So what is this blog about?

These are the books I would insist everyone read if I were Queen of the Universe. I am not Queen of the Universe, so you don't have to read them, but hear me out. Most book reviews are about new books, but most books are not new. How else are you going to find out about what's out there? Anyway, aren't you just a bit curious about WHY I think these books should be read by everyone?

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Radical Simplicity: Small Footprints in a Finite Earth, by Jim Merkel

            “As the reporters on screen combed the crew of the Exxon Valdez for the guilty, I looked across the polished bar at the mirror and knew it was me,” wrote Jim Merkel. He wasn’t an oil executive or a tanker pilot. He was simply someone who used oil. If no one use oil, there would be no market for the stuff, and oil spills would never happen.
            We are so afraid of guilt, collectively. Something goes wrong, and almost before the dust settles and the injured are treated the search starts for someone to blame, as if guilt were a bird, and if it isn’t settled on some appropriate perch quickly enough it might land on us. We might be crushed beneath its magically ballooning weight. Jim Merkel is different. He claimed 100% responsibility for the consequences of his own actions, ignored the fact that billions of other people are at least co-responsible, and did something about it. He dramatically reduced his resource use and has kept it that way for years. This is a book about how to do the same thing.
            The central gem of this method, aside from the fact that the author can serve as an example, is that it involves setting a goal. Most published material on sustainable living is strictly relative; change your bulbs to fluorescent, buy a hybrid, take the bus, eat organic. Do all those things, and your resource use will shrink; you’ll be doing better. Ah, yes, but will you be sustainable? Does “better” ever become “good”? The shadow side of environmental relativism, which holds that every little bit counts, that no effort is a failure, is that no effort is ever really a success, either. There is no way to measure your degree of success. Merkel walks the reader through the process of setting concrete, objectively meaningful goals. He also frequently suggests taking a break to go walk on the beach when you start to feel overwhelmed.
            There are many technical goodies here; lists and suggestions and rules of thumb. Merkel does a good job of making a complex process as simple workable and workable as possible. If you read this book and it lights you on fire and you follow its advice you will become one of the people the world needs more of. But I don’t actually recommend doing that. Markel does a good job, but he doesn’t do a perfect job. There are some places he causes unnecessary confusion or implies unwarranted clarity. There are other books you should read with this one, to get a fuller picture. I’ll recommend some over the next few weeks. But start here. It’s a fun read, on top of everything else.
            But beyond gems and goodies, here is the story of a man who didn’t shrink from guilt—and didn’t shrink under guilt, either. One of the chief complaints about environmentalists is that we make other people feel guilty. Actually, most environmental educators do everything possible to avoid inspiring guilt, because people who feel guilty usually just shut down. The key is to stay positive, stay encouraging, reassure everyone that it isn’t your fault, no contribution is too small, and you’re going to feel so great when you go green!
            But human beings have the emotion of guilt for a reason. It’s an inner warning system that we might have done something wrong that we need to fix. You know what to do if you see a warning light go on in your car, or wherever else; you check to see if there’s really a problem, and if there is you go about fixing it. Then the light goes off and you don’t have to look at it anymore. Guilt works exactly the same way. If you feel guilty, you either really did something wrong, in which case you can make amends, or your warning light is faulty, so you go in and turn it off. Guilt is not a punishment, it is not a judgment, and it is not an attack. It's just a warning light. It's what the light is warning you about that matters.
            So, as regards global environmental problems, I’m going to go out on an unusual limb, here. It is your fault. Mine, too. Now, get over yourself and get to work.

Merkel, J. (2003). Radical simplicity: Small footprints on a finite earth. Gabriola Island: New Society Publishers.

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