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Living the Good Life on $5,000 a Year

Today's global financial cloud got you feeling gray? Vermonter Jim Merkel sees a silver lining.

Today's global financial cloud got you feeling gray? Vermonter Jim Merkel sees a silver lining.

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, www.radicalsimplicity.org. 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.

Most people monitoring the current fiscal crisis are fixated on what they could lose. Merkel is focused on what everyone could gain.

"This belt-tightening is good for us," he says. "We're swimming in a society that's super consumptive. Right now is such a beautiful opportunity for us to become sustainable."

He's ready to show people how.

Oil and water

Growing up, Merkel was the sixth of nine children of a politically conservative, meat-and-potatoes trucker. Now 50, he lives by himself in a 14-by-16-foot cabin on a dirt road in Norwich, where he grows much of his mostly organic vegan diet.

Merkel didn't make that leap in a day. Instead, he started with small steps.

Settling in California after the 1989 oil spill, he began by biking to work. Cutting his fuel consumption, he then joined the Sierra Club and gave money to other environmental nonprofits. But his biggest move came after he read an Amnesty International report about human-rights abuses in countries where he was marketing his military computer.

"There I was," Merkel recalls in his book, "a jet-set military salesman who voted for Reagan by day, and a bleeding-heart pacifist, eco-veggie-head-hooligan by night."

His two selves felt as separate as oil and water. One, seeking frugality and freedom, asked, "How much do I need?" The other, seeking long-term financial security, asked, "How much can I get?"

Merkel decided not only to quit the business of war but also to stop paying federal tax dollars that could fund government weapons. To do so, he aimed to live on an annual income less than the U.S. taxable level of $5,000.

For most Americans, that figure seems miniscule. But back when Merkel made his decision, it topped the worldwide average income of $4,500. (Today that sum has risen to almost $8,000, according to the United Nations. Even so, 3.6 billion people, or 60 percent of humanity, live on less than $520 a year.)

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