2016 Awardee: Jim Merkel

The Arthur Morgan award was inaugurated two years ago on the eve of Community Solutions’ 75th anniversary to honor those who are passionate about—and committed to—the virtues about which Morgan wrote so comprehensively: Community, Democracy, Entrepreneurship, and Individual Character.  Each of the awardees have been exemplary in living their lives in consonance with these beliefs.

Our third Arthur Morgan awardee, Jim Merkel, follows in the footsteps of 2014 awardee innovator and carbon footprint-reduction philanthropist William Beale, and 2015 awardee, author and activist Stephanie Mills.

I’d like to pause before summarizing Jim’s accomplishments to reflect briefly on similarities between Jim and my father, William, who left us at the end of June this year.  First of all, it’s clear that with people like Jim and Stephanie still in the world – not to mention the rest of you in this room! -  there’s little fear that anyone’s going to forget about the things that really matter.  

Jim was quoted in 2011: “[The US] uses our incredible military might to get more resources to flow to the most resource-consumptive nation the world has ever seen. After [realizing] that, the modern products I took for granted all suddenly felt like war booty.”  

It is this intense personalization of our national responsibility that is a key similarity between my father and Jim.  Further, they share the drive to proselytize and empower others to undergo the same epiphany, and most importantly to ACT ON IT.

Jim’s book Radical Simplicity – Small Footprints on a Finite Earth is cited as including the fact that Jim wore the same boots for eight years and grows his own veggies.

Although my father left the veggie-growing to my master-gardener mother Carol - his wardrobe was always an amazing agglomeration of decades-old threads, most of them quite threadbare.  So Jim, if you’ll accept it, I’ve decided to gift to you, after you receive all the plaques and accolades, something much less fiscally valuable: my father’s elderly gardening hat, which, in the tradition of old boots, I’m delighted to bequeath to you for your work in your own garden.

So who is our honored awardee?  Initially trained as an electrical engineer, Jim spent twelve years designing industrial and military systems. After witnessing the devastation following the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill, however, he concluded that global problems had become so urgent as to require immediate action. He consequently quit his job and began a new career as an environmental activist and spokesman.

He traveled to Kerala India in 1993 through an Earthwatch Gaia Fellowship to study their sustainability achievements and returned to found the Global Living Project where five teams of researchers attempted life as global citizens. For 16 years, he lived on $5000 a year, the world median average.  Jim has traveled, often by bicycle, searching for sustainable societies and documented his findings in his book Radical Simplicity.

New Society Publishers writes:  Radical Simplicity is the first book that guides the reader to a personal sustainability goal, then offers a process to monitor progress to a lifestyle that is equitable amongst all people, species, and generations. It employs three tools to help readers begin their customized journey to simplicity: This book is not a jeremiad. It's a manual, an engineer's text written with grace and good humor. Unlike many books on voluntary simplicity and sustainability, this one provides tools to quantify the effects of your consumption choices. Readers can measure their ecological footprint—the number of acres of usable land occupied in supporting their standard of living.

Radical Simplicity also introduced Jim to many organizations –including Community Solutions—for whom his message resonated.  Jim founded the Alternative Transportation Task Force in San Luis Obispo, California and served briefly as an elected officer of the Sierra Club; he conducts approximately 60 workshops each year on sustainable living and "radical simplicity" in the United States, Canada, and Spain. In April 2005, Dartmouth College appointed him its first Sustainability Director.

Most recently Jim has been working with Community Solutions on the development of the 100 year Plan Film, a film that explores three societies that have high human development and low ecological footprint—Cuba, Slovenia, and Kerela State in India. The film also looks at the importance of small families, and the development of the ‘new woman.’

Over the past year, Jim has been on two filming trips to Cuba, to the International DeGrowth Conference in Budapest, Hungary, and on a research trip to Slovenia.

Everywhere he goes, Jim makes friends. In addition to being a consummate story teller, Jim is humane, humorous, dedicated, and passionate. He is truly a citizen of the global community, as well as his local community, Belfast Maine, where he lives with his partner Susan and his son Walden.