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Radical Simplicity: Small Footprints on a Finite Earth

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Imagine you are first in line at a potluck buffet. The spread includes not just food and water, but all the materials needed for shelter, clothing, healthcare, and education. How do you know how much to take? How much is enough to leave for your neighbors behind you—not just the six billion people, but the wildlife, and the as-yet-unborn?

In the face of looming ecological disaster, many people feel the need to change their own lifestyles as a tangible way of transforming our unsustainable culture. Radical Simplicity is the first book that guides the reader to a personal sustainability goal, then offers a process to monitor progress to a lifestyle that is equitable amongst all people, species, and generations. It employs three tools to help readers begin their customized journey to simplicity:

>It builds on steps from Your Money or Your Life so readers can design their own personal economics to save money, get free of debt, and align their work with their values.
It uses refined tools from Our Ecological Footprint so readers can measure how much nature is needed to supply all they consume and absorb their waste.
Combining lyrical narrative, compassionate advocacy, and absorbing science, Radical Simplicity is a practical, personal answer to twenty-first century challenges that will appeal as much to Cultural Creatives and students as to spiritual seekers, policy makers, and sustainability professionals.

Jim Merkel quit his job as a military engineer following the Exxon Valdez disaster and has since worked to develop tools for personal and societal sustainability. He founded the Global Living Project to further this work and conducts workshops around North America on this topic.

248 pages, Paperback

First published August 31, 2003

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Jim Merkel

11 books4 followers

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5 stars
92 (24%)
4 stars
116 (30%)
3 stars
113 (29%)
2 stars
46 (12%)
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13 (3%)
Displaying 1 - 30 of 50 reviews
Profile Image for Stefanie.
434 reviews15 followers
March 28, 2021
Not a breezy how-to book, this book asks you to do some thinking and calculations. It helps you figure out your current ecological footprint, what you would like your footprint to be, and then walks you through setting goals to get there.

If the world were divided evenly between each person on earth, we would each get 4.7 acres to provide all of our needs. The average American uses 24 acres. So when Merkel talks about radical simplicity, he means radical. It is a process to scale back and bring one's life within sustainable parameters. It is not easy when the world is set up to make you fail.

Merkel's personal footprint is 3 acres and he says he is happier, more fulfilled, and lives a more abundant life on $5,000 a year than he did when he was a military engineer making six figures. He knows what he is talking about. He provides reasons, and tools and plenty of understanding and compassion. If you put the work in while reading the book, you will finish with a plan and be excited to implement it.
Profile Image for Mattheus Guttenberg.
Author 1 book10 followers
November 3, 2018
Radical Simplicity is both a persuasive case for a less-cluttered, ecologically-conscious mode of living and a set of tools to guide the readers toward that end. In this book, you will learn about ecological footprinting, financial footprinting (through Your Money or Your Life), and the benefits that come from living closer to Nature. Merkel lays out a compelling lifestyle: reduce your bloated, unconscious consumer habits and save money and natural resources by learning to live well on less. With an inspiring philosophy and plenty of practical ideas, Merkel's urgency toward ecologically-minded simple living is compelling. The author has a foot in both the environmentalist movement and the financial independence movement, making this book a treat for the reader in either camp.
Profile Image for Rebekah.
91 reviews15 followers
July 22, 2019
I'm really shocked to see this book essentially panned in reviews below. Having read and re-read this book multiple times since its publication, I find it to be as important and valuable now as ever.

Much of the criticism insists that what he suggests in order to reduce each of our footprints to a sustainable level moving forward is completely impossible for anyone in the real (American) world, especially the suggestion to only have one child.

Seriously? He's not suggesting that it's the usual, expected, or easiest thing. Sadly, it's still not very usual or expected, decades after folks first started talking (in the modern era) about living this way (not to mention all the times throughout recorded history that different folks have advocated for these kinds of individual changes for various reasons). But frankly, it's really not that hard. In fact, it's arguably a good deal easier -- and certainly far more affordable -- than living a more usual, expected life. It does take some courage, creativity, innovation, determination, hard work with real physical things (like soil, plants, shovels, metal, and wood; as opposed to digital currencies, social media profiles and posts, or online reviews like this), and humility, in my limited experience. The findings and engineering-minded calculations of someone like Merkel, who then and now has been in this struggle a lot longer, can help in figuring out the most effective changes to make.

And yes, you may not want to have two or more children. That isn't addressed to folks who already have multiple kids. No one's asking you to off 'em. But what's wrong with choosing to have fewer?

The most valid criticism I see is that this is a guidebook for reducing one's own personal/family footprint, not a guidebook for making change at a policy level on a larger scale. Of course that's true, but that's not what this book purports to be. There are other books out there to guide us along that critical part of the path, and I hope that reviewer reads those, too, and engages with the world around us in that way as they've expressed the desire to do.
Profile Image for Philitsa.
162 reviews8 followers
March 17, 2009
I have a big ecological footprint (big house, big cars, lots of airplane travel, etc.) and it weighs on me. Firstly, I'm a cheapskate at heart. The idea that I'm paying for things that I can cut out of my life and not miss is irksome. Secondly, I'd like to do what I can to pass on a green Earth to my children. I've made changes to my life without doing anything drastic like gradually switching to CFLs (my house has over 75 light fixtures), cut out the daily commute, combining errands, planting "stuff", eating partially organic, cutting down on meat, etc. I had hoped this book about radically reducing your ecological footprint would inspire me to take my game to the next level. Really, it just reminded me that I'm comfortable where I am and I'll consider drastic life changes as the opportunities arise. I'm not going to seek out making all the changes that the author made to his life... except maybe a compost bin. I'm debating that one.
Profile Image for Koen de Jong.
5 reviews
May 28, 2014
Liked this book, but more for being inspiring than for the actual goal it had. It's very technical and dry at times, but that also means the theory he lays out is well supported with calculations. Loved the descriptions of nature and life in general, but I would've wanted to see a bit more practical advice and how to implement it instead of just 'you could do this and this to reduce your footprint'.
Profile Image for Ilona.
169 reviews66 followers
February 12, 2017
Nothing new on the topic: West needs to be less invasive, Westerners should use less resources, cradle to cradle is good, waste is bad. With just the right amount of white savior/noble locals narrative this book provides a deep look into some dude's personal trip towards understanding that "If we continue living like this we're fucked, daymm"
Profile Image for Natalie.
292 reviews12 followers
August 7, 2009
This is an engineer's practical guide to laying out your most sustainable life path. He has created a valuable reference - we've been pulling it out every time we sit down to make a big decision just to check the stats. A really wonderful compendium, even if you don't buy into the whole spiel.
Profile Image for Miah.
13 reviews
April 20, 2019
According to the description, Radical Simplicity is a "practical, personal answer to twenty-first century challenges". The book attempt to offer answers to the enormous economical challenges that we as a world face - Merkel explains how to calculate your footprint, and gives several examples that show it is possible to live while using less of the world.

The message of the book is great - we are using too much, and in order to preserve the earth, radical change is necessary. However, the solutions that Merkel gives, are not sufficient. As per the description, this is a "personal" answer. The burden of reducing consumption is put squarely on the shoulders of the individual. While I think personal understanding of your footprint and effects on the world is a good thing, overconsumption is a problem that requires systemical change to be truly effective. If I would live in the manner described in the book, that would not change the world.

Additionally, the lifestyle changes that Merkel describe are far-reaching. Too far reaching for many. But even if someone wants to give up much of the unnecessary conveniences of modern life, this costs money. Merkel claims that his book describes a method of sustainability for everyone, because once you are living that lifestyle, you will spend less. This ignores that in order to transition to this lifestyle, you will have to spend a lot of money (for example, making your house sustainable, buying organic plants, creating a garden where you grow you're own plants, buying a good bike). This is not possible for everyone. Merkel's argument that people in developing countries are able to live a more sustainable lifestyle conveniently ignores that the cost of living in those countries is very different.

So, while I agree with Merkel's ideas, I disagree with his attempt to foist the change upon the individual. His arguments, when examined closely, do not hold up. Part of the book is devoted to calculating your own footprint - Merkel might be an engineer and enjoy it, to me it was neither interesting to read, nor did I feel called to do so (and there are plenty of calculators available online). I also think there are better books about environmentalism, about trying to be sustainable. This book might be for some, and I applaud everyone that is able to live the way Merken describes, but unfortunately, it wasn't for me.
Profile Image for Kevin Shay.
Author 10 books4 followers
January 27, 2019
Calls on us all to reduce our consumption levels. It's even more timely today - I wonder what the author thinks about the US getting out of climate treaties and cutting back on car mileage standards, etc. I think we all should drive smaller cars that get better mileage unless you really need a large vehicle for your work.
53 reviews
May 1, 2019
I agreed with most of the ideas in this book, but didn't like the ideas of controlling population growth through basically a voluntary one child policy. The calculators were explained well but I would've put them at the end of the book as it was awkwardly in the middle. The connections to YMOYL were wonderful.
Profile Image for Jamie.
469 reviews7 followers
March 20, 2020
A bit outdated. This book could easily be re-edited and sell well in this day and age.
Profile Image for Berryblndgirl.
10 reviews
May 16, 2009
This is one of the worst books I have read in a long time. The only reason I gave it two stars is because the author presents some good ideas that are worth thinking about. Too bad his way of presenting it is so awful and his ideas are so far-fetched as to be completely unrealistic.

First of all, a good chunk of this book is devoted to figuring out your ecological footprint. I don't know about you, but I have no desire to go around my house measuring my furniture and everything else I own or consume just to figure out my footprint. There are plenty of good online calculators that could help you do this.

But the larger problem with this book is that it is just completely unrealistic to think that Americans will suddenly all start having one-child families and reduce their consumption to one-quarter of its current levels. Doing this would require all Americans to become vegetarians, live in a house with 150 sq. ft. per person, only use water, sewer and garbage services amounting to $1.50 per person per month, use 4 gallons of gas per month per person traveling by car, travel 0.5 miles per month by air, spend $30 a month for medical insurance and services. What?! I consider myself a fairly eco-friendly person, and I've been a vegetarian in the past, so I could probably do that, and we could move somewhere with public transportation or close to my husband's work to reduce fuel costs, but the rest of the goals are completely unrealistic. When I first lived with my husband, we lived in a 600 sq. ft. apartment with our dog -- it was doable, but tight. I can't imagine living in half the space, even without the dog. And forget using $1.50/mo. worth of garbage and water -- we spend $20/month on garbage alone and the cost doesn't go down if we create less garbage. Even if we used no water at all, the water and sewer fees amount to more than $1.50/mo. The air travel limitation would mean we'd never see my husband's family unless they came to visit.

I think it's important that we all try to live as sustainably as possible, but I also don't think the kinds of radical life changes called for in this book are at feasible. If I'm not willing do it and I'm fairly eco-conscious, how many people possibly could?
466 reviews
September 10, 2016
Imagine you are first in line at a potluck buffet. The spread includes not just food and water, but all the materials needed for shelter, clothing, healthcare, and education. How do you know how much to take? How much is enough to leave for your neighbors behind you—not just the six billion people, but the wildlife, and the as-yet-unborn?

In the face of looming ecological disaster, many people feel the need to change their own lifestyles as a tangible way of transforming our unsustainable culture. Radical Simplicity is the first book that guides the reader to a personal sustainability goal, then offers a process to monitor progress to a lifestyle that is equitable amongst all people, species, and generations. It employs three tools to help readers begin their customized journey to simplicity:

>It builds on steps from Your Money or Your Life so readers can design their own personal economics to save money, get free of debt, and align their work with their values.
It uses refined tools from Our Ecological Footprint so readers can measure how much nature is needed to supply all they consume and absorb their waste.
Combining lyrical narrative, compassionate advocacy, and absorbing science, Radical Simplicity is a practical, personal answer to twenty-first century challenges that will appeal as much to Cultural Creatives and students as to spiritual seekers, policy makers, and sustainability professionals.

Jim Merkel quit his job as a military engineer following the Exxon Valdez disaster and has since worked to develop tools for personal and societal sustainability. He founded the Global Living Project to further this work and conducts workshops around North America on this topic.
401 reviews3 followers
January 25, 2014
I've read a number of books on simple living, and this one was interesting. The author recommends three things - discovering your "footprint" on the Earth and taking steps to make it smaller, or at least be more mindful (he has formulas for figuring out your footprint); following the ideas given in the book Your Money or Your Life by Joe Dominguez and Vicki Robin; and living more in tune with nature. I found the sections on footprinting to be slower going. The concepts are interesting, but would be hard for many of us to implement, but they will get you thinking. He talks about some successful communities he's visited (Kerala, India) that have very small footprints. I've long been a fan of Your Money or Your Life - the authors recommend asking yourself what are you trading your life energy for when spending money, and finding ways to cut your spending with an ultimate goal of achieving financial independence (mostly by not needing to spend so much, and thus earn as much, in the first place). The sections on becoming more aware of nature were a good reminder of how important this can be (the author talks about taking vision quests, etc. but also about some everyday ways to get more in touch with nature). The author lives in a cabin in Vermont on about $5,000 a year. He does not own a car, and is a big advocate of biking. He is a vegetarian and recommends using a root cellar and shopping at farmer's markets and grows some of his own food.
This book was well written and will make you think. It has a lot of "big picture" thinking about sustainability whereas I think I'm more interested in learning about everyday ways to live more simply.
Profile Image for Ryan.
Author 1 book35 followers
February 28, 2014
While the author's journey to a low impact simple lifestyle is impressive and inspiring, I found the very detailed calculations of ecological footprint a tad extreme. Being a person who believes in and practices moderation in most aspects of life, I think the principles and concepts behind the need for simpler living are way more important than the nitty gritty. Of course, the tools are very useful for one to keep track, but one must not get bogged down in details too much. I guess having an engineering background made Merkel a very quantitative person! I also found his experience in India interesting and would have loved to hear more details on how those people lived simply in their environment. Lastly, this book addresses North Americans in a temperate climate zone, and many of the strategies with regard to food and housing would not be applicable in the tropical setting that I live in, thus detracting from the book's usefulness for me personally.

Oh, and one glaring point is that he did not address the ageing society issue if every couple had only one child, which is advocated for dramatically reducing human population quickly.
Profile Image for Latasha.
709 reviews
July 7, 2015
Well, this book was a lot more instructive and in-depth than I would have ever expected. Ever wonder what your ecological footprint is? How much bio productivity it takes to eat every month like an American? This book has the formula to help you figure it out. My numbers were staggering and more than slightly embarrassing for an aspiring Eco-friendly minimalist. This book was as times a little high-handed (I swear I rolled my eyes every time he fantasized about this perfect village in India), and it was hard to imagine decreasing my footprint by AT LEAST 75% like his goal for the book dictates. However, with the numbers there and the tools to figure it out, I felt like it might actually be doable on a basic level for anyone. If you really want to, that is! I also really enjoyed the last chapter on population mediation. As a person choosing not to have kids, this validated a lot of things for me and also gave me new perspective on family size and ecological impact.
Profile Image for Zoom.
504 reviews14 followers
September 20, 2016
I wanted to like this book. I liked the general principles, and the underlying motivation, and the objectives. If we would all do what he says, I'm sure the world would be a better place.

But who in their right mind could possibly do what he says?? Seriously, he's so anal about everything, it would be next to impossible to complete the book and all its exercises. He literally expects you to WEIGH everything you own. Literally. Like get someone to help you weigh your stove and fridge and everything else you own, and then fill in these worksheets and do all these calculations and then change everything about the way you live.

I borrowed the book from the library and read about two-thirds of it. I knew by then that there was no point in my finishing it. (I only know one person in the entire world that I could picture completing all the exercises, and that's Milan.)
Profile Image for Heather.
189 reviews
May 4, 2008
This person went from being an military engineer to living on $5000 a year. The book is in three parts 1) journey to simplicity; 2) the tools (finding your footprint, your money or your life (yep he's referring to the book) & 3) integration.

The things I learned are my footprint is 197.14. I'm below average on most of the sections but my carbon footprint is higher than average (because of my 18 mile commute & home utilities...although on some of those I guestimated & I tried to over guestimate so I wouldn't be less than what I actually do use). If everyone lived my lifestyle, we'd need 5.08 earths. Yikes! And here I thought I was so good!

Find out your footprint. redefiningprogress.com

The author's website: radicalsimplicity.org
Profile Image for Cherie.
3,219 reviews23 followers
June 13, 2008
C+ I was excited for this book, but ultimately, I disagree. Living simply is being satisfied with a tiny life, and according to Merkel it involves some things I agree with -- like eating locally, staying within your circles and limits, but then he has this whole thing about saving tons of money and living frugally so you can quit working and...Yeah, that's the question--and do what? Just live simply. I think there are lots of great jobs that give back -- like conservation biologist or teacher or nonprofit librarian or whatever. And he's a little too limiting and not speaking for the reader living in an apt in NYC; he doesn't recognizes people's limits. While I never want a car, some people really need one -- and you have to be open to accept that. Interesting, though.
Profile Image for Andrew.
218 reviews22 followers
August 25, 2012
An interesting and inspiring book, even if somewhat flawed. The most compelling sections are about the author's own experiences in reducing his ecological footprint. However, there are long stretches of the book that devolve into overly didactic and arcane mathematical calculations for eco-footprinting. Not that these calculations aren't without merit, but I would be surprised if even a small percentage of readers actually go to the trouble of weighing everything they own. However, I still walked away from this book with a variety of practical suggestions for further reducing my own impact on the planet.
Profile Image for Jennifer.
41 reviews1 follower
October 25, 2008
I admire that the author has achieved his personal goal of drastically reducing his ecological footprint but I don't like his two-part solution for "saving the planet"- part one, reduce your footprint and part two, have only one child. He reasons that since, in the industrialized world, we no longer have to worry about children living to adulthood, we "do not need to have more children to ensure the survival of the family's next generation." Who (other than Jim Merkel and other ecological extremists) thinks of family like that? Rubbish.
Profile Image for B..
62 reviews
July 18, 2008
Challenging at times because it hits close to home and makes you realize that you need to not just talk about living simply, but you have to act radically NOW. I thought I was living incredibly environmentally compared to a lot of people, but I took the in-depth footprint quiz and found out my footprint is about 17 acres. The average American's is 24. The earth is only big enough for everyone to have an average of 4.something acres. This book helps you to get under 1 acre if you want, or at least to start heading in that direction and what you need to do to honestly make a real difference.
Profile Image for Jennifer Miera.
818 reviews5 followers
August 9, 2008
I admit that I skimmed much of the book, my postpartum brain not willing to deal with equations in order to calculate my ecological footprint. Overall, it was a decent book, though more about the author's personal experience, rather than how-to. I do feel he idealized Kerala, the community he studied to come up with ideas on sustainable and local living. And, I would question some of his cited statistics and generalizations: "Every time you turn on a light, you take the life of an indigenous Arizonian"
Profile Image for sally.
110 reviews
September 16, 2007
It's good, but a little basic. If you've already studied ecological footprinting and have a good awareness of the resource-impact of your daily life, it's a little simplistic. And the plan for sustainability goal-setting just didn't seem that practical somehow - partly because of the heavy reliance on footprinting, which can be frustrating to use as an individual because of all the variables (I think it works better on a large scale).
Profile Image for Emily Mellow.
831 reviews8 followers
December 1, 2010
I don't know. I honestly just skimmed it, and found a bunch of equations for calculating your eco footprint, bla bla bla, and a dry narration of the author's path to simplicity. Not that inspiring. I feel bad whenever I give one star for a book I didn't actually read, but I want to remember in the future how strongly I feel about not wanting to pursue this book.
It could be useful to others. It could be an awesome book. I wanted it to be.
Profile Image for Laura.
881 reviews16 followers
April 25, 2011
This book taught me a lot about our earth, its resources and that we should be changing. It also shows it can be done. However, I am totally overwhelmed. I think I need to know someone who lives on 6 or fewer acres and can live life while watching and learning from them. Some interesting ideas, and I like that the author acknowledges it's hard, especially in the US, but doable. I like, also, that he says it can take years to get to where you want to be.
Profile Image for Shannon.
4 reviews2 followers
November 3, 2012
Truly inspiring. Though the data is a little out of date, the concepts and themes are just as pertinent and urgent today as when it was written. This is a great book for both reflection and action if you desire to decrease your footprint and strive towards a more sustainable life. My only wish is that he could discuss how to do these things as a college student, who is often working with limited resources and looming debt.
Profile Image for Phil Grupe.
18 reviews
August 10, 2011
Without a doubt one of the most influential books I have ever read. I can't think of another book that so redefined the perspective from which I look at the way I live my life. Suddenly my environmental concern had an actual, tangible goal, in living lightly, and I began to realize that living simply doesn't always mean living poorly.
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