Book Review: Twelve by Twelve

Personal accounts on living off the grid, starting a small farm or generally breaking away from first world consumptive go-go lifestyles are a dime a dozen these days (see Animal, Vegetable, Miracle; Farm City, The Dirty Life; Growing a Farmer; My Empire of Dirt; City Farmer; Radical Homemakers; etc. etc.). These are all great books and it’s truly heartening to see this genre blossom – I desperately want these ideas to go mainstream – but for a devoted reader one begins bumping up against the same philosophies, the same prescriptions in every book. It can get a bit repetitive.

One certainly bumps into the oft-told noble simplicity mantra in William Powers’ Twelve by Twelve: A One-Room Cabin Off the Grid & Beyond the American Dream, but I decided to crack open the book because of his unique perspective as a former aid worker. Having been steeped in debates about international development for the past five years, but also having a strong interest in domestic/local efforts in sustainable living, I’m drawn to any writer who attempts to marry these two domains. That’s because there’s something traditionally incongruous about development and sustainability. Powers puts it succinctly:
When discussing relatively “poorer” countries, we need to make a clear, explicit distinction between people living in a state of material destitution and people living healthy subsistence lifestyles. Terms like poverty and Third World mask this distinction and give license for modern professionals – of whom I’ve long been one – to undervalue, denigrate, and interfere with sustainable ways of live… roughly one-fifth of humanity has too much and is overdeveloped; another fifth has too little and is underdeveloped. Neither of these groups experiences general well-being.
Powers, then, defines developed as those in the middle, not those with so much material wealth. This is an intriguing idea.

Another element Powers mixes in is a strain of Buddhist philosophy on mindfulness and acceptance in the face of environmental and societal tragedies. I’m always waiting for that moment when a professed Buddhist outlook begins tipping the scales into cheap New Agey feel-good tripe. Powers flirts with this gray area but on the whole I found his observations to be, shall I say, consoling. I identified greatly with his attempts to break through his own despair and found his conclusions helpful. The weight of the world’s problems, the anxiety for the future, is so overwhelming that often the best one can do is live fully and gratefully in the moment.