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Radical Simplicity Chapter One: Building the Case for Global Living -- Jim Merkel image moose grazing in wetlands
Every creature is better alive than dead, men and moose and pinetrees, and he who understands it alright will rather preserve its life than destroy it.
—Henry David Thoreau

Imagine you are at a potluck buffet and see that you are the first in line. How do you know how much to take? Imagine that this potluck spread includes not just food and water, but also the materials needed for shelter, clothing, healthcare and education. It all looks and smells so good and you are hungry. What will you heap on your plate? How much is enough to leave for your neighbors behind you in the line? Now extend this cornucopia to today’s global economy, where the necessities for life come from around the world. Six billion people, shoulder to shoulder, form a line that circles around the globe to Cairo, on to Hawaii over ocean bridges, then back, and around the globe again, 180 times more. With plates in hand, they too wait in line, hearty appetites in place. And along with them are giraffes and klipspringers, manatees and spiders, untold millions of species, millions of billions of unique beings, all with the same lusty appetites. And behind them, the soon-to-be-born children, cubs, and larvae.

A harmonious feast just might be possible. But it requires a bit of restraint, or shall we say, a tamed appetite, as our plate becomes a shop-ping cart, becomes a pickup truck -  filling our home, attic, basement, garage, and maybe even a rented storage unit with nature transformed into things. As we sit down for a good hearty meal with new friends and creatures from around the world, what is the level of equity that we would feel great about? At what level of inequity would we say, “Wait a minute, that’s not fair?”

The Global Living Project was founded back in 1995 with a mission to discover how to live sustainably in North America.“Global living” was defined as an equitable and harmonious lifestyle among not only the entire human population, but also among the estimated 7-25 million other species ¹, and the countless unborn generations. When one practices global living, each of our daily actions improves the health of the whole — locally and globally. The ecological, social, political, and spiritual systems at all levels are then able to regenerate and flourish.


So there you are, plate in hand, first in that mega-line. You are determined to be fair as you look over the wonderful buffet, which looks limitless. You glance over your shoulder at the line — its length is too hard for you to fathom. If you had landed on an island paradise with three friends, the answer of how much to take would be intuitive enough, similar to sitting around a large pizza on Friday night - a no-brainer. But the scale of the buffet is too big to wrap your mind around. As you contemplate your real-world life, a soft voice whispers one or more of the following in your ear:

  • There is abundance in the universe, plenty for everyone, isn’t there?
  • If I don’t take it, someone else will.
  • It’s the corporate elite who take too much.
  • We all do the best we can.
  • Everything is this way for a reason.
  • I’ve really worked hard for my money.
  • When I get my next raise, I know I’ ll do some good with it.
  • If I didn’t do my part as a consumer, everyone would be out of work.
  • Until everyone else takes less, it’s futile.
  • You could almost say we are biologically programmed to consume - survival of the fittest.
  • Come to think of it, in some ways, I’m an exception. I need my (fill in the blank) because (fill in the blank).
  • Who knows? It might even be my karma to have so much - otherwise there would be no have-nots.
  • What’s with all this guilt tripping? Dig in and eat!

You see a burger sizzling on the barbecue that smells really good. “That will get me started.” Just as you are ready to put it on your bun, you remember reading Diet for a New America.² Eating high on the food chain uses much more land, up to fifty times more than a vegetarian diet. The line is long. You remember staring at corn stalks for days on end on a cross-country trip – corn grown only to feed to cattle. You remember the cleared forests and prairies, the manure and soil running off into streams, lakes, and coastal waters, and that 43 percent of the US is grazed or grows feed for livestock. Meat’s impact on the environment is second only to automobiles.³

“All, right, all right,” you say as you look for a tofu burger. Both burgers will require processing facilities, packaging and shipping. Each will leave a trail of waste and pollution. You’ve heard that soybeans are lower on the food chain - they produce an equal amount of protein on one-sixteenth the land needed for beef. The tofu burger is not perfect. The thought of genetically modified beans grown on monoculture fields sprayed with pesticides leaves you a bit queasy. But it’s a substantial reduction in cost to the Earth. And it’s tasty.

With appetite abated, your mind wanders to dream getaways. This grand buffet has it all. Two tickets to Bali and in just 22 hours you could be released from the icy grip of the coming winter. “I can taste those mangos, feel the hot sand. The plane is going anyway ...” You think it through further. Well … not exactly. You do a quick calculation and discover you’d need five acres of forests working year round to absorb the jet emissions for your seat on this once-a-year 44-hour roundtrip flight.4 You realize that the non-renewable jet fuel once burned will push atmospheric CO 2 levels higher. A second consciousness-raising thought enters: the $1,280 tab for this flight is equal to the annual wages of five typical Balinese.5

“I’ll stay home then,” you conclude. Then you think, “To pass those long cold days, I could use a faster computer. With the latest information, I could do some great activism.” But wait. You remember reading that a computer uses 1,000 substances, including 350 different hazardous chemicals in its manufacturing processes.6 Computers’ designed obsolescence earned 20 million machines an early retirement in 1998. You also remember reading about the rural rice-growing town of Guiyu, China, which has become an electronic waste (e-waste) processing center. Women and children earn $1.50 per day to strip computers down to components. Soil and water tests there have revealed lead levels 2,400 times greater than those allowed by the World Health Organization’s guidelines. Several other heavy metals tested far exceeded the Environmental Protection Agency standards: barium by 10 times; tin by 152 times; and chromium by 1,338 times. A year after the operation started, the village had to truck in water. Many of the substances are known carcinogens or cause birth defects and skin and lung irritation.7

Let’s face it: in North America it can be challenging to find products that don’t have a large, negative environmental impact. And just as challenging is to say no to what is so easy for us to have ... to say no to what just seems normal to have. As we look more deeply into the products and services we use, one question we can ask ourselves is: “Am I in control of what I choose to put on my plate?” If not, then who is? Why do we feel such a knee-jerk resistance to taming our appetites? This is a spiritual, social, psychological, and emotional question. Does it come from internal fears of not having enough? Or is it the product of pathological pressures generated externally?


More desperate whispering in the ear: “If I decided to attempt radical simplicity, might I wind up without adequate food and shelter? Will I be able to pay for new clothes and healthcare? How will I finish my education, or pay for my children’s? Who will hire me? How can I afford to just kick back and have a good time now and then? Will I lose status, respect, and friends? How will I ever get to travel, and do all those other things I’ve dreamed of? My children will hate me, my partner will never understand. Mom and Dad might not ever say it, but somehow, I just know they’ ll be disappointed. And then, someday I’ ll be old, and who will take care of me? Who will pay the bills?” Global living: A nice concept, but pretty scary.


Have you ever wondered where the pressure to consume comes from? Does the rush of modern culture keep you plunging forward on the same unquestioned path day after day? Have you become resigned to the realization that there is no longer enough clean water available, no longer a way to avoid the catastrophic consequences of global warming? All of society - our government (we elected them), our employers (we went to work for them), and the church and schools we have chosen to attend, all seem to support economic growth and unsustainable behavior from A to Z. Mainstream media and corporate advertisers seem to control the bulk of information, and influence who gets elected, so much so that millions of people don’t even vote. With the corporate dream machine cranking away, it’s easy to see why. In the US:

  • 99.5 percent of households have televisions.
  • 95 percent of the population watches TV every day.
  • The average home has a TV on for eight hours a day. The average adult watches for five hours; children between ages two and five watch for three and a half hours; and adults over 55 for nearly six hours.
  • Aside from sleep and work, watching TV is America’s primary activity.8

If you grew up like other North Americans, you have watched 40,000 TV commercials a year.9 Add to that the bombardment of sales pitches from radio, print media, billboards, and signs and logos, and your internal landscape may very well be etched with a lust and desire for things. Once we are able to satisfy the hunger for this or that, we are still tempted into more exotic vacations, more trips to the hair salon or meditation center, and more gas-guzzling experiences skiing or snow-mobiling. Advertisers know how to get to the money in your pockets. They are trained to have you seek fulfillment outside yourself, for your dreams to include their products, their view of life — for their dream to become your dream.

If you received 12, 16, or 20 years of institutional education, you’ ll have other influences to overcome. In Dumbing Us Down,10 John T. Gatto, a New York State Teacher of the Year, shows how public schools have mostly taught young people to follow orders. Some schools might be excellent, but often our intrinsic creativity, spark, curiosity, and ability to self-motivate are dampened during our most dynamic and open years. All this time spent indoors, sitting in rows, with someone else calling the shots while the natural world beckons, is a sad injustice. To initiate a lifestyle of our own design, in alignment with our personal values, is a skill we just haven’t been taught unless we were lucky enough to have family, adult friends, or an inspiring teacher who modeled the behaviors that make dreams come true.

Most cities and towns have been redesigned for cars, while bus systems and bike lanes are few and far between. Neighborhoods with services accessible by foot, the corner store where you chat with neighbors and carry home some provisions, are mostly things of the past. Our homes may be ten to eighty miles from work, with groceries in a strip mall in the opposite direction. Our favorite park might be clear across town; our best friend, across the state; and our family spread across the continent. Many towns have laws that make it illegal to have a home business, a composting toilet, or a greywater system. Building codes often make a simply-built home illegal. Making a small outside fire at night to sing around is often illegal, even on your own property.

Yes, at the start, reinventing our own slice of life can look pretty much impossible. The more deeply we search for the causes of our world’s drastic imbalances, the more we realize the full extent of the violence we have unknowingly supported. Who would have thought that children in China would get sick from our e-waste? Or that a meat-based diet destroys habitats in Brazil? That the sea level could rise and aquatic habitats in Polynesia become contaminated with toxins because of our fossil fuel dependence? And that, with the flick of a light switch, we may contribute to the genocide of indigenous peoples in Arizona?

By participating in the economics of globalization and the politics of corporate-government rule, backed up by the military-industrial complex, we are actively involved, day to day, in the greatest exploitation of people and nature that the Earth has ever witnessed. Consider these statistics:

  • Currently the world's wealthiest one billion people alone consume the equivalent of the Earth’s entire sustainable yield. All six billion people are consuming at a level that is 20 percent over sustainable yield.11
  • Human numbers are predicted to reach nine billion by the year 2050 and peak at 11 billion.12
  • Private consumption in high-income countries rose from $4,752 billion in 1980 to $14,054 billion in 1998. 13
  • Scientists estimate that between 1,000 and 100,000 species of life become extinct every 24 hours, a rate 100 to 1,000 times faster than the natural rate.14
  • More than half of all accessible surface fresh water is used by humanity.15
  • The concentration of atmospheric CO 2 has increased from 280 parts per million (ppm) before the Industrial Revolution to 360 ppm today, and is predicted to reach 560 ppm by 2050. A panel of 1,500 scientists warned that average global temperatures might rise between 3.6 and 6.3 degrees Fahrenheit by 2100. 16
  • Over 70 percent of remaining oil reserves lie under the soil of Islamic nations of Asia, from the Red Sea to Indonesia.17 The US imports $19 billion in oil annually and spends another $55 billion annually safeguarding these oil supplies. The Gulf War of the 1990s killed between 160,000 and 220,000 Iraqi people while 19 Americans died.18
  • Over the last century, wars have claimed 175 million lives. Worldwide, $780 billion is spent annually on military, $380 billion by the US.19

With all these forces, inside and out, conspiring against us, it is understandable that we might ask whether global living is simply impossible.

We must know first that our acts are useless, and yet we must proceed as if we didn’t know it. That is a sorcerer’s controlled folly.
—Don Juan 20

If we want a sustainable future, sharing Earth with all is humanity’s only compassionate, long-term choice. Our intellect, backed by the best of science, concludes that economic growth on a finite planet is suicide. The intuitive self knows this, and might even have the solution. Our ethical and spiritual selves yearn to secure the future for all life. To avert the ecological catastrophe already in full swing, we have no choice but to radically reduce consumption, immediately stabilize population growth, and rapidly make better use of technology. If we make these changes now, the damage can be minimized. If we delay, a crash is inevitable, with the holders of the most weapons dominating until the bitter end. We have no choice but to stop damaging the Earth’s life support systems.

The Dalai Lama, when talking about how to solve world problems, said,“But first we must change within ourselves .... If there were another method that was easier and more practical, it would be better, but there is none.”21  As long as we ourselves contribute to the crisis, happiness will be elusive - in the shape of a melancholic surrender, or a party-till-the-cows-come-home abandon. If we live like there is no tomorrow, we will create just that - no tomorrow. It comes down to, “If not me, then who? If not now, then when?” At some point, we will have no other choice but to make our stand.

Global living is a modern-day journey to reclaim our connections to the Earth, however ancient, and to fall in love with the land again, wherever we decide to call home.