Treading Lightly

March 17, 2000

By Michael Jessen

My desire is to know what I have lived, that I may know how to live henceforth.

Henry David Thoreau, the famous American naturalist and writer, recorded those words in his journal on November 12, 1837. Now three Slocan Valley residents are following in Thoreau's footsteps to assess their lifestyles and create a blueprint for how to live with less impact on the planet.

Jimi Merkel, Erica Sherwood, and Ivan Ussach are trying to simplify their lives in a living laboratory called the Global Living Project on Morning Star Ridge near Perry Siding. In today's vernacular they are pioneering ways to live sustainably.

"We've built great cities, transplanted hearts, dropped nuclear bombs, even gone to the moon," says Merkel. "Now, can North Americans live simply and peacefully on this miraculous planet?"

A transplanted American who left his high-paying job in the defense industry at age 30, the now 42-year-old Merkel calls himself a "weird, recovering engineer." Since he discovered the work of a University of BC professor and his graduate student, Merkel's passion has become finding the answer to his question.

In the mid-1990's, Dr. William Rees and Mathis Wackernagel developed the ecological footprint analysis to measure humanity's activities. It is basically the amount of Earth's services we use to feed, house, clothe, transport, and otherwise maintain ourselves.

"Every consumption item comes from nature," Merkel says during an interview in his straw bale cabin, built for only $2,000. "Our dollar has a footprint backed by land and species. Every dollar has a relationship to the Earth."

Rees and Wackernagel devised categories of human consumption and translated them into areas of productive land and sea required to provide resources and assimilate waste products. The ecological footprint is a measure of how sustainable our lifestyles are.

Using these categories, Merkel, Sherwood, and Ussach are weighing, counting, and recording each item they consume in their daily life. Using ecological footprinting, monthly tallies will be translated into actual Earth area needed to secure the resources used and absorb the wastes generated.

According to Rees and Wackernagel, the average Canadian requires about 20 acres of space to provide their current lifestyle. The average American consumes more and requires 25 acres, but the average Italian requires only 10 acres. However, the UBC duo found all three to be living unsustainably since the Earth can only provide about 5 and a half acres for each of the Earth's six billion people. The two found that the City of Vancouver required an area 200 times its actual size to sustain itself. Vancouver's population has to appropriate land from others in order to function.

What it all comes down to is a startling image of a footprint run amok. About three-quarters of the Earth's resources are used by the richest billion people leaving only one-quarter for the remaining five billion.

Sherwood uses the image of a potluck supper to illustrate the disparity. "Could a person go to a potluck supper as we do every single day, eat 90 percent of the food and leave only 10 percent for the rest of the people?" she asks.

"The footprint tells us how to set the potluck table," Sherwood adds. "It shows us what is really ours to take. We need this because we don't see the other humans and other species we are hurting through our consumption."

Merkel and Sherwood have tracked their footprints in previous years, but this is a first for Ussach. He recounts his "out of body experience", as he stood naked looking down at his clothing that he was weighing on a scale.

"I kind of laughed to myself," Ussach says. "But this is exactly what drew me to this project. We need to collectively build a data base."

Ussach says the project is "profoundly important work so it's important that it's fun."

"If it's not fun, it's not sustainable," adds Sherwood.

The goal of this year's project is to find out if the trio can live on one acre or a "wise acre" as Merkel puts it. The results for February are in and none are even close. Merkel had a footprint of 4.4 acres; Sherwood's was 5.2 acres (she made a lasagna for Merkel's birthday and her footprint absorbed all the extra cheese); while Ussach, who lives in a separate cabin and can't split the footprint of his living space as the other two do, had a footprint of 6.9 acres. Ussach's cabin also uses twice the wood to heat as the straw bale structure, a significant factor since it requires one acre of forest to sustainably provide one cord of firewood.

Although the numbers are higher than last year's footprints, the trio is far from discouraged. "No, we haven't gotten that much more extravagant, the numbers have gotten better," explains Sherwood. "What we are finding is that as we go deeper into the analysis, we are uncovering the true environmental costs of our lifestyle, which are greater than we thought at first."

Besides recording their environmental impacts, the three are also noting the satisfaction level they gain from their consumption using methods developed by Vicki Robin and Joe Dominguez who wrote the bestseller "Your Money or Your Life."

"Every consumer item is a trade for time," Merkel explains. "By noting your satisfaction you discover if the trade was worth it and whether it was in line with your values."

Merkel says that by giving consumer items a satisfaction level, it becomes real easy to find areas to cut back.

"When people hear about simplifying, they forget the freedom in it, the tremendous freedom," concludes Sherwood.

Thoreau, who spent a year himself exploring the simple life in his cabin on Walden pond in 1845-46, would undoubtedly be impressed by the ethical and spiritual ideals this Slocan Valley threesome are following. While there, Thoreau concluded: "Most of the luxuries, and many of the so-called comforts of life, are not only not indispensable, but positive hindrances to the elevation of mankind."

ONE SMALL STEP - If everyone on Earth lived like the average Canadian, we would need at least FOUR Earths to sustain our lifestyle and provide all the material and energy we currently use. By conserving energy, water, and resources you can reduce your ecological footprint. Driving less, taking public transport, and eating more locally grown food will also help. You can save resources while brushing your teeth. Instead of throwing out your whole toothbrush, buy a toothbrush with replaceable heads. They're available at many health food stores and pharmacies.

A four-week residential program will be held again this summer from June 18 to July 15 as part of the Global Living Project. It is open to educators, students, and interested individuals and will focus on sustainable lifestyles, community living, and working for change. More information can be found on the Global Living Project web site at http://www.netidea.com/~jmerkel/glp.htm. Sherwood and Merkel will bicycle about 1,500 miles beginning March 24 as they take news of the Global Living Project to Vancouver, Bowen Island, Victoria, Bellingham, and Seattle. Merkel will also lead a workshop entitled "Living Simply in the Midst of Consumption" at the Environmental and Outdoor Education Council conference of the Alberta Teachers' Association to be held May 11 to 13 in Jasper. This fall Merkel will co-teach a course called "The Practice of Social Environment Change" at Antioch University in Seattle.

RESOURCES - You can calculate your own ecological footprint at one of at least four web sites: http://www.lead.org/leadnet/footprint/, http://www.wwfcanada.org/cgi-bin/database-cgi/ecofoot.pl, http://www.sc.edu/sustainableu/ecofootprint.htm, and http://www.city.toronto.on.ca/energy/quest.htm. "Our Ecological Footprint" by Rees and Wackernagel is published by New Society Publishers and "Your Money or Your Life" is published by Penguin Books. Merkel can be reached by e-mail at jmerkel@netidea.com.


All columns archived here are copyright © 2000 by Michael Jessen, all rights reserved. If you wish to print an individual column for your own use, please do so. If you wish to publish any of the columns in either print or electronic format, please contact the author at toenail@netidea.com to arrange appropriate payment.