Today on Rootstock Radio, we speak to award-winning author, activist and permaculture designer Starhawk. Starhawk is the author or co-author of twelve books, and a prominent leader in the revival of earth-based spirituality. She is a veteran of progressive movements and founder of the Earth Activist Training, a course that teaches permaculture design grounded in spirit, with a focus on organizing and activism.
Permaculture, Starhawk explains, is “a whole system of ecological design that says if we work the way nature works—if we really observe and understand how nature is doing things—we can meet our human needs while actually regenerating the environment around us.” This “art of designing beneficial relationships,” as permaculture has been called, opens up the conversation to include the idea of social permaculture as well as its ecological counterpart. Agriculture isn’t the only arena in which mutually beneficial relationships could improve our world, and awareness of this is reflected in Starhawk’s latest nonfiction book The Empowerment Manual: A Guide for Collaborative Groups which focuses on group dynamics, power, conflict and communications.
Interview with Starhawk
October 17, 2016
Welcome to Rootstock Radio. Join us as host Theresa Marquez talks to leaders from the Good Food movement about food, farming, and our global future. Rootstock Radio—propagating a healthy planet. Now, here’s host Theresa Marquez.
THERESA MARQUEZ: Hello, and welcome to Rootstock Radio. I’m Theresa Marquez, and I’m so honored today to be here, talking with an award-winning author and activist and permaculture designer, Starhawk. Starhawk is the author and co-author of twelve books, and a leader in the revival of earth-based spirituality. She is founder of a wonderful organization that I love the name of, EAT: Earth Activist Trainings, courses that teach permaculture design grounded in spirit and with a focus on organizing and activism. She’s a veteran of progressive movements. She’s deeply committed to bringing the techniques of creative powers of spirituality to activism and the Good Food movement. Welcome, Starhawk.
STARHAWK: Hi! Great to be on.
TM: So thanking you so much for taking the time to be with us today. And you know, I have to let the listeners know that Starhawk’s work is very deep and very broad, and this idea of an Earth Activist Training is just one of the many, many things that Starhawk has been involved in. But tell me about this one, Starhawk, the Earth Activist Training, EAT.
S: The Earth Activist Training came actually from a conversation I had with Penny Livingston-Stark, who’s a wonderful permaculture designer and teacher and actually was the teacher for the PDC (permaculture design course) that I took in 1997. And we were talking after the big blockade against the World Trade Organization in Seattle in 1999, and I was saying that there’s this whole new generation of activists, of young people that are just on fire with desire to change the world, but they don’t necessarily know what they want to change it into. And there’s also all these permaculturists and natural builders and people who have these great solutions, but somehow we aren’t getting the solutions implemented. There’s a political savvy that’s not happening. So what would it be like to bring these things together?
And Penny was very excited because she’s also been at the blockades. And we decided to do a PDC together, a permaculture design course that would have a grounding in spirit, which would also address people’s need for connection and for healing and for a way to address those big questions that motivate us in life, like what is it all about, and what is it for, and why are we here? Because both of us have a strong interest and commitment to that. But that would also be aimed at activists and also aimed at teaching some of the skills and understandings that activists have to people working in the permaculture world.
TM: You know, I want to make sure our listeners get a little bit of a deeper definition of permaculture. Maybe you could help us and enlighten us on what is permaculture?
S: Permaculture is a whole system of ecological design that says if we work the way nature works, if we really observe and understand how nature is doing things, we can meet our human needs while actually regenerating the environment around us. And it’s also a global movement. It was started, formulated, in the 1970s by Bill Mollison, who just recently passed away, and David Holmgren, when Bill was teaching at the University of Tasmania in ecological sciences and David was his student. And they were looking at these incredible old-growth rainforests, these amazing giant eucalyptus forests, and saying, you know, nobody comes out here and sprays these for bugs. Nobody comes out here and fertilizes the trees, and yet the forest maintains itself and it maintains its incredibly biologically productive system. So if we understood how that worked, would we be able to grow food in the same way? So instead of having to plow up the soil and degrade the environment and pour on chemical fertilizers, could we design food-growing systems that could actually sustain themselves in the way a forest does?
And since then, people have taken it into many, many different directions. I mean, permaculture draws a lot on indigenous knowledge and wisdom. It says, hey, we should be looking at the way people have done things on the land who have lived close to the land for generation upon generation, because that reflects thousands of years of their observation of the patterns of the landscape and the weather, the soil and the animals and the plants.
Permaculture also has expanded. Originally the thinking was “permanent agriculture,” but people have taken it and said well, actually, it’s more a “permanent culture.” Can we design beneficial relationships? Another wonderful teacher and designer who’s passed on [Patrick Whitefield], he defined permaculture as the art of designing beneficial relationships. And I’ve always loved that, and I think it really opens the door to social permaculture as well as food growing and plants and soil and all of those other aspects.
TM: You know, a couple of things really do stand out for me. Can you help me with the social permaculture? So it’s how we design how we work together?
S: Yes. So social permaculture is looking at the patterns of human interactions. And it draws a lot on psychology, on sociology, on group dynamics and theory, and many, many other of the social sciences. But it really has come about because I think a lot of us have noticed that when you’re trying to do a permaculture garden, dealing with the plants is the easy part. You put them in the ground and, you know, they’re quiet, they don’t argue with you. They might die if they don’t like you, but they do it quietly.
Dealing with the people is the difficult part. And yet, in order to build permaculture systems and in order to make the kind of changes we need to make in our world, we need to deal with the people. So I think the people interaction part, the relational part, is really the constraining factor in permaculture. It’s the one thing that holds us back more often than anything else—not the technological limitations or the ecological limitations, but how well we can actually get along and deal with the other people involved.
TM: Well, you’re singing my song right now, as someone who is deeply committed to the concept of cooperation and has actually worked for, in and out of cooperatives for thirty years. And some days I feel like I know something about cooperation, and other days I am confident I know almost nothing. And I so appreciate this analogy that you’re making between the way the earth is all one whole, connected thing, and the way that we also are part of that connection. I believe we have the solutions. I don’t believe we know how to work together.
And I’m very, very taken with the Empowerment Manual that you have—I want to call it a book, but it’s an online book as well as a hard-copy book—that I wanted to alert our listeners to. Can we have your website?
TM: That’s what I thought, starhawk.org, and I’ll remind all of you about that again. But I believe that The Empowerment Manual is on that website, starhawk.org.
S: You can order the book there. And there’s a free download called “The Five-Fold Path of Productive Meetings” that is a chapter I couldn’t fit into the book, and that’s available as a free download.
TM: And to just now back up and just talk a little bit about permaculture as a—you know, you called it a design that connects a lot of things. And I think that you also said something that really caught my attention about how if we can mimic nature, feeding ourselves will be solved. And I’m thinking, when you said that, goodness, what will the people who say, “Oh no, we need industrial agriculture to feed the world,” say about that?
S: Well, for one thing, industrial agriculture is failing to feed the world. Not even, again, because of the ecological or technical limitations—although they’re actually huge in industrial agriculture, much more so than in permaculture—but because of the political situation. The food that is produced doesn’t get to the people who need it; the people who have been living marginally are encouraged, instead of actually producing food for their own needs, to produce foods to be bought and sold on the global market, where they’re at the mercy of economic and political forces. So the reason we can’t feed the world is because of poverty and because of political systems, not because we can’t actually feed the world.
There’s also been a number of studies. The UN did a study that showed actually the most efficient way to truly feed the world is with small, sustainable, and intensively managed systems, like the old family farm or the communal farm, not with gigantic agribusiness. Also, gigantic agribusiness depends heavily on fossil fuels and uses more calories of fossil fuels than it actually produces in foods. So that’s completely not sustainable. It’s tremendously destructive to the soil, and it’s wasteful of the water resources. It’s not a system that can actually work and be sustained, especially in a world where we desperately need to get off fossil fuels. So there’s a lot of reasons, every reason in the world, to encourage organic, sustainable agriculture. And permaculture is one of the ways of designing the systems in which we can do that.
There’s also another overriding reason for that, and that is climate change. Climate change is progressing more rapidly than we imagined. We’re now over 400 parts per million of carbon in the atmosphere, whereas scientists have pretty much said 350 parts per million would be the safe limit. So we need to not only stop using fossil fuels, but we also need to find a way to draw that excess carbon out of the atmosphere.
And the best way to do that is the way nature has done it for 300 million years: using plants and using soil, taking it out of the atmosphere with plants that take in carbon dioxide and use it to create food and to build their bodies and to feed soil microorganisms and create humus, create soil organic carbon, and in doing that, restoring the health of our soil. You know, our soil has a huge carbon debt. We’ve lost an enormous amount of the soil organic carbon that would have been in the ground before agriculture, and especially before this last 150 years of industrial agriculture and the last 50 or so of chemical industrial agriculture. So, like the world soils are carbon starved, they’re carbon hungry.
And if we can find ways to pull back carbon out of the atmosphere and put it back into the soil, we’re not only helping to mitigate and draw back climate change, but we’re also doing wonderful things on every level. We’re increasing soil fertility; we’re increasing the vitality of the plants that we grow on them and their nutritional complexity; we’re increasing people’s livelihood; we’re increasing habitat; we’re increasing the soil’s water-holding capacity and resilience to things like floods and droughts and storms. So for me, that’s the exciting moment we’re in in permaculture, where we have tremendous solutions to these incredible crises that we’re facing in the world.
And the activist part of it is how do we get those solutions adopted? How do we stop the incredibly stupid things we’re doing and get people to understand there are solutions that are beneficial on every single level—except possibly one. And that is they don’t produce massive profits for the corporations who currently are benefiting from destroying the world.
TM: If you’re just joining us, you’re listening to Rootstock Radio. I’m Theresa Marquez, and I’m here today with award-winning author, activist, and permaculture designer Starhawk. Starhawk is author or co-author of twelve books, founder of Earth Activist Training, and a veteran of progressive movements.
I want to ask you, maybe for the sake of myself and of course our listeners, what are some of the principles of permaculture that actually allow that design to sink carbon or draw down carbon?
S: I think the basic understanding of permaculture, what I think is the overriding principle that underlies all the rest, is the understanding that everything is interconnected and everything is relational. We’re not looking at separate, isolated objects. We’re looking at how they come together, support each other, impact each other, and how we can design them into systems.
And for me, that understanding of interconnection is also the core of my spiritual understanding of the world. You know, for many years, before I got involved in permaculture, I was talking about reconnecting to the ancient earth-based spiritual traditions that come from Europe and the Middle East as well as all the indigenous traditions that we still have around us today. And the core understanding of those spiritual traditions is everything is interconnected, everything is interwoven, everything is relational. The Native American Lakota say, “A’ho, mitakuye oyasin”—“All my relations.” That’s the core view of the world that I think actually human beings have held since the beginning of time. And our modern Western view of isolation and fragmentation is kind of an aberration, and a very small blip on the timeline of human history.
TM: Yeah, I can see that that connection then, moving it from permaculture to the way the human family works together. And I know you’re deeply involved in trying to figure out not just what good food is but how we all work together to create change and solutions. How are you using this idea of collaboration to help solve some, or bring some of these solutions forward? I’m hoping with all my heart you’re going to give me some kind of magic that I can incorporate into my life so that I can figure out how to do it better!
S: Well, I wish I had a magic wand I could wave and make everybody behave! But unfortunately I don’t think that exists. But I think everything that we do, you know, there are very few things we can do all by ourselves. When you’ve got somebody else involved, then you’re going to have different ideas, different opinions, maybe different needs at different times, different ways of working or styles of working. And those differences can create conflicts.
We also come into groups with a lot of baggage from our lives—a lot of history, patterns that we’ve developed or that come from our family pattern of how we relate and how we attempt to control the situation when we’re feeling disturbed or threatened. And those patterns don’t always make for very effective relationships or for very effective ways to resolve those differences or make decisions in spite of those conflicting need goals.
So Diana Leafe Christian, who wrote Creating a Life Together, the book on intentional communities, she says 90 percent of intentional communities fail, which is tragic, largely because of conflict. So I think if we’re going to learn to work together well, first of all we have to learn to actually embrace conflict, not fear it. We understand that conflict can be healthy. You know, there are ways of doing conflict that are obviously terrifically destructive, but we can also learn to do conflict in the ways that are respectful.
And if we can do that in ways where people can strongly advocate for their ideas but not devolve into personal attacks, we can understand a lot of times our conflicts are not good versus evil; they’re actually good versus good. They’re where, when we have two conflicting values that we actually may both hold, but need to be in some kind of balance or relationship with each other. For example, a lot of times we have a value of obtaining a yield—that’s one of the permaculture principles of making things sustainable, of doing the work and getting back something for it. So if you’re organizing a permaculture class or teaching a course, you want to be able to pay the teacher; you can pay the organizers and pay the venue, you can pay the clerk. But at the same time we have a value that says we want all this to be accessible, we don’t want money to be a barrier for people taking courses. And it’s not always easy to juggle those two values and say, all right, how do we find a balance in this course that we’re going to offer next week and make it both accessible and also sustainable? But if we, you know, if we can understand that we, maybe you and I are on different sides of that, but we can respect each other. And I can say, “All right, you’re arguing for sustainable, and I also hold that goal. And I’m arguing for accessible, and you also hold that goal. So how do we work together to find a balance?”
TM: Well, it sounds to me that you’ve had just a lot of practice in this. Reframing conflict—I like that a lot. And you know, why aren’t we learning this in school? I’m wondering, how can we—you know, this sounds so much like common sense to me, and it seems so practical. But I’m wondering, should we be rethinking the way what happens in elementary school, with, you know, the kinds of priorities that… You know, how can we activists, even now older or younger, start learning more of this?
I was really taken with your idea of this decentralized collaboration, this idea of hierarchy versus collaboration, and your idea of egalitarian collaboration. Maybe you could expand a little bit on that.
S: Yes. I mean, first of all, yes, absolutely, we should be learning this in school. It seems like a much more core skill even than reading or writing, and certainly a much more core skill than something like algebra, which I did well in in junior high and can’t remember anything of now. And there actually are some schools, and there are some experiments. I’m actually staying with friends right now in LA whose children go to a charter school that’s very much focused on how do we build cooperation with the kids, and how do we teach kids to care for each other and to work together? And it’s really beautiful. I visited them one time. They have a morning each week where parents can come, and they start with singing and they start with a general assembly, and some wonderful things happening in a public school.
But unfortunately, most of our schools have gone in this route that’s imposed by our federal policies around testing, where it’s all about testing and it’s all about these concrete things we can figure out how to measure and rate and compare, instead of understanding that learning is something more intangible. And the spirit and the creativity involved in it, the excitement about it, are not something we can measure on a test. And when you do impose all of those tests, actually what you do is you drive the creativity and the cooperation and the spirit out of the system.
I’ve been working in various kinds of collaborative groups for many, many decades myself, from permaculture groups to political groups to feminist groups to spiritual groups to living collectives. And one of the things I talk about in The Empowerment Manual is that groups that organize without top-down authority are very different and have different needs than groups that are structured as a hierarchy. We’re all familiar with hierarchies. We grow up in them, our schools are hierarchies, our businesses and offices and military and corporations are all hierarchies. Our families are hierarchies. And you know, in a family, you get in a fight with your brother, and Mom can come in and say, “Hey, you two, stop it!” and tell you, “Now stop hitting your brother! Go to your room!” But when you have a collaborative group where everybody’s an equal and there’s no authority, there’s no mom to come in and say, “Hey, you two, stop fighting—go to your room,” we need to have other tools and other structures for dealing with conflict.
So we often, the pattern in a group is that, you know, a conflict erupts and everybody’s trying to deal with it with the patterns they learned in hierarchies, and there is no mom, there is no dad to come in and lay down the law. And so the conflict just circulates around and around and around, and reverberates, and too often blows the group apart.
TM: We’re kind of running out of time right now, but I do want to say that I think what I heard was something that I hadn’t really thought about. I dove into this wanting to hear it, learned a lot about permaculture and what you were doing with permaculture. And I think what we ended up saying was, yup, there’s permaculture, but then there’s people, and human people. And that maybe we all want to care for the land and for the earth, but then maybe we have to care for ourselves first, and maybe we have to care about the way we work together first, before we’re able to actually tackle permaculture and real change in the Good Food movement.
TM: And how do we cooperate? How do we get to a place of very effective collaboration? And I think that there’s plenty that we could learn from you, Starhawk, so I really appreciate that.
S: Thank you.
TM: So thank you for those messages. It’s been just super talking with you. And thank you for all the great work you’re doing.
S: Oh, thank you. It’s really been great talking with you.
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