Recently, MNN sat down with William Powers, author of "Twelve by Twelve: A One-Room Cabin Off the Grid & Beyond the American Dream," an eye-opening memoir about the things that we gain when we go without.
MNN: What was it like that first night staying in a space no bigger than most people’s living rooms?
William Powers: The first night was unusual because there’s no instruction manual for living in a 12-by-12-foot cabin. I’ve spent some 10 years working abroad in developing countries, so I’ve gone through stretches of no electricity and roughed it quite a bit, but it was strange to be at the heart of the world’s richest country and living with no electricity. I had just gotten back to the States and was becoming reaccustomed to living in a First World superpower and then suddenly it was like I was stepping into an “Alice in Wonderland” type situation where there were these people living a Third World lifestyle. There was this sense of nature pressing in around me. At first I felt quite alone out there, but soon I began to think, wow, there is another way.
You only brought your car and a backpack to the cabin. Is there anything you wish you had brought?
Sometimes I would have loved to have had ice cubes! They’re just so nice! But overall it was a great thing to strip down from all my stuff. While I was out there, I got rid of the car and rode a $26 bike. It was a beautiful thing, all that simplicity, because there was this whole new freedom. In my simplicity there was actually expansion because if you take away the clutter, you’re left with this wide-open canvas of creativity and possibility. Those are times where you can find your own inspiration, your own purpose and authenticity, and express yourself from there. And it may be for other people that they would go into that situation and think about it completely differently than I did. But I think that once you’ve gone into this well of solitude and silence, it’s hard to just live a superficial life. You’d maybe continue in the same path but do things a little differently.
During your time at the cabin, you met a lot of interesting people, many of whom you called “wildcrafters.” Are they any different from the typical greenie?
These people were more than just “eco.” They were crafting their livelihood in harmony with the biosphere’s limits by recognizing that the Earth is not just an endless supply of resources. As people we need to become the sum of our limits, not just the sum of our possibilities.
Wildcrafters are a subculture that’s really getting stronger. I was surprised to find so many people living off the grid, and not just off the electricity grid, but also off the grid culturally. That’s not to say that tomorrow it’s going to become the mainstream culture, but this is the way that social change happens, by these small pockets growing slowly. People start to feel meaning and purpose within, and then they just go gangbusters at a certain point and the movement really explodes. That’s what I’m hoping, that there will be a tipping point, almost like in the 1960s when the counterculture became the culture. Suddenly there were millions of people rejecting consumerism and war and a superficial life and trying to explore other ways of doing things. Unfortunately the revolution never really took off, partially because there was no economic basis to it. In some ways the ’60s revolution died out because people needed to get a job and hippies became yuppies. But if we can get a green economy based around this subculture, then it might stick. People are slowly waking up to the environmental crisis. They’re like little cells of resistance responding to a disease.
In the book you seem to be really opposed to Thomas Friedman’s “Flat World.” Why?
I think it’s a problem with the story we’re telling, that globalization is wonderful, that it’s fantastic that the world is becoming a smaller place and all this technology is coming together. I’m not saying all of that is bad. But we really need to ask ourselves, what’s an economy for? Life is not just about increasing its speed and efficiency. I think that the economy should be for creating happiness and well-being, not endless economic growth just the for sake of it. If you can live very well at a lower level, then why not do that? In Bhutan they call it living well. Instead of gross national product, they have gross national happiness. They’re not trying to strive to have three SUVs in the garage and big houses. They’re looking for family, friendship, nature and free time. It’s a balance and once they reach it, they’re done. It’s so incredibly subversive and radical because it’s totally against the typical work ethic.
The flat world is creating a flat taste. We don’t want to have this OneWorld™ Uniplanet where everything is the same. There’s a monoculture developing and it’s dangerous not just to the planet but also to our own individuality and our souls and spirits. I’m hoping that the book will be one of the little sparks that helps bring us back to humanity.
You argue that part of bringing us back to humanity involves becoming more like “free-range people.” Can you explain what you mean by that?
You look around and you notice a lot of times that we’re not free-range. We’re in these little cages, and we’re being used for other people’s purposes without even being aware of it, just like those industrial chickens in the factories. We often feel like we have a lot of freedom, but at the end of the day a majority of Americans are toeing the line, going along and being a part of the system, which in the end, let’s face it, is suicidal. It’s causing this huge extinction crisis and climate crisis. People often say, “Well, I have to keep doing these things to pay the bills.” But isn’t that the logic that the system is trying to get us to buy into? And do we have to buy into that?
Much of the book focuses on this idea of the “leisure ethic.” Why should we reclaim the right to be idle?
The leisure ethic focuses on this three-legged stool of having, doing and being. We have to have things. That’s obvious. Possessions are necessary for life. We also have to do things because we’re not rocks or trees. We’re creatures that do things. But we’re not human doings, we’re human beings, so the third leg is being. Working abroad for the last decade plus, what I’ve seen around the world is that most countries put a premium on being and I think it’s really what we’re missing. We need to find ways to reclaim that.
One way is to set aside an hour a day where you do absolutely nothing, whether it’s idling in the forest or staring up at the stars. Just try to get out of your brain and feel the energy in your body. We’re too hyperanalytical. It’s kind of a craziness. And there’s no doubt it can lead to economic success and building all kinds of wonderful things, but I think the reason why there isn’t a lot of happiness in America is because we are too much in our own heads. If we’re rich in mind then we’re poor in time. Just try to find that space in your life in different ways. After all, what could be more eco than doing nothing? At least you’re not burning fossil fuels!
This book is not about saying you should live in a 12 by 12 off the grid and consume nothing. It’s asking, what’s your 12 by 12? How can you find a 12-by-12 space of freedom, of responsibility, of joy, in your own life? It’s taking power away from this destructive corporate system and bringing it back to yourself. Other people may need more space, and that’s OK. It’s about achieving a balance.