New World Library, 2018
Reviewed by Marian McCain
Thanks to Fellini’s well-known film, the phrase ‘sweet life’, which in Italian used simply to mean being able to enjoy fine things—beauty, good food, fine wine etc.—has come to mean a hedonistic life of excess and over-indulgence. However ‘The Sweet Life’ that William Powers is talking about in this new book is more akin to what the Spanish call ‘viver bien’, (‘to live well’) which is something very different.
For Powers, the sweet life has three components. Firstly it means living as much and as often as we can in the ‘now’, i.e. resting fully in the full awareness of whatever our senses are perceiving in the present moment instead of allowing our minds to wander off somewhere else—into the past or the imagined future or the conceptual world of ideas, beliefs and judgements. Secondly, it means living in community, valuing co-operation over competition, enjoying relationships, intimacy, conviviality, doing things together and sharing resources Thirdly—and most importantly—it means caring for Pachamama (Mother Earth) and living biocentrically, in other words living always in conscious communion with the more-than-human world and in awareness of one’s connectedness with all-that-is.
As opposed to ‘The Good Life’ aspired to by so many in the modern, Western world – which is all about speed and getting ahead and ‘more is better’—the sweet life is lived slowly, simply, mindfully and in harmony with the rest of Nature.
Powers’ chronicle of his search for this slower, simpler, more mindful way of living began when he house-sat for one season an organic farmer who lived this way in a one-room cabin in rural North Carolina. He wrote a book, Twelve by Twelve (New World Library, 2010) about this experience. Later, back in his native New York, wanting to see whether this lifestyle might still be possible in one of the world’s busiest, speediest cities, he downshifted, with his wife, from a roomy townhouse to a tiny apartment in the heart of the city. That became another book, New Slow City (New World Library, 2014)
Now we have the third book in what the author has named his ‘Beyond the American Dream’ trilogy. We find him now in Bolivia—a country he knows well, having worked for several years on a conservation project in the Bolivian Amazon—along with his wife and their six-month-old baby daughter, embarking on a new experiment. Fortunate enough in their professions to be able to support themselves by working remotely, they have bought a five acre plot on the edge of the forest but within walking distance of the little town of Suraqueta. There, their dream is to build a house from local materials, grow their own produce, get involved with the local community and live the Sweet Life to the full.
As with all the best stories, there are unforeseen problems, setbacks and disappointments as well as discoveries, triumphs and a lot of personal growth. Powers is a skilful writer who does a great job of conveying the atmosphere of place and of bringing alive on the page the fascinating cast of local characters of various backgrounds and nationalities, who make up his local community. It is a community struggling to deal with familiar dilemmas, e.g. the pull of ‘modernisation’ versus the treasuring of tradition, as exemplified by a proposal to pull down old buildings to build a high-rise block. And though located in a remote, rural area, it is also a community of people with enough connections into the wider world to be able to reach towards such transformational goals as becoming a ‘Transition Town’—something that Suraqueta has now successfully done. The picture is of a vibrant community that interacts a lot, engages in communal, ‘barn-raising’ types of activities a lot, breeds innovation, especially in the arts and crafts, and loves to party.
Powers also values introspection. He is deeply self-reflective and does a wonderful job of chronicling his own inner struggle to embrace, fully, a lifestyle that, for all its desirability, still runs counter to the achievement-oriented, growth-based conditioning to which he, like most of us in the modern Western world, has been subjected.
I really enjoyed this book. And I recommend it to anyone who yearns for the Sweet Life and aims to be part of the movement towards biocentricity and a healthy, sustainable way of life for all beings on Planet Earth.