Radical cheap | Environment | Halifax, Nova Scotia | THE COAST

Radical cheap

The less we spend, the less we hurt the environment, says author Jim Merkel

Some people associate environmentalism with Haight-Ashbury hippies with trust funds and time to kill, but the reality is, big money is bad for the environment. The dropout generation was cluing into that, but the rat race has sucked many of its children back in. Our brand of environmentalism is too often boiled down to more conscientious, and more expensive, shopping choices.

According to Jim Merkel, author of Radical Simplicity: Small Footprint on a Finite Earth, and a recent guest speaker at the Tatamagouche Centre, the best shopping choice is to buy as little as possible, and work as little as possible while you're at it. "I had 13 yard sales when I quit the corporation," he tells me. Until 1989, Merkel was a military engineer specializing in overseas sales.

He now makes a modest living selling books and travelling by bicycle---he once raced in the US nationals---to deliver workshops on sustainable living. He helps people, mostly youth and corporate drones suffering midlife crises, get in touch with "how it feels to be part of a culture that consumes so much when people starve and nature is being destroyed."

Without that personal transformation in individuals, the assault on our environment will surely continue unabated. Merkel is well aware that a few people changing their purchasing habits won't save us, but he is planting the seeds of activism and new ways of living.

"I want to get activists free from the corporation," he says. "Then we can starve them by not buying their stuff." He adds that sustainability should cost less, not more. "It means paying workers more, but cutting down on inputs like pesticides and not shipping products across the world."

A 2008 study by Hugh Mackenzie, Hans Messinger and Rick Smith backs Merkel up. It shows that the richest 10 percent of Canadian households have an environmental impact two-and-a-half times greater than the poorest 10 percent. The largest discrepancy in environmental impact, however, is between the richest 10 percent and the second-richest 10 percent. It's the uber-rich who are really doing us in.

And of course, even poor Canadians' environmental impact far exceeds your typical Indian or Chinese person. The average Canadian's eco-footprint is 14 times the size of that of the average Haitian, according to York University's Institute for Research and Innovation in Sustainability.

While no one should suffer abject poverty, Merkel takes inspiration from people who live well on very little money. "When I was in India I saw a guy cutting hair for 10 cents and I wondered how he could live on that. But he did it out of his house, and his house used 30 times less consumer products than what you'd see in North America. He wasn't living in poverty but his needs were simple."

By having simple needs we free ourselves of the desire to earn big money for conspicuous consumption. "Consumption is a root issue for so many of our problems, and environmentalists are trying to stop these hideous projects as a result," he says. "Any activist I know could be working on one of 100 problems."

By providing people with simple tools like ecological footprinting and financial planning for low-income living---think SNL's "Don't buy stuff you cannot afford" sketch---Merkel hopes a lot more potential activists will be freed up to help with the cause.

After he quit the killing business, Merkel worked for a few years as the sustainability coordinator at Dartmouth College, where he tried to change university frat culture "one beer can at a time" from the inside. He eventually realized that, as much as he respects teachers who teach kids to grow their own food on school properties, changing the system from within wasn't for him. "Some will put their bodies in front of bulldozers and some will get too beaten down in the political system," he says, "so the question is, 'How do we make a new system?' I regularly work with youth who are on fire and don't want to live like their parents, with pear-shaped bodies staring at computers parcelling off what's left of the planet."

That's the starting point from which we hop off the hamster wheel and figure out how to live well on this finite planet.

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