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Trying to get 'simple' is harder than it looks


Published January 7, 2004 at 4:05 p.m.

It's that time of year again: time to squirrel away the holiday loot, turn my body and soul into a lean, mean machine and live out those New Year's resolutions. But why does it seem as if every year I'm carrying more baggage? After reviewing Resolutions 1, 2 and 3 on my list -- "Simplify, simplify, simplify" -- I crawl into bed and dream about all the Stuff I got for Christmas. This is no innocent vision of dancing sugarplums. Instead, I imagine I've woken to an earsplitting crash as Stuff spills out of my closets like a California mudslide.

Soon the rising tide of one-hit-wonder CDs, scented soaps, bagel toasters and novelty martini coasters is up to my chin. Finally, a Hello Kitty dishtowel makes a leap for my face and I wake, gasping for breath, and switch on the lamp to dispel the awful vision.

As my eye glides over the tchotchkes on the bedside table, I light upon an unassuming brown paperback, a recent gift from a relative who insists on using green fertilizer and carting her own trash to the dump. The title catches my eye: Radical Simplicity: Small Footprints on a Finite Earth. The author is a Vermonter: East Corinth resident Jim Merkel.

Back in December, I didn't give the book more than a glance. But with the nightmare of suffocation by Stuff playing on a loop in my head, I make a grab for it. Could this be the blueprint for my new, simpler life?

Merkel's book bills itself as a guide to the practical application of the principles of sustainability, the new eco-friendly lifestyle movement that's sweeping the nation. Vicki Robin, co-author of the best-selling Your Money or Your Life, raves that "Jim makes living on less seem like so much fun that you'll want to try it yourself." In this book, promises Merkel, I'll find all the tools I need to give myself "more time and more savings," not to mention "more responsibility, integrity and a completely new perspective on freedom."

Fun, time, savings and freedom from the tyranny of novelty coasters, here I come! The first chapter makes it look easy. Here I'm treated to the inspiring tale of how Merkel, an engineer who made big bucks in his twenties designing high-tech weaponry, saw the light and quit his job to live "car-free," grow his own vegetables and hike the wilds in search of edifying encounters with grizzly bears.

True, I can't suppress a niggling suspicion that this escape from "wage slavery" was a little cushier for Merkel, a property owner, than it might be for me, whose monthly interest these days can barely buy a venti latte. But I shush the cynical voice in my head.

I'm distracted anyway, when Merkel brings out the big guns: the numbers. Worldwide resource consumption currently exceeds the Earth's capacity to replenish itself by 20 percent. By 2050, that overshoot will have risen to 88 percent. To share the Earth equitably without overstraining it, we would each have to make do with a yearly share of 4.7 acres' worth of resources, or $3900. Love nature and want to set aside a chunk of the Earth for trees and critters? Lower your share to $980.

The average American, by contrast, earns $29,240 annually and gobbles up 24 acres' worth of the planet's produce. If I want to fulfill my New Year's resolution to simplify, it seems, I'll have to absorb a drop in living standard.

Downsize by degrees; focus on the journey not the goal, I mutter like a mantra as I approach the meaty part of Merkel's book. This is where you learn just how much of Earth's bounty you waste every day, where it goes, and how not to be a pig in the global buffet line. The first step is to estimate your "ecological footprint" -- the acreage of Earth devoted to fulfilling your yearly needs. There's simple math involved, and I conserve precious energy by using the book's flyleaf instead of a calculator.

My footprint turns out to be 14.8 acres, well below the national average -- though this rests in large part on iffy calls such as "I generate much less waste than my neighbors." Anyway, my moment of sustainability holier-than-thouness is short-lived, as Merkel breezily informs me, "If everyone lived like you, we would need 3.2 planets." It's a long road ahead.


The next step is to ditch those wimpy estimates and find out how much of the Earth's bounty you really squander by calculating your "monthly flows" and "monthly stocks." The first figure is a cinch -- it's just a question of recording all the Stuff you get your hands on this month and use up within the next six. For instance, if you pick up four copies of Seven Days this month and recycle them, you are consuming 584 square yards, or more than a tenth of an acre. Don't even think about that Sunday Times!

Monthly stocks are another matter. In order to figure the ecological footprint of every object cluttering your home, from the heirloom armoire down to the remains of the dried-fruit assortment Aunt Linda sent you last Christmas, you have to weigh it. That's right: Weigh everything, price it, and estimate its usable life.

In a burst of enthusiasm, I drag the food scale out of the kitchen and weigh the first objects that come to hand. Buffy DVDs: 1.25 pounds, $38. Pointy-toed boots I got on sale: 2 pounds, $70. Choosing not to have what Merkel calls a "deep encounter" with the rest of my possessions: priceless.

I cunningly decide that if I were to invest in a scale big enough to weigh my refrigerator, I would merely increase my total footprint. Besides, I get enough of a sustainability workout just by reading Merkel's tips. "Some [major appliances] have funny weight distribution, so you might want to weigh the right side, then the left side and add them together." "If you are excited by the process of taking stock," he goes on, playing eco-cheerleader, "do it all in a whirlwind, making quick estimates." And when you're done, "Treat yourself to a long walk in the forest -- you deserve it!"

This is my cue to crack open a cold beer (.01 acre footprint, not counting the glass bottle) and confront the fact that I'm not excited by the process of taking stock. Not only do I not deserve a long walk in the forest, I don't particularly want one -- it's cold out there.

"Why not cut to the chase?" I wonder. "Clearly I'm a global hog. Why not find out the worst? What will I have to give up if I'm serious about sticking to my fair share of the Earth?"

I put away the scale and take a virtual journey to sustainability. In a chapter called "The Wiseacre Challenge," Merkel gives us the skinny on how to live on one, three, and six acres' worth of Stuff per year. The author himself nibbles the annual equivalent of three acres and sets his "personal sustainability goal" at a footprint of one acre -- a scenario in which he would be permitted to use a monthly 3 kilowatt hours of electricity and spend $4.40 on medical services. Under such conditions "you might be inspired to take better care of yourself before you got sick," he notes without irony.

But let's leave aside the option of living like a "Survivor" contestant, and willfully ignore the fact that 200 million people in India subsist on less. I decide to set a more modest goal -- say, a footprint of six acres. The prospect is brighter. On six acres, says Merkel, I can eat a quarter of a quart of ice cream every month and quaff a full quart of beer, though I'll have to stash any leftovers in a "small refrigerator" that I run only "part of the year."

I might be able to swing this, I think, as long as I've got enough new "Sex and the City" episodes to get me through the dreary meals of home-sprouted beans. But wait -- I don't. "I excluded paid entertainment [from the budget]," Merkel explains patiently, "based on the premise that free fun is abundant in the universe."

I close the book and fall back into my uneasy slumber. This time, upbeat soundbites from Radical Simplicity loop through my head. "There are no eco-police!" Merkel insists, when I tell him I really don't want to ditch my TV just yet. And when I humbly explain that I think his idea of "fun" is a bit more utilitarian than mine, he soothes me with a reminder that "guilt, fear and anxiety won't help." He's a nice guy, and he seems confident that eventually I'll come around to a state of mind in which I'm willing to forgo email and central heating.

Slipping deeper into unconsciousness, I have a dream right out of a dystopian novel. Under President Merkel, every American citizen has pledged to live "Frontier House"-style. The eco-cops knock on our doors daily to make sure we're not eating meat or exceeding our allowance of kilowatt hours from the communal generator. The wonders of nature have become our primary source of entertainment, along with meeting the challenges of living off the land in a state that has a blink-and-you-missed-it growing season.

But instead of relaxing and "loving my limits," as Merkel puts it, I find that my sustainable dream-life is full of bitterness and paranoia. When I'm not stocking the root cellar and running the laundry through the handwringer, I'm obsessing over the possibility that someone out there is still living the 24-acre high life. Does Bill Gates have a private generator? Is Martha Stewart hiding a stash of non-biodegradable household cleansers? And what about those one-acre folks in India? Now that we've voluntarily simplified, is it possible they've decided to take up our slack by using two or three times their share?

This time, waking to my room cluttered with Stuff is an immense relief. I've "deeply encountered" my own selfishness and realized that I can't ditch it as easily as I can my material possessions. Sure, I might take some baby steps toward sustainability, but I'll have to accept the fact that they'll probably be cancelled out by my neighbor's shiny new SUV. Grand gestures of frugality are out of the question.

Then I have a brilliant idea. Why not become a "boomer-anger" -- one of those out-of-work twenty- or thirty- somethings who return to the parental home in order to live off mom and dad? I've heard such folks slandered as "slackers" and "freeloaders," but Merkel would see them for what they are -- bold pioneers of simple living.

While self-esteem issues have kept me from adopting this lifestyle so far, Radical Simplicity has liberated me from the tyranny of middle-class expectation. If grandma asks me where the great-grandkids are, I'll tell her I didn't want to contribute to world population growth. If dad wants to know when I'm going to move out of the basement, I can whip out Merkel and a calculator and show him that sharing a dwelling, TV and car dramatically reduces my ecological footprint -- and his!

Stop berating self for being a "loser" in Western-capitalist-globalist-consumerist terms. Now there's a New Year's resolution worth keeping.