Christy, The debate about the state of our planet – just how bad is it?. what should we do about it? – is a fascinating one, and of course extremely important. I just heard part of Tom Asbrook’s On Point program (NPR station WBUR): http://onpoint.wbur.org/2014/09/03/wilderness-act-fifty-years-nature

    September 3, 2014 at 11:00 AM
    How Humans Deal With A Changing Natural Environment
    MacArthur “genius” Ruth DeFries looks at humanity’s long, deep integration with nature – and what comes next. She’s hopeful.


    Ruth DeFries, environmental geographer and professor of sustainable development in the department of ecology, evolution and environmental biology at Columbia University. Author of the new book “The Big Ratchet: How Humanity Thrives in the Face of Natural Crisis.” Also co-author, with Cheryl Simon Silver, of “One Earth, One Future.” (@ruthdefries)

    One piece of advice that I have heard over and over again, most recently from Ruth DeFries, is that one of the best ways to fight climate change is to cut back on meat consumption.


    • Thanks, Carol. Cutting back on meat consumption is surprisingly easy for most people, since there are many ways of doing it. You can simply eat less meat at each meal, have some meals vegetarian, eat vegetarian before dinner….

      The fake meats are getting better, though for the most part I prefer to eat “real” food and substitute things like lentils. For those just getting started and wanting to try vegetarian meats, my favorite is soy chorizo.

    • While I enjoyed them both, I did find Your Money or Your Life more helpful for my personal situation. Your library system will probably have them both – mine did.

  2. I read Merkel’s book and found it a blueprint for myself so much it’s one of the keep books I’ve held on to and reference now and again. I did find the later part of the book and the information on Your Money or Your Life to be bits I could skim as I’d read that one first. I admire the way Merkel lives but can’t see myself ever living as sustainable as he does.

    • I thought of you when I was reading the book – you’re one of the few people I know who might actually meet the goal of a few acres, even if you don’t live quite as sustainably as Merkel does. However, I saw that since writing the book, he got married and had a baby, so the comparison may be tipping in your favor 😉

      • I missed the news that he was married and a father. The last calculations I did online told me I would need 1.3 planets to sustain myself, so I have a long way to go. I can think of a few people I’ve met online who might be closer than I am, Wendy of quarter acre lifestyle comes to mind because they are so close to producing all their own food and never shop for new anything.

        • Seriously? I can’t imagine that calculation was correct. The one I did said I needed I think 25 acres – which is obviously way more than the number allotted – but I know our house is too big for us, which is why we’re moving next year and we’re not even vegetarians (though we do eat a mostly vegetarian diet). Or maybe it was correct and I just need 20 planets 🙂

          • Christy, I highly doubt you need 20 planets even if your home is larger than you need. I find there are little things that are taken for granted in most of these calculations. Such as it’s assumed every family has a stove and refrigerator, so I’d try another one and compare.

  3. Your Money or Your Life is what gave us the tools to realize we could sell our house and cars and move into a small motorhome to go see this wonderful world of ours. I highly recommend it.

I'd love for you to share your ideas and experiences.