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By **William Powers**

The fourth of July has come and gone, but each of us can continue to declare independence every day: independence from stuff.

Can our own personal economy and the Leisure Ethic come together as rebellion? I’m on Cape Cod now, rained in during a family vacation, and my mind is wandering back to my time in Jackie’s tiny twelve foot by twelve foot house. Her lifestyle is a twenty-first-century Boston Tea Party, but she hasn’t thrown just one product overboard; rather, she’s tossed the whole lot of planet-killing junk.

Today it’s not the British Empire colonizing us, but a pervasive corporate globalism. We resist through our vote, and I don’t mean for this political candidate or that, though that’s certainly part of it. We cast powerful votes for the kind of world we want to live in whenever we fish out a twenty or click “BUY” on the web. After Jackie’s tea party, here’s what remains on her permaculture ship: a tiny car that she runs on biodiesel; delicious local and organic food, 90 percent of it produced by herself or her neighbors; nourishing books on the shelf; fresh drinking water she collects herself at a local spring; solar flashlights (she doesn’t use disposable batteries for anything); a slight house, with building materials so minimal that the forests can live; and not a cent into federal war coffers.

Do we want to spend our time and energy earning money and contributing to a carbon-intensive economy, or fostering creative pursuits, the arts, and strengthening our relationships and community?

She’s part of a larger rebellion that includes wildcrafters who are quietly shaping the U.S., including the slow food and farmers market movements, and the budding national renewable energy, natural foods, and national TV-turn-off subculture. There are intriguing trends like the Compact (groups of citizens who join together and buy nothing new for one year), national Buy Nothing Day (no purchases for a day); and Boulder Bucks (cities like Boulder, Colorado, who create a parallel currency that circulates only locally, therefore fostering the local economy). But even if no such efforts existed, each of us possesses an incredibly powerful tool of resistance: our household economy.

It’s been said that only little ideas need patents because the most transformative ideas are protected by public incredulity. Household economy as protest is one of those big ideas. Being at the twelve by twelve reminded me that I can examine with acute interest every single penny that goes out of our accounts. Is that penny helping create a vital farmers market or McWorld? A freeholder’s free chickens or Gold Kist’s beakless chickens? A simple elegance that coexists with Bolivia’s rainforests, or a decadence that fosters comfort but destroys a far greater beauty? Ideas like warrior presence, the Idle Majority, and the creative edge, I realized, can be crystallized in my life by becoming aware of personal economy’s radical effects—and changing the direction of pennies.

Jackie used her household economy as radical act. I have spent years exploring ways to weave a softer economy into my life, and her example pushed me further.

Declare independence from the corporate global economy, Jackie seemed to say. Doing so has two synergetic positive effects. First, by simplifying her life and working less, she creates less garbage on the planet. Second, the time and space she liberates nourishes her. We exchange something very precious for money: our life energy. Do we want to spend our time and energy earning money and contributing to a carbon-intensive economy, or fostering creative pursuits, the arts, and strengthening our relationships and community?

Influenced by these ideas, I began tracking every penny that went out of my life in an account book each evening, and I was amazed to find that some 30 percent of my expenses were on “gazingus pins” and things that, in the end, I decided weren’t worth the exchange of my life energy. I graphed it over the months, watching the line of expenses go down without any drop in the quality of my lifestyle. I paid off the debts and took a pair of scissors to my credit cards, never to live on credit again. I never made a bundle as a junior high school teacher at a Native American school, nor later as an aid worker, but I always “paid myself first” before paying the other bills, depositing 10 percent of every paycheck into investments. I taught myself financial planning for free on the helpful Motley Fool website. Over time, I found myself living well below my means with enough of a buffer to fund creativity sabbaticals, when I wrote my books.

Ironically, the more I treated my life energy as sacred and lived frugally, the more I was able to indulge; I could gush generously where it counted. I learned this during my decade among the world’s Idle Majority, the leisureologists of the Global South. Subsistence cultures have a forest instead of a supermarket; board games and guitars on stoops instead of minigolf and other paid entertainment. They aren’t materially rich, yet I found myself continually amazed by their generosity—in the form of a meal, a bed, and all the time in the world to be with you. In that spirit I support the Sierra Club and other worthy causes, especially those that spontaneously arise in my daily life. And I don’t cringe over a fifty-dollar bag of organic and local groceries because that’s the true cost of producing food in a healthy world. That same bag at Safeway is cheap because the costs to the environment—of pesticides, soil erosion, cultural erosion, and genetic modification of life forms—are not included in the price.

Copyright 2010 William Powers


This post originally appeared at

William Powers.jpgWilliam Powers hails from Long Island, NY and has worked for over a decade in development aid and conservation in Latin America, Africa, Washington, D.C., and Native North America. From 2002 to 2004 he managed the community components of a project in the Bolivian Amazon that won a 2003 prize for environmental innovation from Harvard’s John F. Kennedy School of Government. His essays and commentaries on global issues have appeared in the New York Times and the International Herald Tribune, and on National Public Radio. Powers has worked at the World Bank, and holds international relations degrees from Brown University and Georgetown’s School of Foreign Service. A 2004-2005 recipient of the Open Door Foundation for non-fiction, he is the author of the Liberia memoir Blue Clay People: Seasons on Africa’s Fragile Edge and the Bolivian memoir Whispering in the Giant’s Ear: A Frontline Chronicle from Bolivia’s War on Globalization. Powers is a senior fellow at the World Policy Institute and author of Twelve by Twelve: A One-Room Cabin Off the Grid and Beyond the American Dream.

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