Twelve by Twelve, by William Powers

Twelve by Twelve book cover

“By scaling down to only this speck of human space, Jackie had been enveloped by nature.”

– William Powers

Twelve by Twelve, subtitled A One-Room Cabin Off the Grid & Beyond the American Dream, describes the 40 days its author, William Powers, spent in a 12 x 12 foot cabin on 2 acres in North Carolina.

A doctor he calls Jackie Benton loaned Powers the cabin while she was traveling for, among other things, an anti-nuclear weapons protest. Jackie was a medical doctor and could easily have adopted an affluent lifestyle.

However, she chose to live in this tiny home without electricity or running water. She wanted to reduce her carbon footprint to that of the average Bangladeshi.

“With no electricity, piped water, or any of the conveniences we are so accustomed to, I was forced to see everything anew.”

– William Powers

Powers, a humanitarian aid and conservation worker, at first thinks he’s made a mistake by living in the cabin. He feels he should be saving rain forests or helping refugees instead of trying to follow Jackie’s advice to “not do, be.”

His perception quickly changes, though. He begins to feel that if he “waited patiently enough, the world might reveal itself.”

Living without electricity allows him to hear the sounds of nature. Lighting the cabin with candles seemed luxurious. The lack of running water makes him appreciate water itself.

Instead of being invisibly piped into my home from some deep aquifer or distant reservoir, it fell from the sky . . . passed through my hands, and then went directly back into the earth to water the food I ate.

“Instead of letting racism and other forms of negativity inside you, transform them through forgiveness.”

– William Powers

Powers soon finds that life in this rural area is not as bucolic as he imaged. His neighbors face financial problems, meth houses and racism. The stench of a huge chicken factory often comes in on the breeze.

Although he’s initially angered by the injustice and “ecocide” he sees around him, he tries to learn not to judge others. Powers grows to believe that instead of “dualistically” opposing evil, we should be like Gandhi, acting with compassion and love.

“Above all, the 12 x 12 experience catalyzed more mindfulness in everything I do.”

– William Powers

Living in the 12 x 12, Powers begins to wonder if his work in encouraging better clinics and schools and more efficient agriculture for subsistence communities in other countries is just turning ‘them’ into ‘us.’

Later, in the postscript, we learn that, although Powers continues his relief and aid work, he no longer tries to convert others to the Western idea of progress.

I was reminded me of Courtney Carver‘s post, The Story of the Mexican Fisherman. I recommend you read the post, but the short version is that an American investment banker tries to convince a Mexican fisherman to work a lot harder and grow his business.

If the fisherman followed the banker’s advice, after 15-20 years of hard work, he’d end up where he started. That is, he’d spend each day fishing a little, then enjoying many hours of leisure with friends and family.

My Thoughts on Twelve by Twelve

I have to confess, I saw this book on the library shelf many times before finally deciding to check it out. Each time I’d pull it off the shelf, something about it would make me put it back.

I don’t know what it was, or why a couple of weeks ago, I finally decided to read it. Whatever the reason, I’m glad I did.

While I’ve no plans to live completely off the grid, much less in a twelve by twelve cabin, I found Powers’ story inspiring.

Also, I totally plan to steal Jackie’s idea of writing brief thoughts and questions on cards, showing a different one each day. Hers include “Trade knowledge for bewilderment” and “Don’t be so predictable.”

Others’ Thoughts

Before you look for Twelve by Twelve, though, you might want to know that some criticize it for its lack of practical information. Others complain the author is too liberal, hypocritical and selfish.

It’s true that the book offers no practical advice about living in a small space, so it’s not the book for you if you want to learn how to live in a small space.

As to whether the author is “too liberal,” that, of course, depends on where you lie on the political spectrum and whether you enjoy reading books with viewpoints that differ from yours.

Powers is hypocritical in some ways, but that didn’t bother me, since most (maybe even all) of us are in some ways hypocritical. In addition, he often points out his own hypocrisy. The book is, to some extent, a story of his personal growth.

As for “selfish,” a big concern some people have is that Powers has a young daughter who lives in Bolivia and whom he rarely sees.

Your Thoughts?

If you’ve read this book, what did you think? Please share in the comment section below.