4 Questions for Jim Merkel

Jim Merkel is an author, volunteer, and engineer who left a career in the military industry to live and teach simplicity. He is the author of Radical Simplicity: Small Footprints on a Finite Earth, and the founder of the Global Living Project. When he isn’t playing bass or digging potatoes, he writes, lectures, and consults with campuses and municipalities on sustainability initiatives. Jim lives in Belfast, Maine.

For better or for worse, modern life is a web of human-made systems that feed us, clothe us, house us, and move us. Stepping away from those systems isn’t easy. What keeps you going?

Well, I work a lot with college-aged folks. They inspire me. They know my generation has left them a horrible mess, but instead of getting bitter, they get active. They look at those around them living lives Thoreau called “quiet desperation,” and they fear a life of getting pear shaped while staring at a computer screen making widgets. I feel so fortunate to be cursed with the inability to live a life without a heart.

But there’s also a positive reinforcement that happens as I simplify—it just gets easier. When I bike regularly, it stimulates my appetite; I trim down and feel more positive. I notice changes in the season; I encounter more people; I notice that my day improves. Eating local foods—whether grown by me or purchased from a nearby organic farm—has become default. Their quality and taste are radically better than food chain produce. And hunting down the local organic grain growers and mills, the free-range eggs, the cooking oils and beer—all that evokes the same gatherer-hunter instincts that buying a new car might stimulate, and with no societal downside.

There are, of course, critics of the kind of personal change you describe—many of whom feel that only cultural and political revolution can deal with big threats like climate change.

I understand their urgency and frustration and wish them luck in getting business and government to change—but I prefer to limit my energy in debating tactics. We could use 1,001 diverse approaches to engage individuals, schools, campuses, businesses, churches, and politicians. But I can’t ask others to do what I am unwilling to do. And when I experiment on myself, I learn and work out the practical difficulties; my work is better received when I have life experience to draw from. It wouldn’t work for me to live with a big impact while advocating for sustainability.

It’s true that saying “no” to what is so easy to have is hard. But as global economic and financial systems break down and strand those dependent upon them, I think the willingness to shift will grow in big ways.

In your book, Radical Simplicity, you describe an earlier chapter of your life as a military engineer. Was there a moment or an experience that called that life path into question?

I was in Stockholm once, on business, where I was marketing military technologies that I’d helped design. I was enjoying a beer at a fancy hotel bar when images of the Exxon-Valdez spill came on the TV. I had dreamed of exploring that Alaskan wilderness—but regardless of whether or not the ship’s captain had been drinking, I realized I was drunk on fossil fuels, driving three miles each way to work and flying around on business trips.

I caught a glimpse of my teary face in the mirror behind the bar, and I felt responsibility. Every bone in my body felt lied to. I mean, we use our incredible military might to get more resources to flow to the most resource-consumptive nation the world has ever seen. After that, the modern products I took for granted all suddenly felt like war booty.

Recently, you and a few friends biked 350 miles through New York and Vermont, giving presentations about sustainable living along the way. What’s next for you and the Global Living Project?

For the last year, my partner Susan and I have been executive directors of the Newforest Institute in Brooks, Maine. We have an apprenticeship program and lead workshops in permaculture and practical living skills like timber framing, knowledge of wild-edible plants, soils, art, and ecology. Our demonstration site is a hub of permaculture in the Northeast. And my work with the Global Living Project has focused mainly on speaking to community groups and college campuses. I’ve also been teaching about food security and root cellar construction at Unity College.

But our boy, Walden, is now fifteen months old, and Susan and I will be stepping down from our executive director positions at Newforest to be parents. We’d also like to get to work on an energy efficient home, an orchard, and a vegetable garden.