Starhawk is an author, activist, permaculture designer and teacher, founder of Earth Activist Training, and a prominent voice in modern earth-based spirituality and ecofeminism.
She answers the question of “What Could Possibly Go Right?” with thoughts including:
- The boost in people being politically engaged this past year, tuning up and caring for democracy “like an old creaky car”
- That more people paying attention to climate change and increasingly understanding the infrastructure changes and action that is needed
- That turning to permaculture and regenerative land management is one of the key things we can do around climate change
- That fostering interconnection and compassion can help people avoid getting sucked into a “game version” of life
- That “we have to offer a way for people to participate in reality, and feel themselves, and let them be heroes, to feel like we are doing something really great for the world, for each other, for our communities.”
We have tremendous needs to belong to something, to feel like we have agency, to feel like we can make an impact on the world, we can make a contribution to our community.
Welcome to What Could Possibly Go Right?, a project of the Post Carbon Institute. We interview cultural scouts people who see far and serve the common good, to help us all see more clearly and act more courageously in times of great upheaval. The question “What could possibly go right?” turns our attention from worrying; from incessant analysis in order to control a situation that seems out of control; powerlessness and wishful thinking. We want our guests to help us see through their eyes, what is actually possible now that our fixed world seems to be wobbling on its axis a bit. So we ask our cultural scouts to help us see more clearly. And today’s guest is Starhawk, who is an author and activist, a permaculture designer and teacher, and a prominent voice in the modern Earth-based spirituality and eco-feminism. She is the author or co-author of 13 books, including Spiral Dance: A Rebirth of the Ancient Religion of the Great Goddess, and the ecotopian novel The Fifth Sacred Thing and its sequel City of Refuge. Starhawk founded the Earth Activist Training, teaching permaculture design grounded in spirituality with a focus on activism. She’s a witch in the best sense. She’s intuitive, healing, community building, working with the cycles of the Earth and sticking up for life. I’ve been a fan of her for a long time through her book, The Fifth Sacred Thing, which describes a time somewhat like now when two worldviews are battling it out for dominance; an ecological worldview and a more consumerist, capitalist worldview. In this interview, I loved when she got into comparing polarized politics and puppy training. So I’m Vicki Robin, your host, sponsored by Post Carbon Institute. Here’s the interview with Starhawk.
Hi, and thank you Starhawk for joining me for What Could Possibly Go Right? where we ask cultural scouts to put on their headlamps, and shine a light on the murky path ahead and tell us what they see, to help us all see more clearly and act more courageously and serve the common good. As you say on your website: “I’m a witch, a real one, not a hoagie-nose wavy wand type, and I’ve been an activist all my life. I’m going to use every smidgen of power I have, practical and magical, to protect our democracy.” I love that about you, and many other things. I just wanted to mention, and you probably are bored with this, but I wanted to mention The Fifth Sacred Thing, because I am one of the many, many, many people who have read that book many times, as a way to really dive into the energies that are afoot in our world. I’m going to cry. You know, a part of it is building towards this separation of the worlds, this sort of commercial, aggressive, violent world and this ecological world, and not perfected beings or cardboard beings on either side; and they come to a great confrontation. It sort of feels like we’re in that, doesn’t it? Now I pitch you the question. So in this, what do you see? What could possibly go right?
Well, I’ve been thinking about this question. Yesterday, I got my first COVID vaccine shot and I kept thinking about this interview as I was going through it and saying, Well, you know, this is something that’s gone right, at least here in San Francisco where I am. And I want to acknowledge this is the place originally called Yolamu, the homeland of the Ramaytush Ohlone. It was just very well run and very easy. I’d signed up on the website, I got notified that there were appointments available for my priority range, I was able to make an appointment, go down there. The whole process between checking in and getting the shot, literally took about 10 minutes. Then you wait for 15 minutes to make sure you don’t have an allergic reaction. And they had lots of good staff and people to help you, and people were very friendly and helpful. I thought, you know, this is an example for people of what can go right when we do protect our democracy, when we do actually have a government that works for us.
There have been many times in my life where I’ve called myself an anarchist, not because I don’t want structure or governance, but out of that vision that’s in The Fifth Sacred Thing of smaller self-organizing communities based on mutual aid and personal responsibility. I think in an ideal world, that’s what I would see. But in the world we have, I feel like we very much need structure and effective government that actually works to help people. I’m very hopeful that we can have more of that now. I see so many things that have gone right. It’s easy to notice the things that have gone wrong, right? But, you know, if you think about what’s gone right this year, I have never seen people so politically engaged as they’ve been this year; so much involved in the political process, in working for candidates, in helping to fund candidates, in making calls and sending texts. One of my neighbors had a group called The Merry Texters that collectively, I think, sent out a million texts in the lead up to the November elections. I think one thing we’ve seen is that democracy is kind of like having a really old, creaky car. It’s got an engine that can work, if you maintain it, you know? You can’t just let it run without paying attention to it. You have to check the oil, you have to grease the wheels, you have to get just the right kind of gas in it. But when you do, it can work. And there are many ways we could improve that car, fix it up, maybe give it new brakes, maybe it needs a new transmission and whatever. But I think we’ve seen that, again, working with it is a whole lot better than crashing. So I think that is something that has gone right.
I also see one of the things that’s gone right and going right and could even go more right, is that people are finally paying attention to climate change. I mean, like everything in this country, it’s extremely polarized. So you have the climate deniers and all that, but the people who are on board with climate change are finally getting it, that we actually have to make major changes in our infrastructure, in our way of doing things, in order to contend with climate change. That’s a really important thing to go right, because it’s that basic understanding that is going to allow us to actually start to do those things. So for those of us who maybe consider ourselves activists, our job now is to figure out, how do we actually tell this story to the broader public? So that people understand that climate change is real, it’s imminent, it’s here, and there are things that we can do about it. And how do we develop the resources that we need, on every level, to do the things we need to do about it? So another thing that I see going right.
My day job, you could say, is teaching permaculture design and regenerative land management. My organization Earth Activist Training has run programs online this year, and we had to cancel our in-person training, but those have been really well-attended and well-received. It’s allowed us to reach and connect with many more people. We’re starting a whole new program in regenerative land management, because one of the key things we can do around climate change is shift the way we grow our food, shift the way we manage our lands, and employ nature’s way of taking carbon out of the atmosphere, which is using this amazing, fantastic, incredible technology called plants. They’ve been doing just that for hundreds of millions of years; taking carbon out, taking carbon dioxide, splitting it apart, mixing it with water, putting the carbon and the hydrogen from the water together and making carbohydrates. Those things we always are trying not to eat so many, but which are really the basic building blocks for everything. And sequestering some of that carbon in the soil, feeding a whole ecosystem of living beings in the soil, and that have their own metabolisms that have their own, say, their own jobs that they do and creating fertility and preventing disease and holding on to nutrients, holding on to soil preventing erosion, holding on to water repairing the water cycle. So I think what can go right is that as humans, we have the capacity, not just to destroy the Earth, but actually to do the things we need to do to heal and regenerate the earth. I’m very hopeful that we can go forward and do more of these things, and do them together.
Yeah, there’s so much in what you just said. One thing that you said is the role of activists now is not to bang on doors and bang on people’s heads to do the right thing, but to tell the story of what a world could be like, that would be pleasant to live in. And I think that your training in permaculture really is a description of that story. You talk about the rain and the sun and the soil and the work of organisms. And I know that story for me, when I tell myself that story, I feel like I’m part of something so beautiful, a little gap to trust, that permaculture will actually… a permaculture approach could actually hold the entire weight of my life, because there’s so much woven into technology.
The other thing I wanted to just say, I loved your image of an old, creaky car. Because I ended up somehow I lived in a communal group, and I ended up being the auto mechanic. I mean, just sort of sidled backwards into it, because nobody else was doing it. And I actually sort of love the smell of burning gas, I have to admit. I just love old engines where you can pop the hood, and you knew something about it. I sort of thought to describe democracy like an old car that you need to be in relationship with, that your part of the system that keeps it running. And that if people don’t want that, what we have is a technocracy, an autocracy. It’s sort of like self-driving cars. It’s like we’re being disabled, from participation. So I actually agree with what you’re saying.
The third thing I want to say, and this is sort of my question, is you mentioned in the issue of climate change that what we have to do now is overcome polarization. I think that is the sort of heart-wrenching, gnarly thing that we’re all up against. I don’t know anybody who doesn’t have somebody in their life, in their family, who went down the rabbit hole of QAnon or who’s an ultra-conservative or thinks that Biden stole the election. I think we’re, every one of us in our networks, is in the shock of that we can’t seem to re-enrol the people we know and love in reality. So based on you know, your witchy stuff, in your fiction stuff, in your nonfiction stuff, in your permaculture stuff; what ideas do you have about right now in our lives, how does that happen? How do we heal that enough to be able to heal our world?
Well, I think that one of the reasons people turn to something like QAnon is that reality isn’t satisfying. There was a book I read about why people become video gamers called Reality is Broken. I think a lot of people feel that. And it’s not just people who are struggling economically and financially. I mean, we saw those people that stormed the Capitol are middle class, upper middle class, what we would say are highly privileged people. But what we have lost as a culture is some kind of overarching story that gives meaning to people’s lives, and that calls them to interconnection, and compassion, and to be an agent of justice, and an agent of Earth repair and healing and regeneration. So I’m not saying offering that is going to necessarily transform somebody who’s deep in that rabbit hole. But it might be what we need to do in order to prevent more people from getting sucked down. If you think about something like QAnon, or even if you watch the storming of the Capitol, there’s an aspect in which you get the feeling people thought it was a great glorious game, like a giant multi player role playing game; you know, people taking selfies of themselves committing illegal acts and posting them all over Facebook and stuff. You’re kind of like, huh?
I remember hearing a story, I think it was on Wait, Wait, Don’t Tell Me, when they were laughing about it, months ago, about the bank robber who gets caught, because he took a selfie of himself robbing the bank and posting it. The whole Capitol thing was like that, right? But it had that aura of unreality. So many people are immersed in the game, the story. I mean, I’m a storyteller, and a writer, and I know how it is to be immersed in a tale you’re telling and the characters become real, and it becomes almost more real than life itself. We tend to think that’s a noble virtue when you’re writing a novel and not so noble when you’re playing a video game. I’m often not sure whether there’s all that much difference between the two. And the important thing is, we have to offer a way for people to participate in reality, and feel themselves, and let them be heroes, to feel like we are doing something really great for the world, for each other, for our communities. I think when we do that, we do get incredible, amazing things that people are capable of doing and things that are capable of happening.
Is that a hope? Or is that something that you see rising along with the rising participation in democracy? Is the game of democracy? Is that game, even though the people who supported Trump thought it was stolen, so they were in a terrible multiplayer online, Ragnar game or whatever? And in a way I’ve been and you’ve been part of the game called: We can win this if we have people who are blocked from voting, voting. So it actually has felt a little bit like a Democracy Super Bowl. So, yeah, I just wonder about this sort of game and story frame. Where you see the possibilities coming? I mean, is it in the Biden administration? Is it in the spectacle of the… Where do you see the possibilities for that, already present for an enticing other game?
Well, I think first, the Biden administration needs to provide real benefits for people, to do some things that really make people’s lives better. And fortunately, it seems like they are on track to do that, that they are moving forward to do that. I know, there are many things you could criticize Biden for and Kamala Harris. But they’ve only been in office less than three weeks, and he’s already done some really major good things. So, I’m a great believer of the political strategy I learned from dog training, where the current thinking and dog training is don’t base it on punishment and telling your dog how bad she is. But you praise your dog, whenever they sort of make a move. You tell your dog sit and they twitch their haunches and you praise them for that. You praise them every time they go in the direction you want them to go and gradually shape their behavior. So I think we can do that with our politicians as well, and reward them and praise them when they’re going in the direction we want them to be going in, even if they’re not 100% completely there yet.
The other thing I think we need is we need a movement. We need a movement that kind of understands we have to organize humans, not fantasy people who already are the way we think they should be, but humans the way they already are. And that means we have to kind of understand human needs. We obviously have physical needs, but we have tremendous needs for belonging, to belong to something, be part of something. And we also have tremendous needs to feel like we are seen, and we are valued. We also have some huge, tremendous needs, to feel like we have agency, feel like we can make an impact on the world, to feel like we can make a contribution to our community. All of those needs can be terribly perverted. I think part of the reason people do join something like QAnon, is they get a really strong sense of belonging, and nothing will make you feel more like you belong, than identifying a whole bunch of people who don’t belong. Right? Which is sort of, you could say, that’s the negative aspect of it.
But the positive aspect is, again, that feeling that you are part of something, that you are accountable to people, that people are there that will support you and have your back. I think people need to be seen and valued. And again, I think a lot of what is driving the right wing is this sense that people who you might say are actually extremely privileged, but have nurtured the sense of grievance that they’re not valued, and they’re not seen. And it’s a tricky one to figure out, how do we actually create a way people can be valued for their positive contributions, not for something extraneous, like the color of their skin, or their gender, and not at the expense of devaluing. Human value is not a zero sum game. If I’m a valuable, worthwhile person, doesn’t mean you can’t be too, right? It’s not a limited quality.
Finally, we need to find ways that people feel again like they’re making an impact. Again, I think it’s positive that so many people got involved in the political process, and did work at making an impact and I think had a sense afterwards that, yes, a lot of the work wasn’t terribly fulfilling while you were doing it. It’s nothing more frustrating than making political calls when 99% of the people hang up on you. But at the end, you kind of had a feeling of, Well, yes, we did something. We had an impact. I was part of something. And it was something good.
Yeah. I like to wind up with a sort of call to action, but I think you already did it, which is each one of us can go about our lives noticing when people who we may not agree with, catching people in doing something that’s headed towards the good, and praising them. It is something like, there’s another multiplayer game called praising, that offering recognition to the people that you connect with as appreciation for something they’re doing good. I think that actually is the other multiplayer game. The other image I had when you spoke, as I say, and it’s like that multiplayer game, I had the image of a potluck. You know, where it’s sort of life is more like a potluck. It’s where it’s not like a King’s table. It’s like a potluck, and everybody brings a dish. I have to say, my food was always the one that was left over, I always felt terrible. It was a big goal for me to have my potluck dish finished. But there is a recognition of that you brought something wonderful when you go home with the empty dish. So that I think is a call to action that actually has a lot of power. I do want to give you a chance in a minute, do you have something, where can people find you? Is there something coming up you’re really excited about? Just one minute on that.
Well, people can find me at my website starhawk.org. I have an ongoing magical activism course that meets approximately once a month that people can join in on, where we explore this intersection of spirit and politics and create ritual and do it together. You can also find me at EarthActivistTraining.org, that’s our permaculture program. We have a permaculture design course running now, but we’ll be doing one again in the fall. We have ongoing courses and everything from culinary magic to a longer term program we’re going to be starting at the end of March in regenerative land management, that begins with a six month online training that is sort of a deeper dive into permaculture for people who’ve already done a PDC. a permaculture design certificate, and want to deepen their knowledge in all the regenerative systems. So check them out. We’re gonna have a social permaculture course in the fall and many other wonderful things.
So great. Yeah, you’re definitely a good witch. So thank you so much for joining me for What Could Possibly Go Right?
Yeah, thank you, Vicki. And thanks for doing this. It’s the kind of inspiration I think people need at this time.
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