Author Bill Powers has worked for more than twenty years in development aid and conservation in Latin America, Africa, and North America. A third-generation New Yorker, Powers has also spent two decades exploring the American culture of speed and its alternatives in some fifty countries around the world. His most recent book, New Slow City, introduces a new set of exciting and insightful concepts about how to live lighter, simpler, and happier in an ever-growing, more urbanized world.
Powers’ wife, Melissa, was born in Santa Fe and the two feel a strong connection to New Mexico. I spoke with Bill shortly after his recent book tour stop at Collected Works Bookstore in Santa Fe. His book is available there and through Bookworks in Albuquerque.
We often associate the “American culture of speed” with urban centers. Do you see this culture persisting in other kinds of communities, including those in rural America? I’m thinking in particular about the western US...
The brand of global capitalism that we’re living in right now is all encompassing. It’s not just in urban areas. It’s everywhere. The work-and-spend treadmill and the idea that we define ourselves by two things – our work and how we consume – pervade the whole ethos right now of American living. So just by moving to a smaller place doesn’t necessarily mean you’re going to get out of the fast lane.
I’ll give you one example. I have friends that live in a rural part of Vermont, far outside of Burlington’s urban area. And yet people there are scheduling their kids in back to back activities. If they’re in hockey, they play during the cold season but [the parents] are also paying thousands of dollars for the kids to play inside throughout the whole summer. This pervades every place.
Vicki Robin, author of Your Money or Your Life and Blessing the Hands That Feed Us, has said that your journey in New Slow City is about “living lightly and intelligently” in a distracted world. Talk about the nature of this particular intelligence.
In some ways it’s about the Buddhist idea of present moment awareness and living in the present moment. You could say it’s a very old idea. And yet it’s incredibly new in the sense that it’s so counter-cultural right now to live, say, in a big city or the suburbs and be aware of the “third story.” That is, to look up and be aware of the trees blowing in the wind or the clouds above you. It’s also about finding a kind of sanctuary. For example, in Manhattan, we'd constantly go to Central Park (to the Rambles area) or to the end of Pier 45 – to places that are just inspiring and sort of slow you down.
So at its root that’s what Slow is. It’s not that we should be Luddites or reject technology. Technology should be a tool, so you use that tool very selectively and you create lots of space for the inner life. Slow, capital S, is about intuition, patience, generosity…those types of qualities. And yet the fast qualities – rushing, impatience, greed, anxiety – are so typical of the way we live today.
You and Melissa cultivate a rich, diverse spiritual life in New Slow City. Among others, scientist E.O. Wilson, and Michael Shellenberger and Ted Nordhaus, founders of the Breakthrough Institute, have noted the chasm that frequently separates religious and spiritual traditions from science, and the environmental movement specifically. Do you see a divide? Should it and can it be bridged?
There definitely is a divide, but it’s changing. In Charles Eisenstein’s work, like Sacred Economics, he’s putting together ideas from social science with the spiritual. And it’s happening in lots of places. That’s the work I’m most interested in. How do we bring those worlds together?
In other words, [we don’t have to] discount science or a rational approach. But you kind of have to see those as an anthropologist would, as part of our contemporary culture of divergent thinking. We’re always breaking things into parts, parsing them, analyzing them. In some ways, the scientific method tends to be based around that. Whereas, in convergent thinking, more questions don’t lead to an answer but actually lead to more questions.
This relates to the Bolivean Andean idea of “walking questioning” that I talk about in the book. Or how right now I am sitting next to a forest and actually the trees aren’t necessarily competing with each other at all but instead there’s this whole underground system of cooperation. Or how in quantum physics, for instance, unified theories are also putting together the sciences with spiritual perspectives.
Speaking of cooperation...writing for The New Yorker last month, Kathryn Schulz called Henry David Thoreau a “misanthrope.” She described his Walden as a “fantasy about escaping the entanglements and responsibilities of living among other people” in which he “turns his back on the rest of us.” In your latest book you abandon the cabin in the woods and head straight for the human thrum of Manhattan. Can living with less in the modern world really teach us how to live better and more ethically with other people, or is it just a version of turning our back on others?
We [Melissa and I] sort of became urban Thoreaus. We were trying to live simply. But the funny thing is it did lead to more interdependence and not isolation because, for one thing, we lived in a tiny apartment. So of course that forced us out into the public spaces of Manhattan, as you saw in the book. We spent a lot of time in Washington Square Park and interacting with The Jam, those musicians, and on the rooftops, rooftop gardening in Queens, and doing all kinds of other activities. And in fact, by working less, by simplifying my work life, I actually picked up time to work with 350.org on different protests against fossil fuels. And I was involved with the students at New York University protesting a billion dollar debt burden on them. And so forth.
So actually the twin pillars of what we were doing were, first, about freeing yourself from the slave-like nine-to-five, forty-hour-a-week work system which is an archaic relic of an earlier time, and second, about simplifying your material life. So [in doing these things] you’re not only gaining a lot of the personal freedom that someone like Thoreau talks about, but you’re also becoming much more connected to cultural creatives who are working on this almost revolutionary edge of living a more self-paced life.
There’s this whole idea that America is becoming more individualistic. But I found that, actually, by choosing this course in an urban environment, we became much more interconnected.
I think the stories in New Slow City will resonate a lot with people in Albuquerque. The sense of community here is quite strong and, on a practical level, because of the climate, life outside of the house is rich.
Yes, and of course they are also blessed with three – Anglo, Native, and Hispanic – cultures. And the Native and Hispanic cultures, especially, do bring these ideas of extended family, community, tribe, and interdependence. And I think those transcend the whole state, in a way.
In this book, you acknowledge your own privilege. Many of the decisions about work that you are able to make – chiefly, committing for a spell to a 2-day workweek and a 5-day weekend – are buffered by certain advantages and immunities of socioeconomics, class, race, and some might even argue, gender. Do you think the vision of Slow Living is broadly accessible right now?
It is and it isn’t. Anyone can take small steps to in some ways extract themselves from the work-and-spend treadmill. For example, you can look at your joy to stuff ratio and figure out how much pleasure you’re getting out of each purchase. Even people who are really just scraping by may oftentimes be able to look at their joy to stuff ratio and eliminate some expenses and be able to start to “pay themselves first” before paying other bills, and start to extract themselves from this system on some levels.
On the other hand, it’s not really accessible because that’s just a small step. We’re in a system right now wherein the number of people that can live on minimum wage in New York is zero. You can’t live in New York on minimum wage. It’s a dilemma in the short term. I don’t think what we did [in the book] is applicable to everyone at this point. It was more applicable to us, who were caught up in this professional craziness and who have the luxury of also being able to earn a relatively high hourly wage and have savings and so on to buffer a decision like this. I would encourage people who are at that level – for instance, the head of Yahoo who is working one hundred hours a week and is proud of it, one of the most successful people in our society – that they could benefit greatly by downshifting. And then have much less impact on the planet because they’re producing less, consuming less. So my audience, in some ways, is that type of person.
Then what are a few of the most important systemic changes necessary to make the Slow Living vision more accessible?
On a policy level, we totally have to move toward an alternative to this type of capitalism that we’re in right now. Those people who are experimenting with the creative ventures of slowing down and simplifying will be part of this policy-making group. My theory of change is that as people like myself, yourself, and others who were maybe born on third base, begin to change, the culture changes, and then policy changes.
Let me give you one policy that would be amazing to introduce: let’s have maternity leave, let’s have mandatory paid maternity leave. And we’re the only country in the industrialized world not to have mandatory paid vacation. Once we get these types of policies into place, it will help this idea [of living Slow] be more inclusive.
I do think all this will require a bigger cultural change than just, say, legislating a thirty hour work week. And I don’t think this will be something that will happen immediately. I guess we’re looking at, maybe, ten years from now. That’s my horizon. I ask myself what I can do right now to open up a big question about the whole way that we have our culture organized.
I think Albuquerqueans, notorious foodies, will enjoy your chapter, The Slowest Food. At the end of it, you come to the conclusion that “food is nothing less than love.” Did you have any other food revelations during your year?
Just interacting with slow food people [was a revelation]. How do we slow the fork down? It’s about just enjoying every bite. That definitely became much more apparent to me. Whatever you’re eating, just enjoy it.
I understand you feel a connection to New Mexico and the desert southwest, where your wife Melissa was born. Tell me a bit more about that?
I worked as a teacher at the Santa Fe Indian School in the early nineties. I lived for a total of three years in Santa Fe, and loved it. I worked on Stan Crawford’s [author of The Garlic Testament: Seasons on a Small New Mexico Farm] garlic farm up in Dixon for a summer. I learned a lot about organic garlic and writing from him. I have also always loved the writer Edward Abbey, who was at the University of New Mexico and spent a lot of time in New Mexico. And my wife’s family lives in Santa Fe still.
What is currently bringing you joy and fulfillment?
The main thing is my new baby. What brings me the most fulfillment in general is living every moment fully. Not the ambition or consumption. I definitely get the most pleasure out of lingering for a few hours and reading poetry, or just hanging out with my daughters. It’s really the simplest things that bring me the greatest joy.