radical simplicityI‘ve now finished Jim Merkel’s book Radical Simplicity, which I described in an earlier post. Some of Merkel’s ideas for living simpler were incorporated in my personal How to Save the World scorecard. I was mindful of the comments of several readers who complained that such books are only useful for salving the guilt of rich people who have lived extravagant lifestyles, and offer nothing to ‘average’ people who live a frugal existence struggling just to make ends meet. I’ll leave it up to readers to consider what I’ve learned from this book, and decide whether these lessons have any applicability to them:

  1. Our ecological footprint (EF) is modestly higher than the North American average. This is due primarily to the fact we live in a larger-than-average house (the average North American home size is 1700 s.f., up from about 1300 s.f. a generation ago), and, as Canadians, we use a lot more BTUs for heating than the average North American.
  2. We actually buy less ‘stuff’ than the average North American, by a considerable margin. This is because we tend to save until we can afford better, more expensive, more durable products, so we ‘turn over’ what we own only half as often as the average North American, who disposes of clothing on average every 4 years, computers and small appliances every 3 years, major appliances every 8 years, and furniture every 10 years. This is a staggering amount of waste, and shows the false economy that our consumer culture and the Wal-Mart Dilemma push many people into.
  3. Thanks to our progressive community, that recycles paper, plastic, glass, cardboard, aluminum, and organics (‘green box’ program), we produce much less unrecycled garbage than the average North American (who adds 3/4 of a ton per year into landfills). I am aghast at the lack of progress in both municipal and business recycling in many parts of the continent.
  4. As Merkel’s book progresses, it moves from very simple, logical, sensible steps that can lower your EF, to steps that only a die-hard and exceptionally devoted environmentalist would take. I’m not interested in growing most of my own food, living in a 100 s.f./person home and making my own clothes — that’s way beyond responsible living, even beyond austerity. Even I’m not that idealistic. After going through the workbook sections, I’ve concluded that our EF is less than I thought it would be, and a reasonable ‘zero sacrifice’ target for reducing our EF is more than I thought it would be. So while at first blush I’d pledged to reduce our EF by 80%, I’m lowering that pledge to 50%. That’s still a worthwhile, and not terribly difficult, goal, which will reduce our EF to about 60% of the North American average. But it still leaves our EF at three times the current global sustainable per-capita level. In other words, if everyone in the world lived at our proposed lower EF level, it would take three Earths, and zero population growth starting immediately, to sustain us all, and that would leave no room for all the rest of the life species in the world. Merkel, like McKibben, urges us to pursue an average one-child family strategy to reduce and sustain human population at a billion people, which would allow us all to live at my target EF level (i.e. very comfortably) and still allow half the planet to be left in natural state for other life species.
  5. The methods I propose to use to halve our EF are not rocket science:
    • Make our home much more energy efficient. Either build a new, exceptionally energy- and space-efficient home on a lot that would be left 90% in its natural state. Or alternatively, as some readers have suggested, do a radical energy retrofit and functional redesign of our existing home, and close off or lease out half of it. Our existing lot is only 50% in natural state, so much of our lawn would have to be returned to forest.
    • Change jobs to substantially home-based businesses, and sell one of our two cars — an end to wage slavery.
    • Learn to cook (though probably not as well as my wife) so we can become more vegetarian, and eat less processed and packaged foods.
    • Learn to be more self-sufficient and self-efficient (fixing things instead of tossing them out).
  6. Not only would these changes halve our EF, they would have a comparable impact on our utilities, maintenance, household, transportation, and other costs, allowing us to retire in seven years (if we want to) instead of the projected twenty.
  7. The book also talks a lot about overcoming fears — of striking out on your own, of being viewed as ‘weird’, of wilderness, of doing without the possessions that sometimes come to own us, of not having ‘enough’. This is important because Radical Simplicity is about culture change, and while I’m convinced our lower-EF end-state will be idyllic, it’s the journey, the ‘letting go’ that’s difficult, and ultimately, in some ways, a leap of faith.

I still recommend the book, but you’ll need to look past some of the more over-the-top rhetoric and the more extreme and impractical reductions in EF, and adapt the ideas to your own circumstances and standards.

Postscript December 29 — please read Kevin Cameron’s comments in the thread to this post. He addresses, much better than either I or Merkel have, the issues that make many people skeptical about the concept and practicality of Radical Simplicity. Kevin also makes some important points that Merkel and I both missed.

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  1. Evan says:

    Thanks for the book recommendation, Dave. Energy efficiency and renewable energy are passions of mine (and in my daydreams, maybe a future career), and I’ve given some thought to this as well.Do you live in a place where the sun is visible? Even if there’s frequent cloud cover, you may be able to use the sun to heat your home and eliminate a big chunk of your energy footprint that way. Solar heating isn’t terribly expensive and it’s very effective, even at Canadian latitudes; unless you live on the north side of a mountain, I’d look into it.Are you sure you’d rather let your lawn go back to forest instead of using it for a garden?I wish you the best of luck in your pursuit of sustainability, regardless.

  2. Adrian says:

    Although I see the point people are making about guilt, many programs of spiritual transformation in cultures across the world emphasize a return to simplicity. There is something deeply appealing about it — at the very least, it holds out the promise of living a more balanced and harmonious existence.Good luck! I’ll be reading both the book and your posts with an eye to ideas that might be applicable to my family. Solar heating seems like a good place to start.

  3. Dave Pollard says:

    Thanks, guys. I’m signed up for a workshop on renewable energy alternatives next month. The two lots we are looking at are both on the North side of roads, allowing us to build adjacent to the road with the roof slope to the South, covered with solar panels. Both lots also are quite hilly, and it gets quite windy here in the midst of the Great Lakes with all the lake effect microclimates, so wind energy is also an alternative, and I’ve just joined a local wind energy coop. Apparently biothermal is an option as well. As for gardening, my wife loves to garden, but neither of us has had any luck with fruits and vegetables. I guess it might be an option for us to trade some of our high-tech skills with a neighbour with a productive green thumb. We’ll have to think about that.Incidentally, we’re just back from a dinner party at which my wife, who had been vacillating about building a new house, and was leaning towards a retrofit of our existing place instead, did a 180 and announced that ‘we’ were strongly thinking of building a new home. So here we go, I think…

  4. Kevin says:

    I read the book a couple weeks ago based on your suggestion. Although much of it is pretty radical, and I have trouble recomending it to family and friends because I believe the non-radical ideas will be drowned out by the radicalness, I found it to be very helpful, and look forward to figuring out my footprint in more detail.As for it being a book for rich people, I would have to disagree with anyone who thinks so. To me it seemed like a book that would have the most impact if followed by middle-class folk. Those who are already scraping by probably have a relativly small footoprint already, and there is not as much they will be able to cut out. I just took a 19 hour overnight greyhound ride from New York to my hometown because I couldn’t justify a two hour flight, and as you may guess, most of the other passengers where people who couldn’t afford a plane ticket even if they wanted to (which I’m sure most did). If they wanted to cut their footprint, they would have to forgo seeing their family for the holidays, and that is sacrifice. For me to lower my footprint, all I had to do was sleep in a bus for one night instead of in a bed.On the other hand, having lived in Japan for the past 5 years, I’m shocked and embarassed by the amount of waste I see in my middle-class “regular” family’s house and apartments, and what’s worse is the fact that they *know* all the statistics, they *know* that beef destroys, they *know* that driving to work instead of taking the subway is bad, yet they still say “but what can we do?” If this book wasn’t so radical, which scares them away, it would be perfectly fit for them. Since their footprint is so high already, they could cut it in half with very little sacrifice, and in the end have a lot more money if they felt they needed it.I was also supprised to find that comapred to them, I have a small footprint by default due to the fact that I am frugal (cheap) and live in Tokyo, a city with excelent public transportation, smallrooms to heat, and well established recycle programs. Although I expected it to be much higher, mine is still way to high, and there are still some major improvements I can make, but it wont be near as easy as it would be for my “regular” middle-class family living in large houses and apartments in the US.Of course I can’t afford now to build a energy efficient house as you are planning, but the things I can do will have just as much of an effect. In the same way that I am a little hesitant to recomend Radical Simplicity to my family, I am also hesitant to recomend your site (though I love it). I think they would feel that since they too don’t have the resources to install solar panels in their apartment, and quiting their job to work from home is pretty radical, they would continue to feel that there is not much they can do. It worries me to see comments like that from Adrian that “Solar heating seems like a good place to start.” In fact the best place to start is to just *think* about every purchase when you are at the grocery store, a resteraunt, or an appliance store. Do you need it? While putting in solar panels surely helps, and might make us feel better, not buying crap we don’t need would probably have a bigger impact, and is much easier to do. Adding solar panels takes an initial investment and planning. Not buying a new coffee-maker is a no brainer and it’s free.

  5. Dave Pollard says:

    Kevin: Thank you. You have addressed brilliantly exactly the issues I have been unable to articulate well, which I know are critical to getting wider ‘buy-in’ for these important ideas. Maybe you should write a book on this subject, one with less rhetoric and a broader appeal than either Radical Simplicity or How to Save the World?

  6. k says:

    Hmmm writing a book sounds tempting… though I was planning to start with another blog. :)Anyway, after re-reading my comment, I am rethinking my view of your site as too radical for my family. Maybe I am underestimating them. After all, your site has really had a huge effect on me just when I too was looking for answers of what I can do beyond the obvious recycling.While there are many other factors in my decision making, I can honestly say that the information I have found on and via your site are a big part of the reason I am now considering going back to school for a degree relating in some way to the environment, leaning toward an environmental education angle. I guess just planning that makes me a bit radical, which is why I can more easily accept some of the ideas you and Merkel put forward, but I’m going to go out on a limb and pass the book on to my family, but I will be stressing that they pay more attention to the spirit and the concept, rather than Merkel’s own example. Hopefully they will see value in it even if they don’t/can’t go as far as he did.

  7. Dave Pollard says:

    Your comment reminds me of this advice from Daniel Quinn: “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.”By the way, you certainly demonstrate Radical Simplicity in your e-mail address — at 6 letters it’s the shortest I’ve ever seen ;-)

  8. A weblog with simple and progressive advices and tricks to how everybody could reduce his foot print would sure be a good complement to Dave one. And it may allow to motivate some people not ready for radical changes but good willing for some small ones.

  9. Dave Pollard says:

    Francois: Excellent idea. I’ll work on a ‘small steps to a smaller footprint’ article.

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