RADICAL SIMPLICITY

radical simplicityRadical Simplicity by Jim Merkel is a personal story followed by a detailed prescription. Merkel was a military engineer with a major defense contractor, but couldn’t reconcile his job and lifetyle with his personal convictions. So he quit his job and systematically transformed his life to free himself and his family from the possessions that owned him, and the seductive tyranny of wage slavery. He doesn’t preach or pontificate, he just describes what led him to make such a momentous change in his life, and how he did it. He then tells you, step-by-step, how you can do it, too. The result is breathtaking and impossible to put down. This is an immensely important and yet unassuming little book.

The simple principles that Merkel now lives by, and invites others to live by, are (1) not amassing personal wealth, and (2) not over-populating the region — rules he says tribal cultures have successfully lived by for millions of years. During a two week trek on the Muir Trail, he learned to turn off the noise that has preoccupied his every waking moment, and recognize that all his life he had “lived in fear — of the wild, of the elements, of not having enough”. He then went to study the culture of Kerala, India, a province with a North American level of birth rate, infant mortality rate, lteracy and life expectancy, but whose GNP per capita is only 1.5% of North America’s. He attributes such an accomplishment to (a) a culture of cooperation, not competition, (b) earth efficiency (no waste), and (c) bioregionalism (make everything locally from local materials whenever possible, rather than import it).

Since then he has worked with many groups to teach them how they can live equitably and sustainably on Earth with other species and other humans, without hardship or sacrifice, by using three lifestyle transformation tools:

  1. Ecological footprinting — to measure how much of Earth’s resources you are using, and your progress to painlessly reducing that consumption,
  2. ‘Your money or your life’ trade-off assessment — a sophisticated technique to optimize the time and money available to you and how you use it, and
  3. Learning from nature — spending time in a natural environment to learn how to be creative, economical, and live in harmony, and how to realign your whole psyche to a better (in every sense) way of living.

Radical Simplicity is a complete workbook for making the change — with step-by-step charts and tables for measuring your ecological footprint, evaluating your life’s priorities, assessing and honing the effectiveness of your lifestyle (how you use your time and money), and assessing with your loved ones how happy you are, now and as you make changes to the way you live.

Merkel spends a lot of time dealing with those visceral fears that keep us in line as massive, wasteful consumers and wage slaves. He appreciates the power that our current culture wields over us, and carefully dismantles the myths that prevent us from living radically simple lives — that this entails hardship, risk, heavy physical labour, deprivation, danger, or sacrifice, and that radical simplicity requires some kind of spiritual conversion, reveres or romanticizes primitive or savage lifestyles, requires a lot of money, or cuts you off from the rest of ‘civilization’ (it does none of these things). It is a thorough, systematic, practical step-by-step process, promising personal liberation and happiness with no investment beyond the modest price of the book.

At first blush after reading this book, I think I’m ready to make such a change. Much will depend, of course, on the views of my wife. And my life is so complex and so full of possessions that the change for me will be particularly momentous. I will of course be blogging my progress, or lack of it.

Merkel has concluded that, even if everyone were to reduce their ecological footprint, the world cannot sustain six billion humans at any tolerable standard of living. He proposes a voluntary average one-child family, the sustained effect of which would reduce human population to about a billion in a century, a number that he believes is sustainable. That’s still about three times what I think is the utopian level of human numbers. But he and I are clearly on the same wavelength. And the fact he is looking beyond just ‘what can I do’ to the macro-level ‘what do we all need to do’ makes this book all the more remarkable. While this blog has been talking about How to Save the World, Merkel has gone ahead and told us how to do it.

The book is published by New Society Publishers, a wonderful Vancouver-based specialty publisher of socially and environmentally progressive books. You can buy Radical Simplicity and some of their other intriguing and educational titles directly from them, or from many independent booksellers in the US and Canada. If you buy it, and decide to make the journey too, please let me know.

This entry was posted in Preparing for Civilization's End. Bookmark the permalink.

29 Responses to RADICAL SIMPLICITY

  1. Vincent says:

    I must have this book.

  2. I really appreciate this post and will have to check out the book. On the surface I wonder how much it is another story of someone who was making a ton of money and suddenly found it wasn’t fullfilling, and then who decided that downsizing was the way to make the world better. I would be interested to see how well the ideas translate to an educated working class family struggling to pay bills and without the six-figure salaries in the past or present. Very interesting reading, nonetheless!

  3. Jon Husband says:

    I have flirted with this idea for some time now. Euan just sent me an email with a link to your post, saying “this one’s for you”.The paragraph:”Merkel spends a lot of time dealing with those visceral fears that keep us in line as massive, wasteful consumers and wage slaves. He appreciates the power that our current culture wields over us, and carefully dismantles the myths that prevent us from living radically simple lives — that this entails hardship, risk, heavy physical labour, deprivation, danger, or sacrifice, and that radical simplicity requires some kind of spiritual conversion, reveres or romanticizes primitive or savage lifestyles, requires a lot of money, or cuts you off from the rest of ‘civilization’ (it does none of these things). It is a thorough, systematic, practical step-by-step process, promising personal liberation and happiness” … is the one that no doubt will hold the greatest interest for me, as I think I’ve been shuffling my feet towards this radical simplicity (at least in my mind) for some time now.I think that the biggest issue for me will be my ego, the wanting to participate in a meaningful and engaged way in this most exciting of times and have the “rewards” that go with the “participation”, even tho’ I know from experience that that ego-driven desire can be quite hollow once attained.

  4. Dave Pollard says:

    Rob/Jon: Merkel makes the point that this does not entail ‘cashing in’ your accumulated savings and living off the proceeds, and works as well for people at all income & wealth levels. To some extent I think it is both easier (savings to fall back on) and harder (greater change in style of living) for those with a lot of money. But no question that those who have already achieved some level of fame and/or fortune have less of an ego hurdle in giving up the chase. I am still working my way through the workbook sections so I can’t tell you more than this now, but I hope we can work it all out together if/when we decide to make this journey.

  5. Philip says:

    Voluntary… we have 35 million Americans “volunteering” to live a life without excess now is it helping?How many more will it take to save the world? For who? The overlords who have no intention of living a life other than one dedicated to amassing as much “wealth” and “power” as possible.I happen to think we could do a much better job of managing our resources and providing for our posterity. I want to see that happen.Progressive taxation of consumption with a 100% estate tax. Make all you want spend all you want, no restrictions or tax on income. Meanwhile education, medicine, disability insurance and retirement are all paid for all public debt is eliminated.Meanwhile every little bit helps, if you want to go back to the land go for it. I would suggest a little experiment first. Try living for 30 days without the things you plan to give up. Feel free to blog about your experience after you reconnect your high speed cable/telephone line.

  6. Dave Pollard says:

    Philip: Radical Simplicity is just one piece of the ‘save the world’ puzzle. The world is complex and there are no silver bullets. I have no intention of going back to the land or giving up the advantages of modern technology — radical simplicity is about using less, buying less, investing more of your time and less of your money in achieving important goals, and slowing down to smell the roses. If enough people do this, AND if we can achieve average one-child families, AND if we build a new economy based on New Collaborative Enterprises, AND if we change tax laws to tax resource consumption and waste instead of job creation, AND if we smash corporatism by shifting rights from corporations back to people, AND if we forge a new global ‘second power’ alliance of people and nations that solve problems by consensus and humanitarian investment instead of confrontation and war-mongering, AND (you get the idea) THEN we can change the world. Your ideas are not inconsistent with this vision. They just aren’t enough IMO by themselves to get the job done.

  7. Philip says:

    Dave we all do what we can. Conspicuous consumption has been under attack for some time unfortunately Gucci Rolex and DeBeers haven’t clued in just yet. The idea of “live with less” has a cachet amoung a certain group of people who are living with too much already. It has no appeal for most who are in need or living in poverty. Subsistance living is not human nature. The very idea that we can live without agriculture is so beyond the pale (see your list of most important books) it staggers the mind. The problem with human beings is civilization? It is such a nihilistic vision I am sickened, the ultimate capitulation. With that vision 12 Monkeys becomes inevitable. Human beings are ‘parasites’ deserving death. Not constructive in my opinion.We can and will change. We can husband our resources and learn to live better. Everyone should recycle and compost as a matter of habit it needs to be taught as a tenet of living as natural as breathing. Purchase, design, live green when you can and it makes sense (you will need to make more in order to enjoy this life style it is currently expensive). This isn’t living with less it is living with conscience. Walk or take a bicycle when you can purchase an electric car, a hybrid. Living a suburban existance is wasteful, move to a city to cut down commuting and pollution. It isn’t living with less, it is living being aware of how you exist in community and as part of the whole.Radical simplicity is complicated,

  8. Philip,I like your last line. Yes, living with radical simplicity is complicated. There is no one solution, and every decision along the way is likely to be a compromise, weighing the positives and negatives of each action.BTW, Dave, it is too bad that there is no way to subscribe to discussions like this one. That is one shortcoming of Radio Userland’s tools that has always bothered me…

  9. Neva says:

    I just put a copy on hold at the library. I enjoyed your post and I’m eager to read this book!

  10. Steve says:

    I live a very simple life with not much time spent earning money and not much time spent spending money. Whenever I am in front of my cheap old computer I look at this quote: “Perfection is achieved, not when there is nothing more to add, but when there is nothing left to take away.” -Antoine de Saint Exupery …I started on my quest for the simple life many years ago with easy baby steps, slowly and painlessly taking away that which did not(after taking real cost of time and money into account) satisfy.

  11. Dave Pollard says:

    Thanks everyone. Just a few additional clarifications for Philip, who seems to be taking a lot of what I say (and what I don’t say) the wrong way. 1. The book is not talking about subsistence living. Let me repeat — this is about change without sacrifice or deprivation. I can’t capture the whole book here, but here’s a couple of examples: A lot of us work 20 extra hours a week to be able to afford to pay someone else to do things for us that we could do for ourselves in 10. It’s about doing just as much while consuming less resources. It’s about realizing that the cost of commuting (time+money) might just exceed the extra salary you get working in an office versus working from home. It’s about eliminating debts by learning better personal financial management. It’s about analyzing where you’re spending money and redirecting spending that is wasteful. It’s about living smarter, not living poorer.2. When Jared says that the invention of agriculture was the greatest mistake in human history, why would you automatically assume that he, or I, or anyone would advocate living without it? You can’t turn back the clock and only a fool would try to do so. You exploit new technologies intelligently — they can help you do as much, or more, with less. Case in point: My laptop serves the function of newspapers and magazines, a mailbox, a telephone, a radio, a TV, a VCR/CD/DVD player/stereo, and most of the stores in the mall. And does so extremely well, I might add. With this one appliance I no longer need any of these other appliances. Nor do I need any of the living space that is currently cluttered up with all these redundant appliances. No sacrifice.3. As for your argument that this can only work for those that are already rich, all I can say is, please read the book. Merkel goes to great pains to show the opposite. We are all squandering far too much of our precious time for far too little reward. And we are almost all addicted to wage slavery and to consumption.4. Of course radical simplicity is complicated. That’s why it takes a 250 page book to explain it, and why your dismissal of it because I can’t sell you on it in 500 words or less causes me such consternation.

  12. Mike says:

    I’m sorry, all human-pop-reduction scenarios seem crypto-genocidalist to me. How long before ‘voluntary average one-child families’ becomes an excuse for killing infant girls?I wouldn’t be this disturbed if I didn’t agree with almost everything else you write.

  13. Mike says:

    Let me try to expand on my previous comment. No doubt we are all grateful that world population expanded to the point that *we* were born. And wouldn’t it be great if what was shared then could be maintained at the same level with easy work (if it weren’t for all these durn newcomers).Say space aliens took away 5.7 billion folks tomorrow, we’d all be rich! Right? After all, we’re assuming that we’d be among the lucky ones (?) and still be here. Of course, those 5.7 abductees would have a story too, but since we can’t ever know, it’s best not to worry about it.The capacity of this planet to maintain humans is infinite. We could fit a trillion humans on this planet, and that’s even before we start messing with what it means to be human.Even without space colonization, I can think of several scenarios, with varying levels of hand-waving:1) We might reduce pressures to procreate. We might become effectively immortal. Eventually we might do some germ line engineering to trade reproductive capacity for something else (more intelligence might be good), and make childbirth a much more difficult experience.2) We might build megacities all over the planet, including at sea. We’d have to recycle everything and eat dead people, but they’d come in yummy flavors.3) Later, we might reengineer the whole planet. Perhaps a larger, lighter, fluffier world with half the gravity and a few orders of magnitude more surface area.4) We might shrink ourselves down to a smaller form factor. I read about this speculation in a newspaper some years back. The guy was thinking maybe 6″ tall is a good height.5) We might upload ourselves into computers. That would be infinite capacity right there.6) We might engineer ourselves to become nonsentient. In an optimized environment, we simply spend all day playing, eating, screwing, and sleeping, without existential angst.7) We might do any and all of these, and space colonization too.It’s all hard work. There is no utopia, there is no heaven unless we make one. We might retire there, for a while, perhaps getting to choose among death/nonsentient immortality/rebirth. (I wouldn’t want sentient immortals, gods like that should be sent packing to the frontier).Thanks, -Mike

  14. Dave Pollard says:

    Hmmm. Well, Mike, for a start, just about every scientific expert in the world has opined that space colonization is a long, long way off, if conceivable at any scale at all. All of your other solutions assume that messing with the ecosystem of which we are a part to that extent can be done without cataclysmic consequences, and I don’t know any scientist with any credibility that would give such an assumption any probability whatsoever. Your other solutions also assume human life in massive numbers at the cost of extinction of every other species of life on earth, which is not a world I would want to live in. But the fundamental question is — why? Why would you want six billion or ten billion or a trillion humans? Why is more necessarily better? When the much more feasible, and in my view preferable (morally, rationally, instinctively, take your pick) solution is to persuade people to voluntarily reduce family size, in the interest of all. We lived with 150-300 million humans, stably, in harmony, adapting to enormous changes, for 3 million years and there was never any threat of extinction. Three hundred million is still a lot of people. And in those days it wasn’t ‘all hard work’ — the very unradical economist Peter Jay argues that prior to a mere 30,000 years ago, we lived a life of great comfort, leisure and abundance, until we decided 300 million humans wasn’t enough. It’s never been the same since. I think voluntarily reducing population so that all humans can have a high quality of life is the antithesis of murdering baby girls — it is showing the highest possible respect, indeed sanctity, of life, by insisting that every life be one of joy and discovery, free from want and hardship. You can tell I’m not a member of any ‘organized’ religion.

  15. Dave Pollard says:

    I’ve just been reading Daniel Quinn’s admonishment in Beyond Civilization and I think I should follow his advice if this thread gets any longer (interesting as it is). So for those who are deeply troubled by or skeptical of the ideas of Radical Simplicity, and for those who don’t understand why others are so troubled by Merkel’s prescription, here is Quinn’s advice (to Merkel, and to me):People will listen when they’re ready to listen and not before. Probably, once upon a time, you weren’t ready to listen to an idea than now seems to you obvious, even urgent. Let people come to it in their own time. Nagging or bullying will only alienate them. Don’t preach. Don’t waste time with people who want to argue. They’ll keep you immobilized forever. Look for people who are already open to something new.When presenting a new idea, you don’t have to have all the answers. It’s better to say ‘I don’t know’ than to fake it. Make people formulate their own questions. Don’t take on the responsibility of figuring out what their difficulty is. We each internalize information differently. If you don’t understand a question, keep insisting they explain it until it’s clear. Nine times out of ten they’ll supply the answer themselves.Above all, listen. Your close attention is sometimes more important than your articulateness in winning converts. And learning is always a good thing.

  16. Indigo Ocean says:

    Thanks for the rec. of this book. It is right on track with how I have lived most of my adult life, and it is helpful whenever I find writing that fleshes out the benefits of this lifestyle. It is a long thread and you apparently want to end it so I will be brief. Just want to attest from personal experience that sometimes less really is more. I live a really beautiful, abundant life with a low ecosystem footprint. I know many other people who do too. My plans are to do so even more effectively and even more joyfully. I am rich and healthy in so many ways and I hope other people can follow the advice in this book to achieve as much and even more. It is all about redefining success as something that supports life instead of consuming it. And it is about being something of a leader, deciding for yourself what your goals and aspirations are and evaluating yourself by your own yardstick instead of being ruled by popular ideas about what is supposed to create happiness. I would rather be happy than look happy. Simplicty sells the real deal. Excess sells the empty promise.

  17. carlos says:

    thanks dave – just the sort of thing i need to be looking into right now. i’ve been scratching my head, sharpening the pencil, trying to wean myself from an expensive lifestyle and the career in sales i’ve loathed – but relied on to fund it. living as i do in the NYC area, there’s only so much ‘sharpening’ one can do, everything here being so outrageously expensive, but there are certainly choices here and there, wiggle room. stepping back, it’s clear these make a huge difference financially, and as Merkel seems to be saying, in larger ways as well. it’s freedom – if you can find a way to make it all come together.

  18. Mike says:

    Dave writes: “But the fundamental question is — why? Why would you want six billion or ten billion or a trillion humans? Why is more necessarily better?”It’s not up to me, or you either. We have six billion people now. You want to ‘persuade’ people to act against a core drive of all life – to procreate. And, people are intelligent. Some of them might even come up with solutions.Sorry Dave, it’s too late to revert to some pre-agricultural utopia. Humans made that choice millenia ago. What-if scenarios involving such drastic ‘voluntary’ population reduction would seem easy to pervert into at first coercion, and then genocide.I do share your concern with what we are doing to the planet, and would agree there’s a good chance humanity won’t make it. It’s a good thing we have an innate drive to survive, otherwise we might have nuked each other back in the cold war. This drive plus intelligence is how we’ll solve this problem.If world population had remained stable at 300 million or whatever, we wouldn’t be here having this conversation. You and everyone you know would have never existed. Why not ask your friends and family if, given the choice, they would prefer never to have been born.

  19. Raging Bee says:

    Hey, I’m all for simplifying our lives and using material resources more efficiently – but some of your quotes from this book tend to sink its credibility.First, this bit: “The simple principles that Merkel now lives by, and invites others to live by, are (1) not amassing personal wealth, and (2) not over-populating the region — rules he says tribal cultures have successfully lived by for millions of years.”Which “tribal cultures” have been doing this – or anything else – for “millions of years?” Have they left material evidence behind that proves the author’s point? And how interesting were the lives of these people for all this time? Which personal wealth, exactly, are we expected to give up?”He then went to study the culture of Kerala, India, a province with a North American level of birth rate, infant mortality rate, lteracy and life expectancy, but whose GNP per capita is only 1.5% of North America’s. He attributes such an accomplishment to (a) a culture of cooperation, not competition, (b) earth efficiency (no waste), and (c) bioregionalism (make everything locally from local materials whenever possible, rather than import it).”Where do I even begin to pick this one apart?First, what exactly is meant by “a culture of cooperation, not competition?” Do hungry people never compete in any way for food if it is scarse? Is there no cooperation here in the West?Second, how do they achieve “earth efficiency (no waste)?” Where does the shit go, if I might be so indelicate as to ask? And where does their energy come from? “No waste” is one hell of a claim, a goal that, to my knowledge, has yet to be achieved at any technological level so far, or even by the Earth’s ecosystem.Third, if life in Kerala is so idyllic, why aren’t more people flocking to live there? Where does the author live?Judging solely by the quotes provided here, I have to say that this book sounds like yet another rich man looking down his nose at all the wealth and interesting activities he can now take for granted, and deciding that he really doesn’t need them after all, and that the rest of us don’t need them either, and since they’re all a drain on our resources, they’ll all just have to go – along with all those surplus humans who need them to maintain their sinful lifestyles.Here’s a better idea: bring back imperialism, colonize the planets, and let’s start experimenting with new societies again. Dangerous and complicated, yes, but a hell of a lot more interesting than hunting and gathering; and the medical care is better too.

  20. Mike says:

    Bingo, PTWThanks.

  21. Raging Bee says:

    Thanks, Mike!In one of your earlier posts, you ask: “How long before ‘voluntary average one-child families’ becomes an excuse for killing infant girls?”Pardon my quibbling, but you should have said “…an excuse for killing SOMEONE ELSE’S infant girls?”This is, after all, about preserving OUR enlightened eco-friendly civilization, which now represents the height of human progress (having rejected the evils of progress), not those smelly ignorant furriners who are polluting our planet, trying to get rich, and refusing to comply with our utopian plans.

  22. Nui says:

    Hi Dave. It’s feels like a long time since I’ve last ‘visited’ your blog. This particular post of yours was just what I needed to encourage me to go on believing in human determination to overcome the problems we ourselves have created, (even if we do tend to create more problems with our ‘solutions’, as can be noted from the different comments you have recieved.) I think the best reflection that you highlighted about Merkel’s story was how he recognized that he had lived in ‘fear’. I think our most crucial transformation to achieve any kind of sane living is to overcome this ‘fear’. I like hearing stories like Merkel’s, it reminds me of my own story and other stories I’ve heard. I’m glad that more of the insane is becoming sane. (Erich Fromm’s “The Sane Society” would be a great companion to this topic.) It’s also a repetition of many other stories I’ve heard from different countries, from different sectors of the economy of what happens to people when they come out of the backlash of a bubble burst, like the stock market bubble burst, the real estate bubble burst, the Tequila and Tom Yum effects of Mexico and Thailand, and the dotcom bubble burst. So thanks for this post!

  23. Indigo Ocean says:

    I have been to Kerala India and I have thought of living there, but I found it too difficult being a single woman in India to want to stay there. Since I was raised in this culture I have ideas about how I fit into the world as a woman that are in keeping with this culture and not that of India. Their culture is beautiful and the women in Kerala seemed very happy, actually the people there were very friendly and seemingly happy in general, but I don’t think I would be as happy there as they are. There are also too many people in Kerala. Basically there seems to be overcrowding in all of India. So the last thing Kerala needs is everyone learning of their success and deciding to move there. Better to emulate the things that made them successful in one’s own locale, combining the best of both worlds. I still hold some slim hope I can create a subsystem (city, county, or state level?) within my own culture that embraces simplicity.As to the specific points of “waste” etc., it does seem the author is exagerating and over-simplifying in how he writes some things. That weakens what are actually great points without needing any exageration. Wastefulness is not an on/off proposition. One can be more or less wasteful. Less is good enough. So whatever you are doing now, don’t worry about perfection. Tomorrow just consume a little bit less and enjoy what you already have a little bit more.

  24. Raging Bee says:

    Indigo: you’re spot-on about consuming less. There’s no need to complicate one’s mind with a lot of dubious claims about other cultures and time periods; just make sensible decisions in your day-to-day life.I would also be leery about claims that other people are “seemingly happy in general” because they lead “simpler” lives than we do. Visitors who can bugger out anytime don’t necessarily see the everyday stresses of the people they visit. I remember watching the documentary “Harvest of Shame,” about migrant farm-workers in the US Southwest; one farmer or farm-boss confidently opined that the shit-poor migrants under his command were happier than everyone else in America, because their lives were so simple and carefree.

  25. william says:

    If it is true that Merkel lives on $5K/year, does he accept the Earned Income Credit when he files his tax return? (Would it not be a fascinating thing to actually look at his return?)If he biked through several states, as he is now

  26. Nikki L says:

    I just read Radical Simplicity on a long plane ride from Seattle to New Orleans. It was a fascinating book but not very practical for application where I live. For example, I ran the “how walkable is your neighborhood” test online. My home address scored a flat zero due to two interstate highways that completely block access to all facilities and shopping. Eventhough I live in a small town having left the city after Hurricane Katrina destroyed our way of life, I still can’t be without motorized transport. It is illegal (and dangerous) to ride a bike across an interstate. But regardless, I love the idea that some was successful with this. For the rest of us, we do what we can.

  27. Ryan W says:

    About 7 years ago, “Radical Simplicity” began to creep into the edges of my brain until one day in January, through a series of events I had an epiphany. I won’t comment the entire process I have taken so far but it takes time to change your own thinking never mind anyone else. I look forward to reading this book. By the way if you really want to read of someone who took it to the limits of simplicity there is another book by the same name, by Dan Price.

Comments are closed.