The Arthur Morgan Award

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.

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.


2015 Awardee: Stephanie Mills

On September 27th, 2015, at the conclusion of our annual conference, Tools for Transition, Community Solutions presented the Arthur Morgan Award to Stephanie Mills. Stephanie Mills is an acclaimed author, bioregionalist, speaker and activist. 

Stephanie Mills grew up in Arizona and learned a love and respect for nature from her mother in their backyard garden. She began writing early, circulating one page satirical papers in the back of the third grade classroom. As a teen she wrote critiques of her high school, continued to put out humorous and satirical pieces, and began writing about social justice issues. She was heavily influenced by Mad Magazine. She went on to attend Mills College in Oakland, where she became involved with the literary magazine, the paper and an anonymous column talking about campus affairs.

“It was 1965, radicalism was beginning to emerge and blossom as a result of the free speech movement, the Vietnam War and anti-racism,” she says. “The politics of the time and even the radical politics were somewhat off putting...Then the concern for ecology began to be voiced, and that did speak to me deeply.”

In her 1969 college commencement address she decried overpopulation and natural resource exploitation, and vowed to never have children — a statement The New York Times called “perhaps the most anguished…of the year’s crop of valedictory speeches.”

“[The speech] got coverage on its own merits and also because of the moment,” she says. “Over the years, one of the things that I said is that I would not have any children in light of the population explosion, and I haven’t. It seems to me that this is something that people in the developed world need to consider and act on. There were roughly half as many people alive then as there are now. I don’t think a single thing has been improved by the growth of human population. Not to regret the lives of individuals extant, but just the species phenomenon is really catastrophic.

“Of course, how we live is critical and inequality within our species is egregious and the history of wrongs that capitalism, colonialism and empires have committed is great. Human population growth seems capable of trumping just about everything we try in the way of mitigating our impact. Not that we shouldn’t try every way we can to mitigate our impact, but the proliferation of human beings, rich and poor, presses against the earth’s capacity to sustain other forms of life. It’s an enormously complex system and over the years if I have learned anything, it’s that it’s foolish to try to say this is the issue to address to the exclusion of others or the understanding that everything is influencing by everything else at all times. Nevertheless if you’re called on to act you have to resort to some generalizations and set meaningful priorities. 

How much time and how many opportunities to improve the conditions of human life and leave some space for the other many millions of species have been lost as a result of religiously ‘justified’ social conservatism and left-wing dogmatism that stems from the idea that if you look at the numbers of people you are not going to be addressing distribution issues?” 

In 1984, as a result of a bioregional romance, Mills moved to Northwest Lower Michigan and was able to begin writing books.  

“I wanted both to serve the cause and create works of literary merit,” she says. “Two books--Whatever Happened to Ecology? and Epicurean Simplicity--were memoirs.  In Service of the Wild, concerning ecological restoration and environmental history was my favorite project.  It allowed me to learn about changes in the landscape and to walking alongside wonderful naturalists who were working to restore damaged lands.  These were men and women trying to thwart the extinction crisis acre by acre, stream by stream, plot by plot. 

“Now and again I hear that my books have meant something to somebody--encouraged and affirmed a certain understanding or given them company in their worldview and sensibility, and that's a great satisfaction to me.” 

Author Chellis Glendinning wrote: “While the essays in Tough Little Beauties were penned over three decades and alight on such disparate topics as religious experience, birch trees, birth control, the collapse of civilisation, voluntary simplicity, and ambiguity, the timbre of Mills’ voice never wavers. Like the source of her inspiration, she develops her thoughts in a self-fashioned surround of time and space that emulates that of another era; she draws wisdom and wonder from the delicacies of the natural world; and always, she views humanity’s problems from perches slightly askew from those the rest of us conjure up to use.”

In 1996 Stephanie was named by Utne Reader as one of the world’s leading visionaries. She has a long time association with Community Solutions as a regular conference speaker and supporter, and wrote about Arthur Morgan in her biography about Bob Swann.  She is the second Arthur Morgan Award recipient. The Arthur Morgan Award is designed to recognize individuals who possess the traits that Morgan wrote about: character, vision, entrepreneurship, and love of community. She received the award because of the breadth of her interests, and because she is living her life in consonance with her beliefs.


2014 Awardee: William Beale

Community Solutions was founded 75 years ago as Community Service by Arthur E. Morgan, author of The Small Community and over 20 other books. Arthur Morgan was the first chairman of the Tennessee Valley Authority, president of Antioch College, a humanist, and a Quaker. On the eve of our 75th Anniversary, Community Solutions inaugurated the Arthur Morgan Award, designed to recognize individuals who possess the traits that Morgan wrote about: character, vision, entrepreneurship, and love of community. Our first recipient was William Beale, of Athens, Ohio, longtime member of Community Solutions, serial entrepreneur, founder of Sunpower, husband, father, community member, and passionate advocate of solar power. 

William Beale was born in Tennessee and grew up during the Depression in small southern towns. He served briefly near the end of the war in the Navy, and went to college on the GI bill, getting a mechanical engineering degree from Washington State in 1950, with subsequent graduate mechanical engineering studies at Cal Tech and MIT. He moved to Athens to take a professorship at Ohio University in 1960. He taught there for 15 years, and slowly learned that he was intensely interested in doing other things, so he started his own business, Sunpower, to develop and market his Free-Piston Stirling Engine, which featured significant improvements in performance, durability and simplicity over earlier versions of the engine. Beale has received 26 patents for his work, and Sunpower spun off two firms: Stirling Technology, Inc. and Global Cooling, Inc.

He sold Sunpower a few years ago, but continues his promotions of solar energy every opportunity he gets. "It's simply good engineering logic: when you look at the energy situation it's blindingly obvious that solar is the way to go. Nothing matches its multiple virtues. I'm interested in solarizing as much as we can."

"When I was trying to sell solar, people would say it's not economic. There's something wrong there: that definition of economics is crazy. Their definition is just money. We need to get out of this blind alley, this trap of capitalism."

In a series of op-eds and letters to the editor, Beale has recommended government investment in electric car retrofits, solar water heaters, super insulation of homes, and bio-gas generators. He writes: What we need is not less government interaction, but more of the right kind, the kind that knows what the future is and helps that future, instead of ignoring the future and helping the past. The past is named fossil fuels.

We have got used to living in a paradise of free oil, and now we don't anymore. I myself slid thru life real easy on a big slick puddle of that near-free oil. But now I and my kids have slurped it all up. But we are still stupidly investing in a hopeless chase for the last cheap oil there is left, and we aren't finding it because there isn't any. Still, most of us just keep up the hopeless chase for the cheap stuff in the arctic, deep ocean, tight rocks (fracking) and so on.

Beale married Carol in 1959 and they bought a piece of waste property on a hill overlooking Athens that was partially strip mined, partially forest denuded, and partially trampled by cattle. They've let nature reforest it, and now have a flourishing forest, as well as a large garden that provides much of their food. It was a very ordinary old farmhouse with no insulation or wiring and they plugged away at it, improving it year after year. Their three children complain that they spent most of their childhood in plaster dust. In addition to insulation, they've added solar panels and now run the entire house on their output. A year ago the Beales decided to get off fossil fuels entirely, and now they live on solar and wood culled from their forest with no fossil inputs at all.

Beale continues to tinker and create and advises young people to develop a lot of ideas: "Don't hesitate to have bad ideas-being judgmental too early is bad strategy." He's currently working on an automatic transmission bicycle and a wood-burning, gas-producing electric generator that produces power through a carbon-negative process.

Beale is the recipient of the 2012 Ohio Patent Legacy Award and the 2013 Konneker Medal for Commercialization and Entrepreneurship. He has also donated solar panels to the Athens Library and has been a continual catalyst for energy efficiency discussions and projects in his community.

He worries about climate change and our lack of attention to it: "Many of the most energy-consumptive things we're doing are near useless or worse than useless." But he has hope for the future: "The torch is being passed to a new generation and the new generation has a big problem, which gives them an opportunity to be heroes. They have a fantastic opportunity to do something really world-changing. So grab that opportunity and go do it."