An Interview with William Powers, author of Twelve by Twelve
After working for a decade in Third World countries, aid worker William Powers needed a new project. Living again in the U.S., Powers found himself disillusioned by the constant noise and motion. Then he met Dr. Jackie Benton, a physician from North Carolina. The doctor had a tiny, off-grid cabin without electricity or running water, and he invited Powers to live there. In his book Twelve by Twelve: A One Room Cabin Off the Grid and Beyond the American Dream (New World Library), Powers recounts his life without modern entrapments. His solo adventure shines a revealing light on our busy lifestyles.
Here, Powers talks to E about the life lessons he learned while living small.
1. E Magazine: You have an extensive history working with and living in poverty-like conditions. How did your aid work prepare you for your 12"x12" living?
William Powers: I've lived in all kinds of conditions from Civil War Liberia to highlands Bolivia. But it was still bizarre to be in the center of the richest country on Earth— and in a blue state at that—living a subsistence lifestyle.
2. E: In your book, you describe cell phones and technology as a "bulldozer currently flattening the world." Is all technology bad? Or just the way we use it?
W.P.: I have some neo-Luddite tendencies, I"ll admit. As Gandhi said: “There's more to life than speeding up its pace.” Twelve by Twelve seeks to be a space of philosophical and practical resistance to the "Flat World" ethos of speed, efficiency and the myth of progress. However, there is also a lot of good to be had from technologies—especially clean ones—but the shape of those technologies is a direct mirror of the quality of our "inner acre." So the first step is inner work.
3. E: You mention the outdoor solar shower quite a bit in the book. How does it work? Would this kind of shower be something that could be incorporated into a modern middle-class home?
W.P.: It's a simple 5-gallon SunShower diaphragm available online. Just put it on your lawn in the morning and take a nice hot shower in the afternoon. One reader just told me last week she got one for her porch. Anyone with a little space for privacy can use one in a warm, Southern climate.
4. E: You often compare your experiences in Africa and Latin America to the American way of life. You write: "(In the cultures of the Global South) the idea is not to live better, but to live well." What does this mean?
W.P.: During a decade living abroad I discovered the planet's Idle Majority, the billions who reject the Puritan work ethic and extol leisure. This "leisure ethic," as I've come to dub it, isn't laziness; it is an intelligent, holistic balance between doing and being. It is embodied by the Aymaran philosophy of "living well," which I discovered in Bolivia. Most Bolivians reject "living better" and instead seek the elusive contours of enough. Enough (and not more) food, shelter, fresh air and social activity. It's Aristotle's "Golden Mean."
Americans can adopt this into their lifestyles in many ways. One example: Resist time-poverty by rejecting over scheduling and filling at least one hour a day with non-doing: contemplating a flower or a poem or walking slowly without destination. That's boot camp for the leisure ethic!
5. E: You criticize American culture a lot. Is there anything that we are doing right?
W.P.: This is one of the most creative, open societies in the world. We have deep, democratic roots and wells of tolerance that we can tap into in the Environmental Era. There is much we are doing right today, but much of it is on the fertile creative edges—the Slow Food, TV Turn Off, 350.org, Transition Town, permaculture, organic farming subcultures—and also in evolving contemplative and mystical spiritual traditions. I think what we need to do is turn these subcultures into "The Culture." Toward that end, and starting today, each of us can create our own mini-culture if we don't like the big one. It's incredibly powerful to stay maladjusted.
6. E: In Twelve by Twelve you mention your family's roots in the Catholic Church and their regard for simplicity. You hint that your beginnings made it easier for you to transition into your 12"x12" lifestyle. Do you think this model is realistic for busy urban dwellers?
W.P.: Each of us can ask ourselves: "What's my 12"x12"?" and thereby uncover myriad ways to live more softly now, even in the city.
7. E: What are some changes even the most materialistic urban consumers can make to simplify their lives?
W.P.: Do more yoga and meditation, valuing the sacredness of the exquisite human body and consciousness every day. By doing that, attachment to a lot of stuff lessens naturally. Try this experiment: Spend a week or a month where you don't buy anything you've ever seen advertised. It's a powerful experiment. Consider a smaller house or apartment if changing abodes; then you don't have to work crazy hours to fill it with a bunch of stuff you may not really need.
8. E.: You talk a lot about spirituality. Are you religious in the orthodox sense?
W.P.: In a recent piece, journalist David Crumm labeled me an "American Transcendentalist Buddhist." The Transcendentalists connect through nature. Then the Buddhist approach gives compassion, love and respect for yourself and others. But putting names on things like this is always a problem. You know: The finger that points to the moon is not the moon. Anytime you start putting signposts on things, it begins to get confusing. Like Richard Rohr, I've never met a spiritual truth not slathered with paradox. So it all comes back to the radical present moment, being there, seeing what is, acting from that.
9. E: In the book you seem to have a personal struggle with the car. When it is gone, you are relieved. Was there any time that you wanted it back?
W.P.: I was happy without the car. The bike connected me to my surroundings. Also, when I did need a car I had to depend on others which was nice. The reciprocity and strong community in the Global South comes in part out of the fact that not every household has every tool and widget. You depend on others for certain things and that connects you to "we" and not just "me".
10. E: Can humans live in harmony with nature?
W.P.: Yes. We are part of nature. If we live in co
nnection with ourselves—our gift, our place in the whole— we are automatically back in harmony with nature.
CONTACT: William Powers at www.williampowersbooks.com; those looking to have William Powers speak at their college can e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.
SHANNON GOMBOS is an editorial intern at E.