On July 4, 1845, Henry David Thoreau retreated for two years, two months and two days to a small cabin on land owned by his friend and mentor Ralph Waldo Emerson—14 acres along the shores of Walden Pond, deep in the woods of Concord, Massachusetts. It was an experiment in minimalist living and exploring natural simplicity, harmony and beauty. Some 165 years later, William Powers, a 21st century environmentalist and minimalist, conducted a similar, if briefer, experiment, living in a 12-foot-by-12-foot cabin in a far more developed—though still off-the-grid—wilderness of rural North Carolina, hoping to find a place “beyond the American dream.”

As Powers and others in the West look for ways to reduce consumption and promote sustainability, many in the developing world are moving in the opposite direction, hoping to take full advantage of their newfound purchasing power—a revolution of rising expectations.

As these currents collide, World Policy Journal...

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