Award-winning author, activist and permaculture designer Starhawk has written and co-authored a total of twelve books and is a prominent leader in the revival of earth-based spirituality. She created the Earth Activist Training, a course that teaches permaculture design grounded in spirit with a focus on organizing and activism. Starhawk is also a veteran of progressive movements and is deeply committed to bringing the techniques and creative power of spirituality to political activism.
This is also the second time Starhawk has graced Rootstock Radio with her visionary insights. If you didn’t catch her episode last year you can listen here—not one to miss!
The term “regenerative agriculture” is being thrown around a lot these days, and Starhawk helps shed some light on what, exactly, people mean when they talk about regenerative agriculture. “I think it includes permaculture, it includes agroecology.” She also appreciates it as a hopeful term explaining “it’s not just sustainability—sustainability is important—but it’s kind of like if we sustain what we’ve got now we’re already in a place where that’s not really so great. Whereas regenerative implies we can actually do better. We can actually heal some of these damaged ecosystems. We can actually bring toxic land back to life and do it in a way that provides for human beings.”
Through the lens of social activism Starhawk also addresses the feelings of anger that have come up for many people across progressive movements—like the good food movement—in response to the most recent U.S. presidential election. Starhawk sees anger not as a solely negative emotion, but as also having incredibly healing powers. She encourages “harvesting” anger—channeling that energy into activism instead of ugliness.
Notably, Starhawk doesn’t disparage differing opinions. In fact she often teaches that “consensus means you get your say, not you get your way.”
Transcript: Rootstock Radio Interview with Starhawk
Air date: October 16, 2017
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 it is my honor and privilege here to be interviewing Starhawk. Starhawk is an author and co-author of 12 books. She is one of the most prominent leaders in the revival of earth-based spirituality; she’s a founder of Earth Activist Trainings; she is a teacher of permaculture design and is a veteran of many, many progressive movements. And so, Starhawk, welcome.
STARHAWK: It’s great to be back on again.
TM: I have to ask, tell me about this past year. What’s it been like for you? Has your activism been impacted by this most unusual time in our history where we have a narcissist for president?
S: I mean, it has been a challenging year, I think, for all of us. Just maintaining our emotional equilibrium, or trying to reestablish it, has been kind of a challenge, I think, this year. For those of us who are really aware of things like climate change and the tremendous crises that we face on every level, it was so imperative that we actually start to move forward on these things. And electing somebody who is determined to push us backwards is honestly the last thing that we needed. But hopefully we can turn this into a good wake-up call. And I think the positive side is that a lot of people have gotten active, have gotten aware, have gotten outraged. And hopefully we’ll also find the ways to get active in creating the alternatives and building the alternatives.
TM: Well, you are reminding me that you yourself have probably been involved in every kind of form of activism possible. I am excited about the idea that there are so many forms of activism that we older folks could be involved in. What I fear now, and I’m wondering whether you’ve thought about this too, is we have all these different, beautiful things that are actually popping up in the middle of craziness and yet they don’t seem to be linked. Do you think that we should be being more aggressive at trying to figure out how to link all these good things that are happening around us?
S: One of the things… I’ve been working with a group through the International Permaculture Convergences over the last few years, and we are trying to put together kind of a hub where people can find… You know, the permaculture world and the agroecology world have tremendous ways of mitigating climate change, and really important approaches. Fortunately, those things are getting a hearing more now, but I think we can have places where people could go. Say you’re a policy maker in a small town, or maybe you’re a high school teacher and you want to talk to your class about what you can do. To be able to go somewhere and say, “Oh, here’s a whole range of ways that we can regenerate damaged ecosystems.” And, yeah, I think we could be a lot more proactive in doing that.
TM: Well, and you’ve probably been reading about, there’s a movement afoot called regenerative agriculture, and I wondered if you have been paying much attention to that. And do you see that as a potential way that more and more people can be linking their activism around food and agriculture?
S: Yes, I think so, because permaculture is wonderful and I love it, and as a word, it often doesn’t resonate to people—they don’t really know what you’re talking about. Whereas when you say regenerative agriculture, it creates an image in your mind. And I think it includes permaculture, it includes agroecology, it includes a lot of things that might or might not identify specifically as, “Oh, I’m permaculture,” but actually are on the same page.
And also I think it’s a hopeful term. It’s not just sustainability. Sustainability is important, but it’s kind of like, if we sustain what we’ve got now, we’re already in a place where that’s not really so great. Whereas regenerative implies, like, you know what, we can actually do better. We can actually heal some of these damaged ecosystems. We can actually bring toxic land back to life and do it in a way that actually provides for our human needs.
TM: You know, I was really taken by, I was reading your “Starhawk and Julia Davenport,” Monday, 17th of July, 2017—it looks like it was an article, I guess, that the two of you wrote together? And I was really taken with a quote that someone talked about “healing is not curing.” It’s a process that makes you more than what you are—that’s healing. Is part of this whole permaculture activism, is there some healing that you feel like is part of that whole regenerative model?
S: Many years ago, when we were working with people who were in the midst of the AIDS epidemic… And I think healing is a tremendously important thing that we need to do, both on the earth healing level… You know, if you look at climate change, it’s not just carbon in the atmosphere; it is the result, it’s a way of showing us that we are dealing with massively damaged ecosystems on a global scale. And in order to deal with it we have to do more than not just pump carbon in the atmosphere, though we have to do that—but we have to figure out how we can heal and restore and regenerate ecosystems on a global scale. And that means also regenerating the human ecosystems, healing the trauma—the incredible trauma people have been going through in the Caribbean; the incredible trauma in Southeast Asia, where 42 million people have been displaced because of massive flooding with unprecedented monsoons; the droughts in North Africa—all of these things that we’re seeing create emotional trauma as well as physical trauma. And I think we have to learn how to deal with it on every level, because if we don’t, then that emotional trauma leads to the creation of further trauma later on.
TM: So, really what you’re saying is that it’s just something that we keep ignoring. I see a lot of people carrying some bitterness. I think that’s part of the healing process is to let that go so that we can stay focused on the things that really matter. I think that might be what I think I’m hearing you say about how important healing is to just help us move on.
S: Yeah, I mean, I think when you’re talking about trauma and healing, we have to be willing to hold people as they go through the anger and go through the rage and go through the grief that comes up with any loss and any trauma. And to do that, it’s often a matter of really listening and being there and not necessarily having to respond or having to answer back or having to fix the problem, but actually being able to just be there as a witness and hold that energy and allow someone to go through that process without judging. And when you do that, grief and loss and even rage and anger, they have a cycle of their own. They have a cycle that takes you through, often, to a place of acceptance and deepened understanding and deepened compassion. But you can’t get there by telling people like, “Oh, don’t be angry!” We have to experience that anger.
Anger can be a tremendously healing force. I think it’s one thing that women came to realize in the feminist movement, like, we have to get in touch with our anger. And part of our repression has been saying, like, “Oh, don’t get angry, don’t be an angry woman. Don’t be an angry person of color.” When you’re on the other side of that, when you’re receiving someone’s anger, sometimes one of the most healing and compassionate things you can do is to simply be able to not personalize it, but understand you’re receiving the force of something that’s bigger than you are and that really isn’t something you have to fix or can fix, or respond to, or defend yourself against, but to be able to just be there in a place of witness.
Anger is life force. It arises when we need to mobilize enormous energy because we’re under assault, or under attack, or we’re in danger. And if we honor it, then I think it can function as a life force. And when we try to repress it and we try to judge it, it often turns inward or it often turns sideways or it often gets expressed and reflected onto places and targets that it’s not really about.
Now, having said that, you also want to—you know, it’s like a fire that rages through, and you don’t want to keep stoking it either. You want to give it it’s due, let it pass, and let it transform, because if you continually stoke it over and over again and reinforce it and go over and over in your mind all the reasons and all the things you’re angry about, then you can really get stuck in it, and it no longer becomes a healing force, but it can become a tremendously draining force.
TM: If you’re just joining us, you’re listening to Rootstock Radio. I’m Theresa Marquez, and I’m here today with awarding-winning author, activist, permaculture designer Starhawk—the author or co-author of 12 books, founder of Earth Activist Trainings, and a veteran of progressive movements.
What a beautifully stated discussion on anger and how anger is a life force. Anger is like a fire, it needs to rage and sort of be dealt with—just beautifully stated. This honoring anger is a very timely topic because I know that after the election I was very angry, and I had a very hard time dealing with that and I’m sure other people did. And I know one of the things that you said, that collaboration and cooperation is about winning and losing.
S: Yeah, sometimes I think people think if we’re going to work with consensus or I’m going to have my voice in this, they assume it means I’m going to get my way in this. And I always tell people when I’m training, “Consensus means you get your say—it doesn’t mean you get your way.” And when we’re collaborating, a lot of it is about learning to listen—not just learning to express our opinions or our ideas but learning to really value other people’s ideas and opinions, learning to listen and being willing to adjust our vision or our idea to try to incorporate and encompass other people’s as well. I think when that’s done well it enriches the whole project for everyone. When it’s not done well, it gets embroiled in conflict or it waters down vision and becomes detrimental.
TM: You know, I’m thinking of just a little bit of my very limited Buddhist readings about whenever we express something negative like anger and we direct it towards someone, that we’re putting bad energy into the world and that anger multiplies. So how would you say that we can be angry and still not put bad things into the environment and to each other?
S: I mean, I don’t think of anger, per se, as bad energy. I think it’s like fire—you want to treat it like fire, which means it’s a matter of how you put it into the world. So you might use that fire, that anger, to energize your creativity. You might use it to energize your activism. You’ve got to say, “Well what am I going to cook with it?” Right? But if you just let it loose, you also want that anger to be like the fire that burns down the house or the wildfire that rages out of control.
TM: Well, you know, this idea that consensus is about listening but it isn’t always about getting your way, I think democracy is like that, isn’t it? It’s like what happens when you don’t get your way in a democracy?
S: I think a mature person recognizes that you don’t get your way all the time in life, and that life isn’t about you getting your way. Oftentimes it’s about the community moving forward. And I think someone who exercises responsible, respectful leadership in a group is always looking at what is this going to do for the group? Is this going to contribute to the work we’re doing? Is this going to contribute to the world in some way? Is it more important for me to win this argument or is it more important for the group to actually feel ownership in this project and other people to have a voice in this project? And if you’re thinking about that, then I think it’s often easier to let go, to realize, okay, I might be really attached to this, but maybe actually I’m more attached to this group working together harmoniously, and to this young person who’s never had a chance to have their vision realized to have a piece of that realized, than I am to seeing my own particular idea put into place this time.
TM: You know, I’m thinking about our last interview, and we were talking about food and agriculture. And I’m thinking right now maybe some of my listeners are going, “Hey, I think this a food and ag program—what’s going on here?” But part of the reasons I really wanted to come back and talk with you again is because of something that you said that really stuck with me. And that is, we have all these things that we know what to do with permaculture, with the growing of food, with the distribution of food even, with food and farming—we have so many solutions, and yet 90 percent of the kind of collaborations that people put together, especially in the permaculture realm, don’t succeed because we have such a hard time working together. And you were just talking about ownership and the idea of ownership. How do you see ways that we can change the way that we think about ownership so that we can actually stop thinking about, “What do I own? What’s for me?” but what is the good for the whole?
S: Well, it’s interesting, because I think ownership, in terms of ownership of land, is a concept that actually has changed very much over the last few hundred years. There was a time when ownership of a piece of land didn’t mean, “I can do anything I want with this.” It meant, “Here’s a bundle of rights or responsibilities. And maybe I’m the lord of the castle, but that doesn’t mean I can do anything I want with this forest, because the peasants have a traditional right to graze their pigs on the acorns in the fall, and to gather firewood.” And there’s a whole bundle of these things that I have to take into account that have developed over centuries.
And it was really the destruction of that view, the turning of land into a commodity with the enclosure of the commons, that went along with the assault in Europe on the old indigenous understandings of the Earth and the healing traditions and the customs, through the witch persecutions in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, and through the conquest of the Americas, where suddenly there was this idea that we have the right to ownership from Europe because these people aren’t doing anything with the land, or because these people are savages, or because they’re not Christians. It’s actually, I think we could make a powerful effort to reclaim the commons, to reclaim the sense that, again, there are things that can’t be owned individually because they belong to all of us, or because they are so key to life.
In the Fifth Sacred Thing, in my novel, there’s a declaration of the Four Sacred Things. And it says, air, fire, water, earth—these are the things that sustain life so they can’t be owned and controlled. They belong to everybody or they belong to themselves. And I think that’s a very different way of looking at the world. I think that’s what we’re hearing from indigenous people.
One of the ways I dealt with Trump’s election was to go to Standing Rock in November, and it was a very powerful experience to be there. I was only able to be there for a short time, but I felt so privileged to be able to be there and experience what it was like to walk into a space that was so strongly held as indigenous space. And to hear the elders and everyone say again, over and over again, “Water is sacred. Water is life.” Well, what does it mean if something’s sacred? It means that it has a value that overrides somebody else’s self-interest or profit, that it’s something we don’t want to see spoiled in any way. And I think that’s a very powerful counter to this, what I think is a very toxic idea, that ownership means total control with no sense of responsibility to anybody else.
TM: Well, that is a very excellent discussion on ownership. I also am thinking about this essay where you talk a lot about hierarchy. And I think that—is there something about hierarchies and ownership that kind of feeds each other in the wrong way?
S: Yeah, I mean, I think there is a concept of hierarchy that says some people are of value, and other people are just kind of filler in the world. You know, some people are the people who really count, and everybody else is just like an extra. And that is a concept that underlies racism, underlies sexism, underlies class divisions, so many different kinds of divisions, because it implies that some people have value and other people don’t. It’s a very convenient idea if you want to exploit those other people and profit from them, or you want to justify inequality or justify why you’ve got all the money and somebody else doesn’t. But I think it’s a very destructive idea.
I think that we need to really counter it with a deep sense of the sacred in the sense of saying every human being on the planet is of value. That begins with valuing ourselves, not in a selfish way, but really valuing that each one of us has unique gifts and unique things to contribute, and that we are here to contribute to the whole—we have something to offer, we have something to give. And it means valuing others. Again, if you value other people, then you’re going to listen to them, because you understand that they might have a perspective or they might teach you something that you don’t already know. It means valuing people who might look different or come from a different place or have a different gender or have a different lifestyle. And again, understanding that in a natural system, diversity creates resilience, creates a broader way of responding to crisis. So if we can embrace that kind of diversity, it actually makes our human systems more resilient as well.
TM: Well, resiliency is something we’d better get used to having as we look at the kind of changes that we’re seeing in our Earth right now. And so that idea that “diversity creates resilience”—I’m going to quote you on that one, I think, in the future.
For our listeners, Starhawk.org is the website if you want to dive into some of the 12 books that Starhawk has been involved in writing and also all the other wonderful things, the Earth Activist training—it’s a very excellent source of so much wonderful and creative and visionary work that Starhawk’s been involved in. Starhawk, do you have some permaculture trainings or Earth Activist trainings coming up that maybe our listeners would like to know about?
S: We do. We have a lot of exciting things. In November I’m going to India to be part of the International Permaculture Convergence, and there’s a training beforehand that people can take. If you haven’t done a permaculture design course, it’s a great opportunity to do one in an international setting. We’re also doing social permaculture trainings and a Sacred Earth Apprenticeship. So people can find them all at EarthActivistTraining.org or you can go to my website, Starhawk.org, and find the whole schedule. It’s also—I want to let people know that my sequel to The Fifth Sacred Thing, City of Refuge, is out and you can find that on my website. And The Fifth Sacred Thing is an audio book as well.
TM: And what a wonderful book. I keep going back to it over and over again, and I just love the challenges that you brought up in that Fifth Sacred Thing.
So we’ve got EarthActivistTraining.org, Starhawk.org, and I am so giving you the vote of food and farm activist, because you are a terrific model. And then I also want to plant this to all of our listeners, and that is, maybe we need a movement called “Reclaim the Commons.” Let’s all try to connect the dots of the things that are values, the things that we’re doing that reflect our values and really make a difference in this crazy time of separation and control and domination and non-collaboration. It’s really a time for, I think, collaborators and those of us who have these deep values about what ownership means and reclaiming the commons can get together. So…
S: Well, thank you so much. And I think that it’s tremendously exciting and hopeful to me to see how many people are involved in the food-growing movement and permaculture, in ways of regenerating the ecosystems, including the human ecosystems. And when we do that, I think we have tremendous allies, both with each other and also with the forces of the Earth, from the microorganisms to the fungi to the deep spiritual forces. And I’m very, very hopeful that we’re going to come out of this time more resilient and stronger.
TM: Thank you so much.
S: Thank you.
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