Vt. Engineer Designs A Good Life for $5,000 a Year
Today's global financial cloud got you feeling gray? Vermonter Jim Merkel sees a silver lining.
in 1989, the Long Island native was a weapons engineer who helped
design a cutting-edge computer that could transmit military secrets,
survive a nuclear blast and, a decade before the dawn of the
BlackBerry, fit in the palm of his hand. Sitting at a hotel bar in
Stockholm, Sweden, he was drinking in his accomplishment when a
bulletin flashed on television.
An oil tanker had hit a reef
half a world away in Alaska, spilling 11 million gallons of crude oil,
contaminating 1,300 miles of coastline and killing more than 250,000
seabirds, otters, seals, bald eagles and whales. Video showed the
culprit to be the Exxon Valdez. But peering into a mirror behind the
bar, Merkel saw only himself.
He drove. He flew. He consumed goods produced with or propelled by fossil fuels.
course, the entire industrialized world stood indicted beside me," he
recalls. "Our ‘need' for ever-more mobility, ever-more progress,
ever-more growth had led us straight to this disaster. But in that
moment, all I knew was that I, personally, needed to step forward and
own up to the damage."
Returning home to the states, Merkel
decided to simplify. He not only cleared away stuff (enough for 13 yard
sales) but also tapped his engineering degree from New York's Stony
Brook University to calculate the economic and environmental savings.
By doing so, he figured out how to live comfortably - and
income-tax-free - on $5,000 a year.
To share his findings,
Merkel penned a 2003 book, "Radical Simplicity: Small Footprints on a
Finite Earth." That begat his Web site, www.radicalsimplicity.org. And
those begat his continuing string of more than 1,000 speeches,
workshops and classes, including this fall's "Moving Toward
Sustainability" course at the Wilder campus of Community College of
Most people monitoring the current fiscal crisis are
fixated on what they could lose. Merkel is focused on what everyone
"This belt-tightening is good for us," he says.
"We're swimming in a society that's super consumptive. Right now is
such a beautiful opportunity for us to become sustainable."
He's ready to show people how.
Oil and water
up, Merkel was the sixth of nine children of a politically
conservative, meat-and-potatoes trucker. Now 50, he lives by himself in
a 14-by-16-foot cabin on a dirt road in Norwich, where he grows much of
his mostly organic vegan diet.
Merkel didn't make that leap in a day. Instead, he started with small steps.
in California after the 1989 oil spill, he began by biking to work.
Cutting his fuel consumption, he then joined the Sierra Club and gave
money to other environmental nonprofits. But his biggest move came
after he read an Amnesty International report about human-rights abuses
in countries where he was marketing his military computer.
I was," Merkel recalls in his book, "a jet-set military salesman who
voted for Reagan by day, and a bleeding-heart pacifist,
eco-veggie-head-hooligan by night."
His two selves felt as
separate as oil and water. One, seeking frugality and freedom, asked,
"How much do I need?" The other, seeking long-term financial security,
asked, "How much can I get?"
Merkel decided not only to quit the
business of war but also to stop paying federal tax dollars that could
fund government weapons. To do so, he aimed to live on an annual income
less than the U.S. taxable level of $5,000.
For most Americans,
that figure seems miniscule. But back when Merkel made his decision, it
topped the worldwide average income of $4,500. (Today that sum has
risen to almost $8,000, according to the United Nations. Even so, 3.6
billion people, or 60 percent of humanity, live on less than $520 a
Seeking ways to cut costs, Merkel turned to the
best-selling book "Your Money or Your Life: Transforming Your
Relationship with Money and Achieving Financial Independence" by Joe
Dominguez and Vicki Robin. It asks readers to add up their cash assets,
estimate the value of their possessions and then keep track of every
penny they spend to see whether their purchases equate with their
"I knew how to run numbers on big business deals," Merkel says. "I started to run the numbers on my life."
‘I had a lot of toys'
decades ago, Merkel was living in a four-bedroom house spilling with
stuff. To simplify, he sold almost everything. Out went his motorcycle,
his pickup truck, his antique car, his speedboat.
"I had a lot
of toys. And other things - you need a leather jacket to ride the
motorcycle. And tools - when I felt empty, I would buy more tools."
cleared enough space to rent out three spare rooms, helping him cut his
monthly bills from more than $1,000 to about $200. Four years later, he
sold the house, banked the money and toured North America, Europe and
Asia - he has traveled more than 17,000 miles by bike - to study how
different communities and cultures are working toward economic and
In 1990, for example, Merkel
visited Arizona to help distribute humanitarian aid to 300 Navajo
families. He listened as an elder woman told how the government wanted
to relocate her tribe so it could mine for an estimated $100 billion in
"What can I do to help?" he asked.
"Go back to your
people and tell them to live simply," he recalls her saying. "Then they
wouldn't be out here digging up Mother Earth for coal and uranium."
years later, Merkel went to Kerala, India, a state of 30 million people
who are educated and healthy though they earn 60 times less than the
average American income. He saw how citizens harvested coconuts for
meat and milk, used husks to fuel fires and wove fronds into hut walls,
roofs and twine.
"There are no clear-cuts, no factories, no
fossil fuels, no insurance and no marketing," he recalls. "Fuel, food,
shelter, fishing nets, ropes - and they never killed the tree!"
comparison, Merkel read the book "Our Ecological Footprint: Reducing
Human Impact on the Earth" by Mathis Wackernagel and William Rees and
discovered that the average American's material consumption, calculated
by the amount of land required for harvesting and waste disposal,
equals 24 acres.
Can this change? Merkel founded the nonprofit
Global Living Project in 1995 and figured out ways to reduce his
ecological footprint to as low as 3 acres (below a person from China
and above a person from India). He then shared his solutions in
"Radical Simplicity," a 288-page book from New Society Publishers now
in its third printing.
Merkel considers himself a better
mathematician than a writer. But his book has garnered praise (and its
foreword) from "Your Money or Your Life" coauthor Vicki Robin.
Progressive historian Howard Zinn, for his part, calls it "the most
persuasive argument I have yet seen for all of us to radically change
the way we live day-to-day."
‘It's not a hardship'
So what's Merkel's solution?
"The easiest is simply to take less."
also suggests "sharing" housing and transportation ("Share with another
person and halve your impact; with four people, quarter the impact")
and "caring" for what you have, be it properly maintaining household
items or supporting communities by producing and purchasing goods
Farm stands and mom-and-pop stores are close, but aren't supermarket prices cheaper?
you don't pay over the counter you pay in taxes, dirty air, dead
animals, polluted water, clear-cut forests, sweatshops and strip-mined
lands," Merkel writes in his book. "Small-scale bioregional producers,
although their products might use less energy and materials and create
less waste, don't get big tax breaks and bailouts or discounted access
to resources because they wield less political influence."
2001, Merkel moved to East Corinth to help maintain 27 acres owned by
The Good Life Center, curators of former Vermont homesteaders Scott and
Helen Nearing's property in Harborside, Maine. Four years later, he
became Dartmouth College's first sustainability director and moved to
his fixer-upper cabin in Norwich so he could bike seven miles to the
New Hampshire campus.
Pedaling aside, Merkel was paid to walk
his talk. But the paycheck unexpectedly tripped him up. Earning more
money than he had since leaving the military, Merkel almost doubled his
annual spending to as much as $10,000. And so after two years on the
job, he quit. He's working his way back to living on $5,000, which he
reaps from part-time teaching, speeches and investment interest.
Merkel may sound pay-as-you-go old-fashioned, but he plugs into modern conveniences like the Internet.
"I have bills like everyone else. I'm just very conservative with things."
monthly electric bill, for example, is "$9 and change" because he
limits his use of lights and appliances. He fuels his 1992 Honda Civic
(averaging 45 miles per gallon) only when he can't bike. He can't
control his property taxes, but he can plant an eighth of an acre with
summer fruit and salad fixings and winter root-cellar and canning
staples including beets, cabbage, carrots, onions, potatoes and squash.
And, if necessary, he's willing to throw in the kitchen sink.
"You might wash dishes with wood ash as I did at Gandhi's ashram in India."
Seems like work? It doesn't have to.
not a hardship - it's the frame of consciousness I put myself into."
One example: "Say you are growing tired of weeding the garden. Many of
the common garden weeds are edible and nutritious."
Coffee with that?
of Merkel's choices are calculated. Consider whether he should eat
meat. He tapped a mathematical formula to determine that, because
gardening consumes less land and resources than raising animals, a
soybean-based tofu burger impacts the environment four times less than
a chicken burger and 14 times less than a beef burger.
has enjoyed boiling maple sap into sugar. Then he discovered he had to
burn nearly three cords of wood to make 16 gallons of syrup, "so I got
Sending an e-mail requires a few seconds of
electricity, while mailing a letter consumes a tree and truck fuel. But
when the engineer weighed all the metal and plastic in his computer, he
discovered an electronic message is three times as ecologically
damaging as a letter.
That said, simplicity doesn't have to be
complicated. Merkel has a shortlist of synonyms for "Earth-efficient":
simple, safe, local, low cost, readily available, recycled. He has
followed them for almost two decades, even as most Americans sought
shelter in mortgages and credit cards.
Then the world's economy tanked this fall on a reef of bad debt.
"Every year this gets more pertinent," he says, "especially with this current economic adjustment."
Longwood University has begun to assign Merkel's book annually to its
more than 1,000 incoming freshmen. The author, speaking there recently,
brought his own coffee mug to save a disposable cup. Then a student
asked how the man who wrote about the dangers of coffee-plantation
deforestation and "all the fuels needed to harvest, process, ship,
roast, deliver, grind and brew the beans" could swallow the end product?
"My take is not to micromanage everyone, to say ‘good' or ‘bad,'" Merkel says.
he hopes people will think about each individual choice that, in
combination with others, best balance what one wants with what one
"For one person, the motivation may be saved money; for
another, saved Earth; for another, more free time; for still another,
creating conditions for world peace."
And for all, Merkel hopes simplicity will bring the same payoff: peace of mind.