Author William Powers has stopped in his former home of New Mexico during a national speaking tour for his newest novel, “New Slow City: Living Simply in the World’s Fastest City.”
Tell me about “New Slow City”.
“After spending a season living off the grid in a 12-by-12-foot cabin in North Carolina, I took my sustainable, ‘slow’ living approach to one of the busiest cities in the world: New York. Eschewing the burdensome culture of ‘Total Work,’ chucking 80 percent of my belongings and scaling down to a 20-hour work week, my wife and I explore the viability of living simply in a demanding urban environment — an inspiration to those who are trying to make city life more people- and planet-friendly.”
Why make an attempt at a minimalist life in the city that never sleeps?
“Well, the book actually originated with a somewhat angry question. It came from a reader of ‘Twelve by Twelve: A One-Room Cabin Off the Grid and Beyond the American Dream,’ my previous book about living in a 12-by-12-foot off-grid cabin in North Carolina. ‘It’s easy,’ she wrote, ‘to find minimalism, joy, connection to nature and abundant time in a shack in the woods. But how the hell are the rest of us supposed to stay sane in our busy modern lives?’
“I received a hundred variations of this question in emails, after lectures, and during television and radio interviews about ‘Twelve by Twelve.’ I always answered by saying I was living 12-by-12 values, but in Queens, New York ... But as each year passed, the readers’ doubt increasingly became my own as overwork, material clutter and the lack of contact with nature brought me to a point of extreme unhappiness in Queens. Eventually I, too, doubted it was possible to live 12-by-12 in a city, and I felt an urgent need to decamp far from urban life.
“As I reached this point, my newlywed wife, Melissa, was offered an excellent job that demanded we stay put in New York City, and I suddenly had no choice but to figure out how to take what I’d learned in the 12-by-12 about the Leisure Ethic, connecting to nature and living simply and somehow make it work in the real-world context of a marriage and two careers.”
What is the message you’re trying to convey with your book?
“It took much effort to try and stretch a New York minute into an hour, and a great way to discover what I learned is through the new trend, for example, of slow reading. We’re so distracted by quick tweets and the barrage of email that we rarely sit with a book on a non-Internet-connected device, or better yet the physical book, and simply enjoy it for hours on end. Slow reading is a radical act in our workaholic era, where economic growth is put before life itself.
“The global environmental crisis is in no small part related to our constant doing, (like) consuming, burning fossil fuels, etc, instead of a benign and joyful being.”
How is your message different from that of others who choose to live simply?
“This particular book is an adventure into smart-city trends ranging from slow food and slow travel to technology fasting, urban sanctuaries, bodysurfing the Rockaways, and rooftop farming ... This book aims for a more holistic, personal approach. Through the microcosm of one couple’s quest to, as the ‘Twelve by Twelve’ reader wrote, ‘find minimalism, joy, connection to nature and abundant time,’ I examine what urban slow means, and what it feels like in real terms. For us, it meant working less — I scaled back to a two-day work week — having a light ecological footprint and living in the present moment.”
Why share this message now? What makes it important?
“According to current population trends, the world in 2050 will swell to 10 billion people, 70 percent of them urban, and their appetites will grow. Figuring out cities is vital. It’s urgent we begin to do so now.
“Gallup recently reported that 70 percent of American employees are either unhappy or disengaged at work. Anxiety levels among adolescents and adults are soaring, even compared to just two decades ago. One out of every four adults in America experiences some form of depression in the course of their lives. In Japan, they have a name for people who die from overworking: karoshi.
“Could we in the United States be tipping toward becoming a nation of karoshis? I, for one, became so stressed by constant work and the pace of city life that, before our slow year experiment, I found myself nearly a karoshi myself. I’m convinced that society must find a new equilibrium between the demands of business, the consumptive habits of society and our own personal happiness.”
Without giving away too much, what did you learn from this experience?
“(I learned) so much. Two modifications to our lifestyle that I think contribute to a lasting slower-paced life are technology fasts (and) silent meals.
“We tuned off our gadgets for weekends, sometimes for 5-day weekends, utilizing the ‘vacation auto-response’ on our email. This helped the quality of our relationship because we had more time focused on each other and the ‘real’ world around us.
“Even in Manhattan’s fine restaurants, we’d eat in total silence, deeply savor the food, scents, soundscape and visual beauty of the restaurant in a meditative manner. This made our lives feel deeper, richer, more sensual and enjoyable.”
Do you believe our culture will ever “slow down?” Why or why not?
“19th century British essayist Thomas Carlyle wrote ‘man was created to work, not to speculate, or feel, or dream. Every idle moment is treason.’ This is even more the prevailing ethos today. It’s treasonous to ask for something the American labor movement demanded a century back, when union members hoisted banners reading ‘bread and roses.’ The bread was good wages. And the roses? American workers were demanding time, in the form of shorter working hours. Time to smell the roses....
“Time is a renewable resource, but we’re sold the idea it’s scarce. It’s been stolen from overworked single moms and business executives. And from almost everybody I know.
“However, I do believe it is changing, and that our culture will slow down. There’s a David-and-Goliath battle underway today all around the globe. People like John de Graaf put happiness first. Journalists like Carl Honoré report on how American workers lost the roses. There’s spiking interest in the international slow food movement and in decompression activities like Tai Chi, Tantric sex, and slow travel ... Just look at how much Slow Food has grown in the U.S. over the past couple of years.”
Skylar Griego is the culture editor at the Daily Lobo. She can be reached at email@example.com or on Twitter @TDLBooks