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New World Library Unshelved

New World Library Unshelved

Positive news and inspiring views from the New World Library community

Thursday, July 11, 2013
What’s Your 12 x 12? The Big Apple Tries . . . Small by guest blogger William Powers

It’s a little bizarre that New York City’s very first twelve-foot-by-twelve-foot, off-the-grid house — an installation called the 12 x 12 Project — opens at the Queens Botanical Garden in Flushing, Queens, this Saturday afternoon.
     But it’s really bizarre (to this author, at least) that this tiny house in the Big Apple grew from my book Twelve by Twelve, about living simply in a shack in central North Carolina.
     The long, strange trip from off-grid NC to off-grid NYC began a few years back when I returned to America after a decade of aid and conservation work in Africa and Latin America. Abroad, I’d seen, starkly, the grave impact the global economic system was having on our environment — Amazon rainforests clear-cut for fast-food cattle, African rivers poisoned by multinational mining — and began asking myself a daunting question: How could humanity transition to gentler, more responsible ways of living by replacing attachment to things with deeper relationships with people, nature, and self?
     Fortunately, I stumbled upon someone with some clues: Dr. Jackie Benton. When I met this slight, sixty-year-old physician, she was stroking a honeybee’s wings in front of her twelve-foot-by-twelve-foot, off-the-grid home on No Name Creek in North Carolina.
     While she was traveling, she invited me to housesit. Unexpectedly, I changed plans and moved into the 12 x 12 for a season. Perhaps there’s a “cure” in the practice of curiosity. With no electricity, no piped water, and none of the other conveniences we are so accustomed to, I was forced to see everything anew. Jackie didn’t leave an instruction manual, an “Idiot’s Guide” to living in a 12 x 12. I had to figure it all out myself, a journey that led to a book . . . and created a national and now global dialogue on how much is too little, too much, or just enough.
     This conversation inspired well-known NYC-based architects and artists Betsy Damon, Simon Draper, Erik Ajemian, and Christy Rupp to form a creative team to work together to engage New Yorkers in an innovative, artistic, and engaging way.
     Right now, the installation is taking shape for Saturday’s big launch. Not only have Queens Residents helped with a community build, but the White Roof Project, Bus Roots, Aellon, and refugee volunteers from The Refugee and Immigrant Fund have all jumped on board to challenge fellow New Yorkers to think about their carbon footprint and joy-to-stuff-ratio.
     What the artists and community are bringing to life is a modular space that houses panels containing text and questions from the Twelve by Twelve book. These panels will vary, allowing the project to grow and evolve. Participants, including the public, invited groups, and artists, will engage with the question “What’s your 12 x 12?” to spark new thinking around what smart consumption means for each person. The 12 x 12 will be inhabited by various artists on weeklong residencies, with socio-political artist Beth Grossman as the first artist-in-residence, who will use the visual as a way to create community dialogue.
     The building will be designed with sustainable materials to bring the 12 x 12 concept to life. While the interior and exterior reflect and collect thoughts and discussions, the “butterfly” roof — resembling an open book! — will collect and channel rainwater into barrels for use within the structure and for an eventual garden component. Elements in and around the 12 x 12 pavilion will evolve as different artists and invited groups take up short-term residencies and incorporate new reflections expanding the concepts of community and conscious living.
     Meanwhile, I’ve got butterflies in my stomach as the micro-house springs from the written page into physical existence in Queens. I’m excited to see how one humble pioneer — the 12 x 12 physician, Jackie Benton — has created ripples that will reach New Yorkers and even beyond, as Albion College in Michigan and the University of Norwich in Vermont prepare to build 12 x 12s on campus to inspire students to think about sustainable living.
     Finally, while I hope to see you in Queens this Saturday, you don’t have to come to the NYC 12 x 12 or live in a 12 x 12 house to discover more inner joy and contribute to global healing. Each of us, no matter where we live, can ask ourselves, “What’s my 12 x 12?” It’s possible anywhere to scale back from overdevelopment to enough. By planting a windowsill or community garden; doing yoga or meditation; walking and biking; and carrying out at least one positive action for others every day. We decide what gets globalized — consumption or compassion, selfishness or solidarity — through how we cultivate the most valuable place of all, our inner acre.

William Powers has led development aid and environmental initiatives in Latin America, Africa, and Washington, DC. He is the author of the memoirs Blue Clay People and Whispering in the Giant’s Ear, and his essays on global issues have appeared in media including the New York Times, the Washington Post, The Atlantic, and Slate. He has been interviewed on programs including Fresh Air and Living on Earth and is a senior fellow at the World Policy Institute.


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