Twelve by Twelve

by William Powers


Powers writes this as a sort of introduction to sustainable and conscientious living since he presents the concepts like they are some revolutionary ideas, instead of really being several decades old and having already been better said before by many other authors such as Thoreau, Whitman, Emerson, Edward Abbey, Aldo Leopold, Alan Watts, Derrick Jensen, Howard Zinn, Noam Chomsky, John Zerzan, Robert Pirsig, Carlos Castaneda, Thom Hartmann, Daniel Quinn, Michael Pollan, Eric Schlosser and Eduardo Galeano, for example.
So at 260 pages and being less profound than all of these other authors’ works, it can only work as an introduction to the subject. The problem with the book as an introduction to the McWorld layperson is that Powers´ writing style is incredibly off-putting: not only is he completely pretentious but he labors over a lot of repetitive spiritual mumbo-jumbo that taxed the patience of even somebody like me, who more or less believes that kind of stuff.

So if the book is not going to add anything significant to the present canon on the topic, and it won’t succeed in serving as an entry-point to newcomers, a certain question is begged, namely: what does this even offer to the world? I can only suppose that the main answer is that it is supposed to represent a sort of novel take on the subject, based on a real-life concrete example of somebody living sustainably and conscientiously. The only problem with this is that in the very preface Powers makes it clear that he’s only staying there for 40 days (during which time we are meant to believe that he undergoes some sort of radical and profound transformation akin to his overused cocoon metaphor), which means he is only a tourist in the sustainable world and has no real authority to lecture us on it whatsoever.

As for conscientiousness, I have serious reservations with taking advice on the subject from anybody who is an absentee father of a young child (and reveals this fact in a sort of shameless plot twist halfway through the book). To be sure, Powers has come up with a very convenient justification for why his absence is actually good for his daughter. But this is the problem with so many from the NewAge/Hippie/Liberal walk: a lot of times their “values” and “reasoning” are just convenient ways to excuse their living in the most self-absorbed manner possible.

So if it doesn’t work as an addition to the canon, or an introduction to the canon, or a credible piece of novelty, what is left? I’ll stop beating around the bush and state that it strikes me as a very opportunistic, masturbatory and convenient writing exercise. Powers appears to have stumbled onto a veritable goldmine: a topic intriguing to both casual and knowledgeable readers alike, and one that he has the perfect excuse to write on despite his lack of expertise on the subject.

This is because the real expert is a woman (the actual resident of the 12×12) who has no desire to write about it. Of course Powers is quick to point out in the beginning that he had no intention to write about it upon being invited to stay there, although he later reveals quite casually that he has taken his laptop to the cabin and is writing daily (really roughing it, I guess). Pardon me if I don’t fully believe his claim.

All in all, it’s not as pretentious as something by Daniel Pinchbeck, who has written two of the most obnoxious memoirs I’ve ever read. But it is still plenty obnoxious. I don’t think I can recommend it to anyone, and this despite being from the area and proud of what is going on here in NC.


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