William Powers’ 12 X 12: A One Room Cabin Off The Grid & Beyond The American Dream is described as ‘a memoir of what can be gained by going without’. It is the author’s account of a season spent living in a twelve foot by twelve foot cabin with no running water or electricity in rural North Carolina. The 12 x 12 is owned (and normally occupied by) a successful American physician, Jackie Benton, who accepts an annual salary of only $11K to avoid paying war taxes, and chooses to live without modern comforts like electricity or indoor plumbing so as to “have the carbon footprint of a typical Bangladeshi”.
It was my intrigue with this Jackie character, not the author or even necessarily the book’s theme, that drew me to “12 X 12”. She is referred to as a Wisdomkeeper, a Native American term referring to elder women who inspire others to dig more deeply into life. And that she does. Anyone who can turn down a couple hundred thousand dollars a year and willingly live in conditions that most of us would describe as abject poverty has either gone stark-raving mad or achieved a level of self-mastery that borders on superhuman. Embodying one’s inner principles so fully and completely in their outer life is beyond rare. That she does this in a way that is conspicuously without fanfare or recognition makes it all the more special. (She only consented to the book on the condition that her real identity and location would be concealed.)
Jackie is against American imperialism, against our wars, against environmental destruction and the corporate dominance of society, and every aspect of her life reflects this. Her life may appear to be one of material poverty, but she is far from poor. At least outwardly, she embodies the realized, deliberate life - principle in action. And while I doubt my own capacity for this degree of radicalism, I admire such an exceptional being who can walk the walk so completely.
Sadly, Jackie is not the subject of the book, only a significant but peripheral character. That would be William Powers, an activist, conservation and foreign aid worker, and author. Powers takes up temporary residence for several months in the 12 X 12 and this book primarily deals with his various inner conflicts and emotional dialogue. Indeed, it felt like more of the book than not was devoted to a conversation he was having with himself revolving around various uninteresting details of what, admittedly, has probably been a relatively interesting life.
One gets the impression that, despite his efforts at sounding otherwise, the author is very pleased with himself. And he wants you to think very highly of him too. He’s spent a decade working on environment-sustaining projects around the world. He’s well travelled, well-read, well-educated, and has clearly done more personally to save the world than you or I – and he really really wants you to know about it!
The author’s pet cause is global warming, and hey, I get it. I’m with that 90%+ segment of the scientific community that recognizes man-made global warming is a real and growing threat. It needs to be addressed and action needs to be taken. But Powers beats the reader over the head on this. A third of the way into it I was feeling guilty for walking upright and having thumbs. In many ways the author is the kind of individual that gives us liberals a bad name. The self-righteous, preachy tone detracted from what this book could have been.
While I’m on the negative, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the gratuitous spiritual and literary name dropping that again, give the impression that the author is going out of his way to sound erudite. From Thich Naht Hahn, to Lao-Tzu, to some poet named Galway Kinnell, Powers seems intent on displaying his lexicon the way a peacock struts its feathers. I could have done without this grandstanding.
That said, I am sympathetic to the author’s perspective and appreciate the spirit of 12 x 12. For those who oppose American empire, are concerned about the environment, or have grown disillusioned with our culture of hyperconsumption and gross materialism, this book may well be worth a read. If nothing else, it gives us a glimpse of living at the other extreme.
There are tidbits of wisdom and worthwhile philosophy scattered throughout (largely thanks to various ‘thoughts of the day’ and other sentiments expressed by the cabin’s absentee owner, Jackie). An example of this is a line from Jackie about how a problem cannot be solved at the same level of consciousness at which it was created. Unless I’ve gone horribly wrong, there is usually some idea or nugget that stays with me from any book I take the time to read, and in 12 X 12, this would be the one. Probably not the first time I’ve heard it but the timing and manner in which it was expressed here made an impression on me. I remember pausing, putting the book down, and thinking: this is something I can apply to my own life. Often times we have to be exposed to an idea from several sources and angles before we really connect and it becomes a part of us.
Another takeaway for me was the concept of permaculture. Wikipedia defines permaculture as a land use and agricultural system “…based on ecological and biological principles, often using patterns that occur in nature to maximise effect and minimise work. Permaculture aims to create stable, productive systems that provide for human needs, harmoniously integrating the land with its inhabitants.”
Surrounding the 12 X 12 cabin is Jackie’s three acre permaculture garden composed of dozens, if not hundreds of different vegetables, fruits, teas, flowers, and other plants. Walking out of the cabin at sunrise into this thriving and diverse landscape is likened to entering the Garden Of Eden. And I doubt that this is pure hyperbole. 12 X 12 was my first exposure to the concept of permaculture and it left me interested and intrigued; for me, one of the redeeming aspects of Powers’ work.
The author also introduces (I think) an original term, “The Idle Majority”, which refers to the large segment of the Earth’s population who has far less than most Americans in material terms but in many ways enjoy a much saner existence than us workaholic, consumption-obsessed westerners. While this group lives mostly at the subsistence level, basically having little more than the bare essentials necessary for survival, they enjoy an enviable amount of leisure time and a richer community and cultural experience. They derive their value from life from non-material sources which, I am convinced, offers some clues to our society that, while materially rich, suffers from unprecedented levels of stress, anxiety, depression, and isolation; a condition that is often defined as spiritual poverty.
Also worth mentioning are the other inhabitants of the area immediately surrounding the 12 X 12 cabin; an entertaining mix of organic farmers, biofuel brewers, eco-developers, furniture crafters, artisans, and other off-the-gridders, all in some fashion rebelling against America’s out of control consumer culture. The interplay between these neighbors, and between them and the author, is one of the highlights of the book – touching at times and fairly heartbreaking at others.
All in all, this one’s a toss-up. For those who find themselves drawn to simplicity, and increasingly turned off by the technological, hyperconsuming rat-race, I think it has something to offer. If you remove (or abbreviate) the meandering details of the author’s own emotional/psychological narrative, this 250+ page volume can be condensed to around 100. To be fair, I realize some people will find that sort of thing more interesting than I did. It’s said (not in the book, thankfully) that what we criticize about others is also in ourselves, and perhaps it’s the recognition of some of my own narcissitic neurosis that explains my adverse reaction to Powers self-absorbed psycho-babble. Or, maybe it’s just that self-absorbed psychobabble is best kept to one’s self and not passed off as transcendental, save-the-world, heroism. I report, you decide!