Interview with William Powers, Living Off the Grid

Oct 25, 2010

William Powers discusses his life's journey, including time in Liberia and Bolivia, and a stay in a 12 x 12-foot cabin with no electricity or running water. It's all about learning to live sustainably and happily with less, as many societies do.

Generous funding of the Carnegie Council's 2010-2011 sustainability programming has been provided by Hewlett-Packard and by Booz & Company.

JULIA TAYLOR KENNEDY: Welcome to Global Ethics Forum. I'm Julia Taylor Kennedy here with William Powers to discuss his time living off the grid in a 12x12-foot cabin and how that experience has changed his outlook on life.

Powers has turned his experience into a book, called Twelve by Twelve. He has also lived in Bolivia and Liberia as a writer and development aid worker. A Fellow at the World Policy Institute, he is accustomed to analyzing his experiences and thinking about them in context.

William Powers, welcome to Global Ethics Forum.

WILLIAM POWERS: Thanks so much.

JULIA TAYLOR KENNEDY: Let's start with your background. What drew you to becoming a development aid worker?

WILLIAM POWERS: It probably goes back to my parents. My mom was a Catholic nun and my dad was a priest. I like to joke that their eyes met over a communion wafer. But that's actually not true. They met at a Peter, Paul and Mary concert. They ended up leaving and getting married because they wanted to have a family.

They brought that Catholic social teaching and social justice perspective into our household. As a child we volunteered with migrant farm workers in North Carolina for a summer and went out to Texas, and lived in a Mexican-American community for a year on sabbatical. My parents became college teachers. It really goes back to that.

As I went through college and graduate school, I just became increasingly interested in the environmental crisis, the crisis of poverty, and overdevelopment around the world.

JULIA TAYLOR KENNEDY: In many of your projects, you accompanied them by writing books. You had Blue Clay People, about people in Liberia, and then another book when you were working in Bolivia. Why is writing a natural accompaniment to you in your development aid work?

WILLIAM POWERS: I've always been interested in writing in a journal, and I like to write letters and emails. I just took it to the next level.

When I was in Liberia, working for two very stressful years as an aid worker there during the civil war, I was filled with ideas about, not just the crisis and the war and the sacking of the country by the Oriental Timber Company, but also about how it was affecting me personally. I decided to write the book Blue Clay People in the form of a memoir to integrate the big picture and globalization themes with real-life characters. It reads like a novel.

JULIA TAYLOR KENNEDY: Why are you attracted to that memoir style?

WILLIAM POWERS: The difference between fiction and nonfiction is a little bit blurry. Memoir is that nice creative edge between the two.

Any time you put the camera on a certain subject, you've already changed the subject, and it's very hard to really be objective in anything that you do. There are these archetypal stories that people are attracted to, such as the hero's journey and many others. There are something like 20 master plots that are used in every single film and every single book you've ever read.

I enjoy working in the memoir genre because life is part of that type of a story. Why not get more into the internal dialogue of the narrator, and also explore the significant people in his or her life?

JULIA TAYLOR KENNEDY: In Bolivia you were doing environmental work and trying to work with multinational corporations, the state, and the local people. How do you decide which side to take, how to find a solution and work with different players?

WILLIAM POWERS: I believe in looking at the economic causes of a particular problem. For example, in Bolivia we tried to work on the Noel Kempff Climate Action Project with the private sector, governments, and local indigenous people at the same time. It was a question of really getting into the fibers of the global economy, looking at why rainforest destruction and climate change is happening, and then crafting a project that attacks both at the same time.

What happened there was that we worked with three multinational companies—the Nature Conservancy in the United States, a local Bolivian NGO, and then the indigenous people in the area. We were able to conserve 1.5 million additional acres of rainforest towards carbon sequestration.

The companies were able to get on a voluntary market pilot project with credits for that, which are tradable credits. It's one of these emerging models of how you can work together with all the different actors to find a solution that's based upon changing the economics of it.

JULIA TAYLOR KENNEDY: What did you find worked when trying to engage the multinational corporations? What kinds of incentives were really key in getting them involved?

WILLIAM POWERS: Definitely image, and the idea that there is a bit of green-washing going on. Of course, it looks very good to be conserving these rainforests. It's also that those companies felt like they were being pioneers in the area and pushing the Kyoto Protocol to a new level and coming up with solutions, which they were.

If you go to that area today, right now you'll still see 20 waterfalls cascading into this gorgeous rainforest, the Noel Kempff. The jaguars, the painted jochis, and all the other animals, are still running wild in that area. That was slated to be cut down by five timber companies that were bought out as part of the project.

JULIA TAYLOR KENNEDY: One of the journeys that you took in the book was starting from noticing that Thomas Friedman's concept "the world is flat" was not something that you necessarily agreed with, and then you came up with this alternative view of the world as soft. How did you come to the soft world concept and how it can fit into a "flat world?"

The problem is it doesn't really fit into the flat world too well. It's an alternative idea or paradigm.

The flat world, as defined by Thomas Friedman, is the idea that corporate-led globalization is creating an equal playing field around the world because, through increased bandwidth, everyone can compete in different countries. That's the theory.

There are some good things to it, but in my lived experiences throughout the world working in dozens of countries and living for a decade abroad, the way that it plays out in the field is not such a pretty sight.

What happens is we create a one-world uniplanet monoculture, where there are these same fast-food restaurants and everything else around the world. It's kind of like spreading the flatness of asphalt and a flatness of taste around the world, which is razing local diversity and culture.

The soft world really is another way of looking at it. It's tapping into vernacular cultures, those elements that have evolved over generations in harmony with the biosphere, and are therefore naturally sustainable. There are cultural and ecological elements of it.

To take an example, there's a beautiful village in Bolivia called Samaipata, with 3,000 people. It has been growing at its own slow rate over the centuries. There are Incan temples above the village. There is a huge park, Amboro National Park.

I would define it as a soft-world village. They're not too interested in television and in progress. There are absolutely no chains or corporate anything in the area. They live with a carbon footprint that's sustainable, at about the level of one planet.

What happened in Samaipata because of the flat-world ethic is I've seen NGOs come in there and say: "No, this is not good enough. You need to progress. You need TVs and microwaves and SUVs. This is ridiculous. You're just sitting here in this village doing nothing."

Whereas the people—I lived there for about a year—are actually quite happy.

That is an example of the flat world coming into contact with the soft world.

JULIA TAYLOR KENNEDY: What you're exploring there is also this implied spectrum within the NGO community, which sometimes people don't see. When you're selecting projects and deciding what your own role is going to be in a development project, how do you decide whom to work with and whom to work for?

WILLIAM POWERS: I definitely believe in development as a process and not any kind of a product. It's completely based upon what people in a local area want—what are their dreams, aspirations—and how can in some ways the outside NGO be a catalyst of those dreams. It is in some ways a deep process of listening and understanding and then interacting as a partner, and not bringing these top-down big aid projects into areas. That tends to flatten cultures and nature. A lot of the work that I have done has been through that process of really getting to know the people, their ideas, and their culture.

I'll give you one example from Liberia which was very interesting. We were trying at first to do a swamp rice project, because upland rice is four times less productive than lowland rice, and it also cuts down lots of rainforest because you have to have shifting cultivation.

We tried to get the swamp rice projects going and the people wouldn't do it. We provided the cash-for-work incentive. They went into the fields and they actually went ahead and dug out the trenches and got it ready, but they still wouldn't plant the rice.

Then we gave them boots. We thought maybe they were afraid of snakes. They put on the boots. Nothing changed there as well. No one in the swamp.

Finally someone tapped me on the shoulder and said, "You know what? The reason why we're not planting the swamp is because there's no song for this activity."

It turns out that in this village in Liberia, every single activity has a corresponding song. Whatever you're doing, there's a beautiful song that goes along with it.

We spent that night creating a song for swamp rice. The very next morning they were down in the swamp planting, and it created a record harvest that fed the village.

JULIA TAYLOR KENNEDY: You're saying that there has to be a connection with the culture and place?


JULIA TAYLOR KENNEDY: How have your experiences on the ground and then off the grid in this 12x12 cabin shaped your approach that you've just articulated, to working within a culture rather than bringing some kind of top-down approach?

WILLIAM POWERS: I've spent a lot of time off the grid, not just the time in the 12x12, but also in Chiapas during the Zapatista conflict when I was a human rights observer. I've worked in very remote villages of Sierra Leone and Liberia, as well as in South America. I'm not a stranger to being off the grid.

It's finding such a richness and beauty at the grassroots level, not just seeing it from a GDP perspective in a D.C. office, but living among these indigenous people around the world and just realizing that they have so much to offer us in terms of how you live joyfully, creating extended families and communities. They have some real solutions of how to be happy.

They've also got very low carbon footprints. They are living very sustainably. People seem to think that it's a question of either progressing towards some marvelous kind of utopia where everything is just perfect technologically, or going backwards, to living in a cave and eating roots and berries.

My perspective is very different, because I've been living in these cultures for many years and I don't see that dichotomy.

There are a lot of examples in the first world, as I talk about in Twelve by Twelve, of communities that are in some ways reinventing some of those indigenous practices for the 21st century. Homesteading, wild crafting, burning biofuels, permaculture—all of these things are in some ways bridging soft-world communities abroad with this country.

JULIA TAYLOR KENNEDY: Let's talk a little bit about your time in a 12x12 cabin. How did you find it?

WILLIAM POWERS: It was funny, because it was actually over dinner one night with my mother. My father was in the hospital and I was visiting down in North Carolina.

She said, "I know a physician who makes $12,000 a year."

I said, "That doesn't sound possible."

She said, "It's true, and she lives in a 12-foot-by-12-foot cabin off the grid and harvests her own rainwater off the roof and plants a lot of her roots."

I became very interested in this person, and so I tried to track her down. Eventually I did. She invited me out to the cabin. We had a marvelous three-hour discussion out there amid her gorgeous gardens, 100 types of heirloom crops growing and blooming, and the sound of No Name Creek flowing by.

I was ready to go back to New York after that. But then it was like, where do you put that? It's a one-op experience.

Then I got this handwritten letter from the physician and she said: " I'm heading across the country." "Greydogging" she calls it, riding the Greyhound; she doesn't take any planes; she has a low carbon footprint. "I'll be Greydogging across the country. Would you like to stay in the 12x12 for a season?"

So I did. I canceled my ticket back to New York, moved into the 12x12, and had to figure out how to survive in that situation. I ended up spending 40 days out there.

JULIA TAYLOR KENNEDY: How did that experience gain such significance in your life?

It came a real kind of crisis moment in my life. Mine was not a very usual crisis; Mine had to do with ecocide.

People ask, "What's that? What does ecocide mean?" It's the idea that humans' economic systems are in conflict with the biosphere's limits. I was seeing all around the world, rainforests that I loved being destroyed; the climate heating up, melting glaciers in Bolivia threatening the water supply for millions of people—all of this stuff.

When I got back to the States after ten years abroad, I just realized that my own way of life is what was causing it. It led to a bit of a real sadness.

The meaning of that and then meeting this inspiring physician whom I talk about in the book and seeing this other way of living lightly on the planet in the 21st century, was what really caused it to be significant, even though it was a short period of time.

JULIA TAYLOR KENNEDY: How have your habits changed as a result?

WILLIAM POWERS: A lot of it is my inner approach. She talks about "see, be, do." That's her paradigm. What does that mean?

First you see a problem, whatever it is—if it's rainforest destruction or if it's homelessness or whatever you see—but really look at it, don't look away. It takes a lot of strength to step out of your habits and just see it.

The second is not to do something about the problem—that's the general reaction, right?—but rather to be; which means come into a quiet space and allow it to exist.

Then finally, only at that point, when you've established a kind of an inner peace about the issue, do you act. In that case, that's the "be" part of it, and that's a kind of general flow.

I approach my life now with less of a grand plan, less strategic planning and time management, and a little bit more spontaneity through this lens of "see, be, do."

JULIA TAYLOR KENNEDY: You describe in the book getting a call after going through your experience in the 12x12. You were at a bar in Liberia and a friend of a colleague called you for help. How do you translate that "see, be, do" into such a short time period where you get a call, you don't feel like going out to pick someone up and give them a ride, and yet you have three minutes in which to make that decision?

WILLIAM POWERS: I think within five seconds you can come into that space of being. One way to practice it is just by taking a deep breath, a diaphragm breath, and letting it out, and just feeling the presence of your body existing right now in this moment. Then you have this clear action that comes out of it. That's not like a mental egoic reaction like, "I need to be the hero and save this person." You take that whole picture out of it and it's a much more smooth flow.

In a way, this physician who taught me this in the 12x12, is imitating the way nature works. I don't think it's some kind of grand philosophy. She does have some sort of Buddhist practice. But each other creature in nature acts very naturally, and it's only human beings that are always trying to overanalyze things; We're too much in our heads. This practice is getting you more into your body and into your spirit and not just in your head.

JULIA TAYLOR KENNEDY: You are choosing with a book tour to visit college campuses and work with students. Why does this book fit well with that kind of educational outreach project?

This college speaking tour that I'm doing right now—we're going to 25 different colleges—is called "What's Your 12x12?" The idea is not to say, "You should do this, you should live in a tiny cabin off the grid and just eat permacultured products, just deprive yourself." That was right for this one woman. The question is, if each of us can find that space in our own lives of ecological sustainability, a responsibility towards the planet, and of inner job, that's your 12x12.

I'm asking the students to think about that question around the country. When they start to craft their lives and their professions, they can keep that in mind.

JULIA TAYLOR KENNEDY: When we're recruiting, a question we're asked by candidates now is, "How's your sustainability? What kind of corporate social responsibility programs do you have at your company?" There seems to be this generational shift going on.

How can students try and craft a balance in their careers between completely integrating this idea of advocating a certain ethic, working with people to try and develop the world, and making money or reaching other personal consumerist goals?

WILLIAM POWERS: I don't know if I have a really easy answer to that. I have to just be perfectly frank with you. I am more of a radical, in the sense that I personally am very maladjusted to society. Let's just put that right out there. I'm not trying to convince students to also be radicals, in the sense of not fitting in at all.

The idea is pushing the edge a little bit. There has to be in their lives somewhat of a focus on the structural change, because I really don't believe that "business as usual" is going to get us to a healthy planet, to clean water, to a stable climate. In some ways it's tinkering at the edges, some of this stuff that we're just moving around a little bit with economics. There also has to be a fundamental inner change.

I'm trying to push that agenda a little bit, without saying that you should do a protest where you get arrested at a coal-fired power plant, like what Bill McKibben and some of the people in The 350 are doing.

What I'd say is: "Look, there's a menu of options. You can be part of this more edgy stuff, like in England how all these environmental groups are blocking the runways at new airports because they don't want the aviation industry to expand. But you could also find your 12x12 in something in the middle.

You can think about taking a year off, even if you're going to go work for a company or something like that. I definitely encourage them to take a year off. Do an Earth Corps type of activity, like volunteer on a rainforest project or advocate for something. Find out what it is you care most about and spend a year doing that.

Then I would say to people who are not even at that point in their lives, "You can go ahead and recycle more consistently, plant a backyard garden, grow some of your own food, take a little bit of power out of industrial agriculture by producing your own organic foods in your windowsill garden box or in the backyard."

JULIA TAYLOR KENNEDY: There are these actions that you're encouraging on an individual level that can then trickle into where someone works and their employer.

Are you finding that there is a shift that is trickling up in a sense to corporations now? Are they responding to pressure, or do you think there needs to be just so much more pressure?

The way I talk about it is there are two levels.

One is right now we need to bring environmental services into the economy and we have to put a value on that. There have been some changes. Even British Petroleum, ADP, PacifiCorp, and other companies that we work with, they get that. They get the fact that the rainforest and the climate is not a dumping ground and just a free good, that there has to be a price on it, as we've been working on. That's great. That has somewhat of an impact.

I really do believe that that's not enough. You have to ask, "What is the economy for overall?" It's not just growth for growth's sake and this endless betterment of material standards. It's also for what is the level of enough. There's a lot of emerging research that's showing that enough is something like the level of Chile, Argentina, and Brazil.

Latin America is the paradigm of where happiness peaks out, and then you get decreasing marginal returns for every unit of GDP, where the point where actually it gets more into depression and anxiety and all these first-world sort of "affluenza" diseases. It's the the curse of too much affluence.

Let's tinker with the way we're doing corporate stuff right now, but let's also keep in mind that we have to make a much bigger shift.

JULIA TAYLOR KENNEDY: How do you hold onto that idealism without either being co-opted or growing cynical?

WILLIAM POWERS: In my life I try not to attach too much to material things.

There was a guy from India who spoke at the United Nations a while back and said that the developing world should pursue an elegant simplicity in their development pattern. That's a good way of looking at it, elegant simplicity.

You can find a lot of beauty and elegance, nobility, and everything in your life without a whole lot of stuff. It's a gradual process.

Your Money or Your Life by Vicki Robin and Joe Dominguez gives a great architecture for how you can do that. There are ways that you can still have a very abundant life of friendship and contact with nature and just not have to accumulate a bunch of stuff. If you really get into that mindset, then you don't have to be so attached to your career and making a lot of money. That's the reality I see. I see a lot of people doing this in voluntary simplicity kinds of things.

It's two things. One is you're achieving more happiness, because, according to Dr. Seligman at the University of Pennsylvania, who is the expert on this, happiness is not tied to material goods; it's tied to that good feeling you have, a sense of meaning, of purpose, and getting lost in the moment. Those are the three factors across all kinds of studies. You can do that at a much lower level of consumption. It gives you a lot more freedom.

JULIA TAYLOR KENNEDY: Starting from, as you mentioned, inheriting a strong thoughtfulness about how you are in the planet from your parents, how does that change and how flexible are you with the way you look at the world and the way you interact with people?

Flexibility is a key part of my personal and ethical code, not in a wishy-washy sense, but in a sense that life is constantly changing and adapting. If you maintain what I call "warrior presence," where you're radically present in whatever reality it is, seeing, coming into the being before you do, you don't know what can happen. That's also what makes it kind of exciting and spontaneous, is that this is not a rigid top-down ethical code that I'm imposing upon myself. It's a natural flow.

That could be considered to be wishy-washy. But if you really look at it and get down into what I'm talking about and experience it, it's not.

Thoreau said in Walden, "Don't imitate anything I'm doing or anything I say because two years from now it may be completely different."

You need to also follow whatever that sort of conscience takes you.

JULIA TAYLOR KENNEDY: William Powers, thanks so much for joining us on Global Ethics Forum.

WILLIAM POWERS: Thanks, Julia. It was great to be here.

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