Dispatches from the Sweet Life: an Author Interview with William Powers

William Powers has worked for more than a decade in development aid and conservation in Latin America, Africa, and North America. His work has appeared in the Washington Post, New York Times, International Herald Tribune, the Atlantic and many other publications. He is a senior fellow at the World Policy Institute and an adjunct faculty member at New York University. He speaks and writes widely as an expert on sustainable development. He lives in Bolivia. His website is www.WilliamPowersBooks.com.


What is “Revillaging?”

It’s a counter-trend to “urbanization” where people move from cities to enjoy the small-is-beautiful benefits of town life.

What is a Transition Town?

Worldwide, about sixteen hundred Transition initiatives currently exist, part of a global Transition Network, in which local communities foster “glocal” low-carbon economies through alternative energy, local consumption, organic agriculture, and more. Size doesn’t matter; “Transition Streets” encompass a single city block.

The book seems extremely well-timed because of the “localization” and Transition zeitgeist. Can you explain?

Yes. The Trump election has been such a jolt to our national consciousness that there is — on the left, and even at the political center — a growing desire to more deeply question our dominant ethos. Dispatches from the Sweet Life, therefore, resonates with the 25 million American “core cultural creatives” defined as educated thinkers, including many writers, artists, musicians, therapists, feminists, alternative health care providers, and other professionals who combine a serious focus on their spirituality with a strong passion for social activism. I hope they will enjoy exploring the cutting edge of permaculture, Transition Initiatives, and Andean-Amazonian life philosophy!

What’s the problem with the idea of the “Flat World”?

 New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman presents the Flat World in a positive light in his bestselling book The World Is Flat. Technologies like the Internet, he observes, are breaking down hierarchies. Thanks to bandwidth, companies can easily outsource certain jobs to India, China, and elsewhere; hence, people now compete on equal footing, according to talent, on a globalized economic playing field. World capitalism, guided by government incentives, will save us from environmental collapse, Friedman further argues, by inventing clean technologies to allow for the increased global consumption.

It’s not an argument to be taken lightly, and there is a level of truth to it.  However, the metaphor suggests a darker truth about the way we’ve have come to imagine the twenty-first century: the world has hit a flat note. Industrial agriculture creates a flat taste, and multinational corporations flatten our uniqueness into homo economicus serving a OneWorld ™ Uniplanet. A once natural atmosphere has been flattened by global warming: every square foot of it now contains 390 ppm of carbon dioxide, though up until two hundred years ago the atmosphere contained 275 ppm (and 350 ppm is considered the safe upper threshhold for our planet). Rainforests are flattened to make cattle pastures; a living ocean is depleted and flattened by overfishing; vibrant cultures are steamrolled to the edge of extinction. Have the well-rounded objectives of America’s Founding Fathers — life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness — been flattened to a single organizing principle: the unification of greed?

You talk about FLO—fair, local, and organic—but isn’t opposing globalization akin to opposing earthquakes? It’s inevitable.

That’s Flat World thinking. “Transition” thinking sees new possibilities. Just to take one example: farmers markets. Farmers markets are like an emerging social contract between twenty-first-century polis and dumos; country folks produce healthy foods in an earth-friendly way and townspeople pay a little more. The number of farmers markets in the United States has more than doubled, from 1,700 in 1994 to 4,300 in 2006. They provide a lot more than food. They heal the edges of our über-industrialized economy, allowing a less chemical- and fossil fuel-intensive economy to flourish. They heal our relationships with each other as we reconfigure the buying and selling of food around fresh air and community. Most importantly, they heal our spirits, because if something pays, it stays, and by shopping a there you vote for a kind of independence: the right to farm.

What is the Leisure Ethic?

While writing my earlier book Twelve by Twelve, I noticed, part of wildcrafting involves reclaiming the right to be idle — ratcheting down from overdeveloped to developed, from too much to enough. The physician who lives in the 12×12 house expressed it to me once like this: part of the joy of simplifying one’s material life is that you don’t have to work long hours to buy and maintain a bunch of stuff. This leaves time for open-ended chats  —  like the kind we have in Bolivia. Doing nothing is a carbon neutral activity!

This “leisure ethic,” as I’ve come to dub it, isn’t laziness; it is an intelligent, holistic balance between doing and being. It is embodied by the Aymaran philosophy of “living well,” which includes enough (and not more) food, shelter, fresh air, and friendship.

Why do you argue that development aid “punishes people for living sustainably?”

Idleness has been under threat at least since we stamped “underdeveloped” on the majority of humankind, most of whom actually live in enough. Harry S. Truman, in his 1949 inauguration speech, declared that the era of “development” had begun, and used, for the very first time in such a context, a new word: “underdevelopment”

Suddenly two billion people who had been doing all right — like my Mayan friends in Guatemala or my neighbors in Bolivia — were no longer doing all right. They were underdeveloped. And in one of the most spectacular missionary efforts in history, the rich nations henceforth strove to lead the underdeveloped of the world to a paradise of development, where they too would be domesticated and tethered to a logic of Total Work.

Truman might have more accurately called these “underdeveloped” folks people who are “living well”… the billions who reject Total Work and “progress” and extol balance.

Dispatches from the Sweet Life – One Family, Five Acres, and a Community’s Quest to Reinvent the World

William Powers, author of Twelve by Twelve

Published by New World Library – Distributed by Publishers Group West