Nov 28, 2008

Engineer designs a good life for $5,000 a year

Jim Merkel, a former military engineer living in Norwich, now uses his skills to help people live with less.

Back in 1989, the Long Island native was a weapons engineer who helped design a cutting-edge computer that could transmit military secrets, survive a nuclear blast and, a decade before the dawn of the BlackBerry, fit in the palm of his hand. Sitting at a hotel bar in Stockholm, Sweden, he was drinking in his accomplishment when a bulletin flashed on television.

An oil tanker had hit a reef half a world away in Alaska, spilling 11 million gallons of crude oil, contaminating 1,300 miles of coastline and killing more than 250,000 seabirds, otters, seals, bald eagles and whales. Video showed the culprit to be the Exxon Valdez. But peering into a mirror behind the bar, Merkel saw only himself.

He drove. He flew. He consumed goods produced with or propelled by fossil fuels.

"Of course, the entire industrialized world stood indicted beside me," he recalls. "Our 'need' for ever-more mobility, ever-more progress, ever-more growth had led us straight to this disaster. But in that moment, all I knew was that I, personally, needed to step forward and own up to the damage."

Returning home to the states, Merkel decided to simplify. He not only cleared away stuff (enough for 13 yard sales) but also tapped his engineering degree from New York's Stony Brook University to calculate the economic and environmental savings. By doing so, he figured out how to live comfortably — and income-tax-free — on $5,000 a year.

To share his findings, Merkel penned a 2003 book, "Radical Simplicity: Small Footprints on a Finite Earth." That begat his Web site, And those begat his continuing string of more than 1,000 speeches, workshops and classes, including this fall's "Moving Toward Sustainability" course at the Wilder campus of Community College of Vermont.

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