Saving Walden's World

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Documentary Film Synopsis

By Jim Merkel

The film Saving Walden’s World is a search for a path through turbulent times. We are the generation watching humanity devour earth. Will we pass on a parched planet or figure out how to live within earth’s limits? Travel along to far-flung and unlikely places on a quest for a world that works for all.   

Currently the reins are in the hands of powerful corporate interests and governments. Through globalization, extreme extraction and land grabs our planet races toward catastrophe. Critical planetary boundaries are being exceeded leading to climate disruption, the 6th great extinction, grinding poverty and wars. Most leaders have no other plan but to grow the economy, stimulate consumerism, and encourage couples to have more children—the very things that drive this planetary crisis.

This film seeks to discover if a sustainable future is even possible and if so, what adaptations and practices would be necessary. Donnella Meadows, the late systems thinker and author of The Limits to Growth, suggested that humanity could avoid a dramatic collapse in the 21 century by having smaller families and ecological footprints while using technology to reduce impact and enhance wellbeing.  

Sustainability comparisons of societies. Sources: World Bank, CIA, Global Footprint Network, Human Development Report, Kerala 2005

Sustainability comparisons of societies. Sources: World Bank, CIA, Global Footprint Network, Human Development Report, Kerala 2005

The film’s director, Jim Merkel, became dedicated to world peace and sustainable living after an ethical hemorrhage while designing and marketing top-secret military electronics.  Following the 1989 Exxon Valdez disaster, Jim quit work to begin an experiment in simplicity, limiting his earning, spending and impact. He traveled to Kerala, India, in 1993 to study its achievements in the area of sustainability and returned to found the Global Living Project, a non-profit environmental organization dedicated to outreach, education, and research. Jim has traveled, often by bicycle, searching for sustainable societies and documented his findings in Radical Simplicity – Small Footprints on a finite Earth.

He has joined forces with The Arthur Morgan Institute for Community Solutions, which will serve as producer for Saving Walden’s World, with Susan Jennings and Eric Johnson contributing to the film’s production along with Emmy-Award winning filmmakers Robert Maraist (director of photography), Deborah Shaffer (producer), and Julia Reichert (advisor). The production support team in Cuba included Francisco “Panchito” Álvarez, Catherine Murphy, and Pedro Martin Navarro.

Source: Living Planet Report. By 2050, with business-as-usual, humanity will need almost 3 planets.  However, by reducing population and footprints, we can live again within the one planet reality. 

Source: Living Planet Report. By 2050, with business-as-usual, humanity will need almost 3 planets.  However, by reducing population and footprints, we can live again within the one planet reality. 

The filmmakers voyage into the bowels of the untidy world of throwing off the yoke of imperialism in Cuba and Kerala, India. Far from utopias, they face ongoing challenges, but they have made their systems work for the poor and for women, ensuring that all citizens have access to health care, education, food and housing, and their literacy, infant mortality, and longevity rates are similar to the wealthiest nations. They break the myth that industrialization and globalization are the only approach to development.

For more than 50 years, Cuban women have had universal access to education, healthcare, contraception and safe, legal abortion. These are the leading conditions, according to demographers, that improve the health and survivability of children and mothers and result in lower birth rates. By 1978, fertility in Cuba was below replacement levels and by 2008 it stood at 1.59, a rate comparable to the most developed social democracies in Europe. Cuba, along with 120 nations, experience at or below replacement fertility levels (2.1 child families). But there are tensions around the issue of population growth, and the film explores these. Just as population pressures begin to ease, over 50 nations including Cuba, have begun to encourage larger families. The Cuban women we meet in this film, however, have chosen to live simply and birth lightly.

The blue lines indicate the difference in total world population in 2100 by either increasing or decreasing family size by 0.5 children.

The blue lines indicate the difference in total world population in 2100 by either increasing or decreasing family size by 0.5 children.

The filmmakers also travel to Slovenia, where the dividends of decades of programs that ensure all citizens have a right to a decent quality of life are clearly visible as is the struggle against individualistic and consumeristic values. Government policies have led to some of the lowest rates of at-risk-children and gender-pay-gap levels in Europe while having the highest female employment. Slovenia’s GDP is less than half that of the U.S., yet they manage to have infant mortality rates lower by more than half. Its capital and largest city, Ljubljana, was named “European Green Capital” for 2016. Its city core is essentially car-free, safe and livable and the city is working toward zero waste while expanding recycling and composting efforts. Green spaces have been reclaimed and converted to urban gardens and parks while traditional family vegetable gardens are everywhere.

The film also takes a look at women’s lives in Kerala, India. Kerala has a fifty times lower GDP per/capita than citizens in the US and smaller eco footprints, with just 2.2 acre/capita compared to the average American footprint of 17 acres/capita. The average family size is 1.4, compared to 2.5 in India as a whole. With 60 percent of government spending on healthcare and education and more libraries than in all of India, Kerala’s people extract a high quality out of life out of relatively few resources. 

Filmmakers will attempt to locate these five women in Kerala, 22 years after Jim Merkel photographed them in 1993.  What are they doing now, and has the society offered a supportive environment?  What opportunities were available for education and employment?  Do they now have children? What do they attribute the high life quality indices to in Kerala? 

Filmmakers will attempt to locate these five women in Kerala, 22 years after Jim Merkel photographed them in 1993.  What are they doing now, and has the society offered a supportive environment?  What opportunities were available for education and employment?  Do they now have children? What do they attribute the high life quality indices to in Kerala? 

In Kerala, although the society is highly educated, they have prioritized social well-being over economic growth. A freely elected communist government in 1957 initiated land reforms where 1.5 million got land resulting in greater food security and reduced poverty without industrialization. Contrasts to Cuba’s land reform and the U.S. response will be explored.

Jim Merkel travels by bicycle in Cuba in 2009.

Jim Merkel travels by bicycle in Cuba in 2009.

Jim will attempt to locate three women he met while they were young girls in 1993, at a school in Vellanad, where he lived for two months while researching sustainable societies with Earthwatch. Interviews with them, other women and leaders in the area, will help us understand the lessons Kerala has to offer with respect to quality of life, health care, education, and gender equality. 

Girls in Cuba can look forward to lower infant mortality rates, free education and health care in Cuba.  Film makers will try to locate these girls and speak with them and their parents 7 years after being photographed by Jim Merkel

Girls in Cuba can look forward to lower infant mortality rates, free education and health care in Cuba.  Film makers will try to locate these girls and speak with them and their parents 7 years after being photographed by Jim Merkel

Back in the US, the film turns its focus on people who have chosen a low-impact lifestyle, including Jim’s own family. It will explore the factors affecting choices women have made about fertility, contraception, and family size. A few minutes spent with experts in the field of sustainable living will underscore the dire consequences of continuing on our present path. Their message is clear: at this 11th hour, curbing both population and ecological footprints is needed to avoid collapse.

The film will explore how the hundred-year plan can work.  A sustainable future is still possible: If ecological footprints were more equitably distributed, and family size lowers to the European levels of 1.5 children per family, in 120 years the world's population would drop from 7 billion to 3 billion.  We would retreat from the disastrous overshooting of earth’s capacity by 50 percent to E.O. Wilson’s Half Earth—50 percent of earth for nature. Instead of more people, we will have more for people and more for nature.

For an audience of all generations, policy makers, and educators this film takes aim at the doom and gloom POV that our world has no future and we will only survive if we can inhabit some other planet. Saving Walden’s World offers a compelling working model that shows how radically simple it will be to save our own, exquisite, blue and green jewel.

photos from SAVING WALDEN'S WORLD Film production team