Jim Merkel and Rowan Sherwood '93 visit campus to show what each of us can do to help save the planet.
by Erica Salamida '04
"People really care," says Rowan Sherwood '93. "But when groups of people or individuals think they want to do what's right, taking the step to bring that about is another challenge." Sherwood, a speech pathology graduate of IC who is now the codirector of the Global Living Project, and her partner and codirector, Jim Merkel, were on campus in March, helping to educate the campus community about sustainability .
In 1994 Merkel founded the Global Living Project (GLP), which uses both education and research to inform others on how to live in harmony with nature. Sustainability, or how the human race can continue to live on Earth without exhausting its resources or its own members, is the main focus of the GLP.
Merkel had spent his early career as an arms dealer and military engineer for the U.S. government. He grew increasingly concerned with the ethical implications of his job. "I got to see firsthand on how we were militarizing a lot of the world," he says. "There are so many places in conflict; we're there for our own self interests -- we are controlling other people's interests."
A life-changing incident led Merkel to quit his job and become an environmentalist. When he first saw the coverage of the Exxon Valdez oil spill, he realized he was partially at fault for the tragedy. He remembers hearing that the driver of the tanker might have been drunk, but he blamed himself for his constant travel by car and plane -- he was the consumer, the reason for the great demand for oil.
So Merkel "ran the numbers" on his own life, calculating the actual impact he was making on the environment as a single being on the planet. He was astounded with what he found. Like many other Americans, he was overconsuming his rightful share of resources on the planet. He decided to make an active change by living more simply; GLP grew out of that decision.
Merkel met Sherwood in Seattle at a time when she was coming up with her own 10-year plan for restructuring her habits and ingrained attitudes. "My values were evolving as I was learning environmental issues; it became clear that I wanted to live in a way that had a small impact on the planet," Sherwood says. "My friends and I had been scheming about how we were going to leave the city, move to the land, and start running educational programs on sustainability."
When she met Merkel, she realized that he was already living her plan. He told Sherwood about the GLP and encouraged her to stop waiting to begin her life. Sherwood decided to join Merkel on his educational bike tour, during which she became harshly aware of the reality of what is happening to the Earth and the need for an immediate shift toward sustainability. Within two generations, she learned, the planet's resources will be severely depleted, if not almost completely exhausted. To sustain Earth's land, for not only humans, but for the millions of other species that coexist with us, most Americans would have to cut back on what are considered automatic processes: driving their cars everywhere, eating packaged foods, and even leaving the computer on at night.
One way for us to gauge our impact on the planet is by using a tool called ecological footprinting. Developed by William Rees and Mathis Wackernagel, the footprint calculates in acres the amount of land each person on Earth consumes based on his or her lifestyle. The metal in a car, the wood in houses and furniture, food, and fuel are only a few of the factors that play into an ecological footprint. To sustain our planet indefinitely, the researchers calculated, one should use no more than 6 acres of land. The average American footprint uses 24.
Merkel and Sherwood's goal was reduce their own footprint by living naturally on a patch of land in British Columbia. With the help of the Global Living Project team, the couple built their own ecologically sound house for only $1,200. Using mostly materials from the land around them, including straw bales for insulation and a sand-and-clay adobe mixture, they succeeded in creating what they fondly call "The Straw Bale Café."
The café was equipped with plumbing and electricity (even though they would consume only $3 of electricity per month). Merkel and Sherwood reduced the amount of their material possessions, practiced composting and organic gardening, and lived on a footprint of about three acres each.
"If you go on a backpacking trip, you have everything you need on your back," Merkel says. "We have about 30 backpacks of stuff. We're not what we would call austere; I'd guess we're somewhere in between the austerity of Gandhi and the mainstream population." Sherwood adds, "I feel no material deprivation in my life whatsoever." She even feels she can afford to cut back on more of her material possessions.
Recently Sherwood and Merkel moved to East Corinth, Vermont. The house they reside in was built by a couple who live similarly. Sherwood and Merkel now spend most of their time on speaking tours, educating college students and other audiences on how to reduce their footprint. They've traveled over 15,000 miles by bicycle, and their most recent tour included a loop around New Hampshire, Vermont, Massachusetts, and Maine.
In their presentations, Merkel and Sherwood speak about their own understanding of living on a low footprint, as well as Merkel's inspiring visit to Kerala, India, in 1994. While researching footprints, Merkel found that India's average is 1.9 acres, and that the town of Kerala has a particularly impressive standard of living. With low infant mortality rates and education and literacy rates in the 95 percentile, Kerala seemed a model town of successful simple living.
He asked a matriarch in Kerala if she felt like a steward of the Earth, and she was taken aback. She responded, he recalls, that we are absolutely not stewards of our planet; we are indefinite parts of it.
It's safe to say that this woman's perspective is not the attitude of many western people. Sherwood and Merkel believe that if more people thought of themselves as parts of the earth, they would not continue to consume and waste as much as they do. "But right now," Merkel points out, "it seems very hard for people to change; life seems so complicated. I think it's tough for people to step out of the box of American culture."
The couple proposes a 100-year initiative that may be easier for Americans to adapt to. The plan includes small cutbacks in consumption, as well as an overall reduction in population. Merkel writes about this proposal in its entirety in his book Radical Simplicity.
Sherwood and Merkel are quick to note that they do not hold an antichild philosophy. But population control is an important part of the solution to the problem. They point out that impoverished Americans, struggling to keep up with the mouths they have to feed, continue to bring more children into the family. Having more people in the family generates more income, and the cycle continues.
Merkel and Sherwood claim that many environmental and socioeconomic problems actually start in our own country, since the richest people in the U.S. consume about 254 more times than the poorest people in the world. When combined with the impoverished population issues, the inequity is overwhelming. "Six billion people share this planet," says Sherwood, "and it's difficult as we become caught up in the spheres of our own lives to think about how our choices affect people we'll never even see."
Nevertheless, she feels strongly, "We need to bring people out of poverty, and women need to be in charge of their own fertility."
As she and Merkel continue to speak around the country, they find many people with similar lifestyles to them. For instance, members of Ithaca's EcoVillage, the cohousing community in partnership with IC for the environmental studies curriculum and sustainability issues, live on ecological footprints that are half the average American's. Merkel and Sherwood were particularly impressed with EcoVillage. "Getting out on the road really gets us inspired," says Merkel, "because [we realize that] we aren't the only ones out there."
And two, armed only with bikes and backpacks, are certainly making a difference.