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An interview with Starhawk; sacred activism, collapse and the role of permaculture

The day after Starhawk’s talk in Totnes, she visited my house so that we could do a short interview. It was a gloriously sunny day, and after we had concluded the interview, I gave her a tour of my garden (well, my raised beds at least). The interview ranged across Transition work, managing grief, activism, permaculture and much more…

What do you see as being the main characteristics of the challenge we face at this moment?

I think the challenge we face at this moment is pretty simple. We just need to completely transform our economy, our technology, our system of agriculture, our food system and the governance systems that go with it, and we needed to have done this all 10 years ago! It’s easy.. (laughs).

I was saying we needed to do it all in the next 10-20 years, now James Hansen who is the leading climate change scientist is telling us that we are beyond the safety margin. We used to think that we had until we got to 450ppm before we went into irreversable kinds of changes. He’s saying now it’s more like 350ppm, and we are currently at about 385. That means we have a very short time to have any hope of stabilising the climate at a state where we are still going to suffer huge losses but they won’t be the level of devastation that they will be if we don’t do something about it.

I think the reality is that the changes we need to make are huge and deep and transformative, and the time have to make it in is very short. Part of the challenge is how do you actually face that, and then go ahead and do something constructive, not just either panic or pop a beer and watch TV and try to forget it!

What are your impressions of the Transition movement?

I think the Transition movement has been a brilliant form of organising because it gives everybody some way that they can plug in. I’ve done all kinds of activism from teaching, creating ritual and consciousness changing, to street activism to non-violent interventions in military situations, things that have ranged from the tame to the really frightening and dangerous. I know that you can’t ask everybody to immediately do something that is way beyond their level of comfort and ability.

People have to take a step, I thinkit is good to challenge people to push whatever envelope they are in to the next step, twenty steps beyond where they are now and with the Transition movement people can really plug in at any kind of level. You can do something that could completely take over your whole life and which you’d be devoted to, or you could do something that might take you 10 minutes a week. You could do something on your own or you can do something with your neighbours, or you can reach out and do something with other people.

You can do things that work within the system and also things that also challenge the system. I think Transition is working at a scale that is very effective. A lot of times climate change gets reframed into “what do we as individuals do?” Well, you can change your lightbulbs and buy local… all of that is important, but its not nearly enough to address the problem. We need to address the problem collectively, and we need to address it in terms of transforming not just our individual choices but the systems that give us those choices.

At the same time though, trying to address it on the global scale is kinda way beyond what most people feel like we can do… call up Bush and say “you’re wrong! Think this out again!” (laughs). It’s not within our scope. Sometimes it can be. Sometimes an individual like Cindy Sheehan, who is the mother of a young soldier who was killed in Iraq. She started a whole anti-war movement in the families of soldiers and army people by saying I’m going to sit down outside George Bush’s gates until the guy comes out and talks to me.

For most of us though, we’re not at that point, but organising your neighbours, your friends and your community, and starting to make changes on that local level, that neighbourhood level, that regional level, that’s big enough that you can actually make an impact. It’s big enough that you can impact some of the systems that actually affect our lives. We were just talking on the journey over here, Silvia lives in a little village outside Totnes, and she was saying that even if she wanted to get rid of her car, there is no public transport.

So, on local levels and on regional levels that’s where you can start to think about those things that actually impact the way we live our lives very strongly. At the same time its a small enough scale that you can feel like you can have an impact.

After Hurricane Katrina you spent time in New Orleans helping with the clean-up operation there. From your time in what was, in effect, a collapsed society, what lessons do you draw for how we might cope with or adapt to a wider collapse?

One of the reasons I went down there was to see what would it look like if our society did collapse. You know, we are always thinking like we have this image that it is all going to collapse somewhere out there, and I thought I want to see what happens when it does, whether the ways I’ve been thinking and the ways we’ve been organising actually have anything to offer in that situation.

So I went down there, and it was a very profound experience to be in a place where there had been so much loss, so much grief and so much damage… it was pretty inconceivable. I found that the things that were working were the small scale, grassroots efforts. A group called Common Ground Relief that was started by a man called Malik Rahim, an old Black Panther organiser, he put out a call to activists, and activists came down there, set up a medical clinic that was up and running weeks before the Red Cross got anything off the ground.

They had food being distributed, and supplies being distributed, and people going out and helping with the clean up, with garbage removal and helping with all kinds of things, long before the City got anything up and running. That was very empowering to see, “wow, these ways of organising actually are effective, they are actually more effective than larger scale things are being”. At the same time I remember sitting there in those Common Ground meetings a month after the hurricane people would be saying “well we’re doing stuff here in Algiers, but what about the Lower 9th Ward, people are starting to come back”, and someone else would say “well what about Homer, we need to send teams up to Homer”, and someone else would say “what about Mississippi, we’re not even talking about Mississippi, and Biloxi, harder hit than anywhere.

I remember just feeling complete overwhelm, and starting to think what this actually needs is an effort that is organised like the army, and like FEMA is supposed to be, a big scale response where someone could send teams into every parish and place, and assess the damage, bring supplies. That’s wasn’t happening, and that is a complete failure of our government. It really did change me. I had always said that those small scale grassroots efforts are what we need and all we need, and it really made me look and say it is what we need but it is not all we need…

We also need to be able to make big, fast responses to disasters, and maybe ultimately, the answer will be networks of those smaller scale things that can come together and that can respond in some of the ways those big systems are supposed to. Maybe it means actually getting those bigger systems functioning in the way they are supposed to.

Also, we often have a lot of debates in the US around politics and elections, what’s the point of elections, they are all going to be run by the corporations, was Kerry really all that different from Bush and so on. I will now never say there is no difference between the two. There may be some ways we wish they were much more different than they are, but if we had had somebody at the head of our federal government who was even minimally confident, and interested in things like disaster relief, there are people dead now who would have been alive.

I think we owe those people the willingness not to be purists ourselves and a willingness to engage with those systems and do what we can to make them work, because its often the people who have the least resources who end up as the biggest victims when they don’t work.

You also teach permaculture. What do you see as the key role that permaculture has to play in our transition away from oil dependency?

Permaculture is a whole approach to design that has a set of ethics and principles, that teach us how we can create systems that will meet our human needs while letting us regenerate the Earth around us. It also has a body of specific practical knowledge about how to do this in different climates and different ecosystems. For me it has always been the practical application of the idea that the Earth is sacred, and I think that the thing it really contributes to the whole debate on climate change is that when you study permaculture and practice it, you really learn to look at things as a whole, the way systems fit together and the way different elements integrate together.

I think that to shift our culture we need to have that kind of whole systems thinking. It is not going to be one magic technology, one magic approach or one magic thing that we do that is going to save us, it is going to be a mosaic of different things and approaches. We really need to know how to look at things as a whole, and how to look at the connections between them, and the relationships and interactions between them, not just at the things themselves.

The Transition concept is sometimes criticised for its focus on positive solutions, with people saying that given that it is not actively involved in confrontation, it must therefore not be based on any coherent critique of the global situation. What are your thoughts on the balance between those two things?

I think that we need both kinds of actions. We desparately need things that allow people to make positive steps towards a future that we want. Otherwise if we are just focused on confronting and complaining, then people just go into a downward spiral of despair and ultimately apathy. We need to be building the solutions, that is where people find hope and inspiration.

I think we can do that without losing sight of the fact that there are real vested interests that are invested in keeping the system as it is, and ultimately that might take confrontation. I think we are going to be standing on stronger ground if we have solutions we can point to, when we’ve got alternatives that we can point to. Its very hard if people are going to confront, let’s say, the industrial agriculture industry, the biotech industry, if they are utterly dependent on that industry for their life! That will limit the amount of confrontation they can do.

If they have alternatives, other ways to eat, then in some sense there is a form of non-violent direct action that is about withdrawing co-operation from unjust systems. When we can build these other alternative systems and gradually withdraw support from the ones that are invested in the status quo, then we are a lot stronger in our ability to confront them.

You spoke last night about the need to create a space for people to grieve for the loss of their cars, for the loss of their luxuries and so on, what do you think that facilitating the expression of that grief would look like on a broader societal scale? We can do it in Totnes with people who are already open to that, but on a more mainstream scale, how might we do it?

I think on a more mainstream scale the way I might approach it is through art, writing, through theatre, drama, creating ways in which people can express that grief or hear that grief expressed. I think the kinds of things that are happening in Totnes also, like the Home Groups, those things can actually spread to a larger scale. We did that in the 70s with the feminist consciousness-raising groups, and creating an overall understanding that its OK for people to feel that grief. Often, as environmentalists, we tend to be extremely judgemental about people, “oh they’re just attached to their cars” and to be able to acknowledge that it is a loss, its a loss of our dreams, of our expectations, a loss of a certain kind of personal comfort, freedom and convenience, for some people it will be a real hardship. Once we leave space for that grief we can go through it, and then I think we can make an informed decision about it.

On previous trips to Britain I have rented a car to get around, and this time I thought “I can’t do that”, y’know? (laughs) The state of the world, I just can’t really justify it, so I’ve been taking the train and going OK, it is a loss in the sense that I can’t drive along listening to BBC Radio 4 and stopping at little teashops here and there, but in another sense there are also gains I didn’t expect. It is actually much more pleasant to sit on the train and not have to worry about driving, and not have to worry about whether am I going to fall asleep because I am tired.

So, once we move through the grief, you start to see there are other benefits out on the other side, but if we are just lecturing to people about it, they are not going to see that, and they are probably going to cling me tightly to the things they have and the things they know.

During last night’s talk you did a great visualisation of Totnes in 2030..(which I will post here tomorrow). What would your vision be of Totnes in 2030?

(laughs). My vision would be, as far as I can do it while I am leading a visualisation, there was a lot of food around.. there were flowers and plants in every crack in the sidewalk, window boxes full of things like cherry tomatoes, little food vendors, nut trees. There were lots of kids running around, but the kids weren’t being confined in schools, where they sit at desks to learn, but they were learning in learning groups where they run around and take part in actual adult activities with mentors. They were learning by doing and interacting and being part of the whole culture rather than being separated off into some place where you have to yell at them all the time to keep them quiet! Old people too, there is more interaction between old people and children, not this age segregation that tends to happen.

Any last advice for people involved in Transition initiatives?

I think that it is at an exciting and a little challenging state now, where it is like the preparation has been done, at least it has in quite a few places now, and now the question is going to be how do we actually turn that into real projects and real results, and I guess the time is short to begin doing that. This is a good time to think about that and step up and see how to we take this to the next level.

What do you think? Leave a comment below.

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