Tami Simon: You’re listening to Insights at the Edge. Today I speak with Starhawk. Starhawk is one of the most respected voices in modern Goddess religion and earth-based spirituality. She is a veteran of progressive movements and [is] deeply committed to bringing the techniques and creative power of spirituality to political activism. She travels internationally teaching magic, the tools of ritual, and the skills of activism. She is the author or co-author of 12 books, including The Earth Path: Grounding Your Spirit in the Rhythms of Nature, and the classics The Spiral Dance, and her novel, The Fifth Sacred Thing, which is now in development to become a feature film.

With Sounds True, Starhawk has released the audio programs Earth Magic: Sacred Rituals for Connecting to Nature’s Power, The Beginner’s Guide to Wicca, and a program called Wiccan Rituals and Blessings: Celebrating the Traditions of Earth-Based Spirituality.

In this episode of Insights at the Edge, Starhawk and I spoke about communicating with the natural world. We also talked about the principles of permaculture, and how we can apply them to organizational life. We spoke about the most important tenants of the Wiccan religion, and Starhawk suggested a full moon ritual we can try. And finally, I spoke with Starhawk about what she views as the most important leverage points to bring about effective change in the world. Here’s my conversation with Starhawk.

Starhawk, you’ve written and taught now for several decades on what could be called “earth-based spirituality.” And here at the beginning of our conversation, I’d love to know how you consider the earth, how you view the earth. What I mean by that is, some people think of the earth as a mother, some people think of the earth of actually an extension of their very being. How do you view the earth?

Starhawk: I guess I would say I view the earth as a being that we are all a part of. In the Yoruba tradition, my dear friend, priestess Luisah Teish, always says they talk about us all being cells in the body of God, or Goddess. That’s how I think of the earth, that we are all part of one living web of relationships that is Gaia, that is something with consciousness.

I think that’s, for me, where earth-based spirituality differs from something like the Gaia theory in science, where they’ll say the earth functions like a living organism, but won’t admit to any kind of consciousness or awareness. I believe that the earth is also a presence and awareness, a consciousness, in which all of us partake.

TS: And then what would you say are the basics—the cornerstones, if you will—of an earth-based spirituality? What are in the ingredients that just have to be there?

S: [Laughs] Well, I would say the most basic ingredient is some kind of practice that puts you in direct relationship with the earth, with the natural world. And that can be as simple as going outside in your own backyard, or in the vacant lot next door, or at the local park. It doesn’t have to be out in the pristine wilderness, although that’s wonderful when you can do that. But just spending some time, regularly, ideally each day, watching, looking, listening, observing, opening up and letting the earth and letting the natural things in the earth speak to you. That, to me, is really the core of any kind of practice that connects the earth.

There’s a lot of different elements. My own practice is Wicca, which goes back to the old witches of Western Europe, who were the ones who carried down the healing tradition that had survived when Christianity came in—the knowledge of the herbs and all the healing plants.

And they carried down something of the old sensibility, the old understanding of the powers and the energies that are inherent in the elements of earth and air and fire and water, in the wild, and in the animals, and in the birds and the insects. There are many different forms of earth-based spirituality that have different kinds of ceremonies and rituals and practices. I would say the core comes, again, from that connection, that relationship with the earth.

And then the second part that I think has to be there is some kind of relationship with community, some kind of connection with other people who you can join with to celebrate, to honor the elements, to engage in that practice of human relations, which is so important to all of us.

TS: It’s interesting that the two items that you’ve brought up here—being actually directly related to the natural world and then this phenomenon of community—those are two things I hear people talking about often that they really long for, that they don’t have as much of in their life as they want.

S: I think we live in a society that really actively discourages community. We’re taught from an early age to be in competition with others. We live in cities that are built on grids that, especially here in the United States, really don’t have natural gathering places—the village square or the village well, or even the village pub, and many other places where you meet people regularly.

We rarely walk anymore, and we’re all sitting in our little homes, isolated, with our computers and our screens, and trying to make some sort of semblance of community online or on Facebook or something. But I think it’s very, very true that, as human beings, we’re social animals, and we long for community, we need community, and we don’t thrive when we’re in isolation. To me, that’s one of the tragedies that we’re experiencing right now: how deeply isolated and unhappy some many people are.

TS: And what would you say to someone who’s listening right now, and says, “Yes, that’s me. I do feel isolated. I would like to have more community in my life.” What would you suggest to them?

S: I would say, think about what it is you care about, what you’re most passionate about. Whether that’s the environment, or whether that’s some art form, or whether you love singing, or whatever it is in your life that most gives you joy or that you most don’t want to see destroyed or harmed. And then go out and get involved with it. Get involved with groups that are working to protect what you care about. Get involved with people who get together to sing or to create or to do what it is you love doing. And that’s where you will find a community of people who share some of what you care about, some of you values, and some of what you most love.

TS: Now, I want to circle back for a moment to what you were describing as part of the real ground, if you will, of earth-based spirituality, which is listening and being in communication with the natural world. And I’m curious, what would you say to someone who says, “Well, when I sit outside in the park or the field or the parking lot, and I hear what I think is the earth speaking to me, or a tree speaking to me, I just think I’m talking to myself, really. Come on, this is just my imagination.”

S: Well, I would say imagination is the gateway. And imagination is a wonderful thing. It’s a thing that we want to foster. So we have a saying in magic: “Fake it until it gets real.” Don’t worry so much about whether it’s your imagination or whether you’re really—because a lot of learning to understand the communication is learning to develop empathy; Hearing the birds and starting to feel what might be the emotion in their song. What might be the mood that I’m picking up is what starts to actually open you up to what the real information they’re giving you.

So if you’re hearing the birds say, “Go out and blow up your town hall,” then by all means, [laughs] don’t do it, right? I always say the good thing about earth-based spirituality and being a polytheist is if you get a message like that, you’ve got somewhere to go for a second opinion.

TS: Aha!

S: So don’t ever let something you hear, like that, lead you into doing something that goes against some of your values or your morals. But do listen and let yourself, in a sense, suspend disbelief, and see what comes through. What I often find is that these messages, they probably always come through with some color of our personality. But oftentimes, things will come through that I didn’t expect. When there’s an element of surprise or when I hear something that [makes me] go, “Wow, that’s something I didn’t know.” Or if I did know it on some deep level, I had no access to it before. Then I know that the practice is really working for me.

TS: I’d love to hear a little bit more about some of your personal experiences of hearing communications from the natural world, and what you’ve heard that’s been really important to you.

S: I think one of the most important communications, when I think about it, is a few years back, we did a healing retreat for forest activists who had been working very hard to prevent logging of old-growth [forests] throughout Oregon. And a lot of them had suffered a lot of violence and just a lot of hardship. So we had a retreat and did some healing work together, and we went out to a beautiful, amazing old-growth forest.

And I remember sitting there and really feeling a lot of helplessness and despair about our efforts to save the earth. And at that moment, it was as if I could hear the trees talking to me, and what the trees said was, “There are great powers working with you for the healing of the earth. And when you open up, and when you set yourself toward that goal, then you evoke those powers. And we want to help you. We’re here. But we need to be asked, we need to be called in.”

And for me, that was tremendously firming. I go back to that again and again, because it’s easy to feel despair, and it’s easy to get discouraged. And it really helped me to just stop and remember, yes, it is hard, and oftentimes it seems like we’re fighting the same battles over and over and over again, but in the end, the earth is tremendously resilient and wants to heal, and wants us to play our part in that healing. So if we align ourselves with that intention, then we do have great, great powers to draw on.

TS: Now, I live in Boulder, Colorado, and one of the things that I’ve heard people say over the years, and I sort of always have this question mark in my mind when I hear it, is somebody will say something like, “Well, you know, the earth created these forest fires that have occurred, because the earth is angry is about what people are doing,” or, “The earth is doing this or that.”

And some part of me kind of rolls my eyes and thinks, “Really? Is that what’s going on? Or is this something that you’re projecting?” And I’m curious what you think about that, those kinds of situations.

S: Well, I think people can use any kind of spiritual awareness as a way of projecting our own thoughts or our own feelings. It’s important to remember the earth has an awareness or a consciousness that’s really different from ours. It doesn’t work in quite the same way.

So it’s not like the earth is like a big lady sitting there, up in the sky, or down in a hole, saying, “Oh, I don’t like you, I will smite you.” It does work in that if we make choices that create deep imbalances, like we have in so many of the forests, then we open ourselves up to conditions that are going to be tremendously destructive.

Like the kind of forest fires that we’ve seen in the last few decades, which are very, very different from the kind of forest fires that might have happened when the indigenous peoples on this land were continually burning, and managing the forests, and using fire as an ally, and listening to the messages about how to do that, and keeping the forest in a condition where they didn’t have huge fuel loads and big fuel ladders that draw the fire up into the crowns of the trees.

So in that sense, you could look at that and say, simplistically, “The earth is angry so she’s doing that,” is far too simplistic. But to say, “We have created conditions of imbalance, and we have a responsibility. And these fires are, in a way, a call to us to get our act together and start creating balance again.” That, I think, you can say.

TS: Now, I’ve heard you recommend to people that they become familiar with the names of the trees and plants and birds that live in their area and their neighborhood, on their property, and that this can actually be a useful way to further open up channels of communication with the natural world. And I’m wondering if you could talk a little bit about that.

S: Yes, I think all of that wonderful biology and stuff is very, very useful. Not just so you can go and rattle off all the different names of the trees, but in learning those names, it makes you really look at the trees. It makes you really look at the grasses, look at the birds, and observe them much more carefully, much more closely, and pay attention to them. You can give them all your own names if you’re going to look at them that carefully and that closely.

But learning what they are—if you’ve ever taken one of those [informational nature guide] keys and looked at a tree you didn’t know and followed it through, and it will ask you that series of questions: Does it have leaves, or does it have needles? Are the needles in bunches or are they arranged on a stem? Are the leaves alternate or opposite? All these things that you might never have thought to look at. In the process of finding that out, it becomes like a treasure hunt. And it makes you pay [attention] much, much more closely.

Also, when you do know something about the biology, and even something about things like the Latin names and genus and species, you start to understand more about the relationships and the evolutionary history of the things that you’re seeing. And you might say that’s all very left-brained and intellectual, but if you take that in, you integrate it, it can inform that more intuitive, direct encounter and direct sense of connection.

TS: I’m wondering if having that kind of familiarity has changed, deepened, your appreciation of beauty, of nature’s beauty.

S: For me, it does deepen my connection and my sense of its beauty. It’s all an enrichment to that immediate response of, “Wow, isn’t this gorgeous.” I can also go, “Wow, isn’t this gorgeous, and I can see that that’s a tan oak and that’s a madrone. And that’s a redwood.” It’s kind of like the difference between going to a party where you don’t know anybody and going to a party where you see old, dear friends, and maybe a few really intriguing strangers.

TS: Now, I’m curious to know about your interest in permaculture, and how that relates to developing one’s earth-based spirituality.

S: Well, permaculture is a system of earth-based design. It was started in Australia back in the 70s with two Australians, Bill Mollison and David Holmgren. But they managed to integrate into this system a lot of indigenous knowledge and practices, because they really started by saying, “What would it be like if we could grow our food in the way that a forest grows a forest? What would it be like, if instead of working against nature and trying to control nature and mold nature,

we actually stopped and observed and listened to nature and worked as part of nature working?”

So, permaculture now is a worldwide movement. Lots of different people have taken it many, many different directions. It has great tools and techniques for land use, and for food growing, and for organic gardening. But it also has implications for things like group processing, group dynamics for businesses and other kinds of enterprises, because all of them are systems.

And in some ways you could think of permaculture as applied systems theory. It, again, makes some of that shift from looking at things as separate, isolated objects and saying, not, “How do we design a garden with this pretty rose and that colored apple tree?” but, “How do we design a garden where every element in it is in relationship with every other element, so that those relationships provide benefits for everything that’s there?”

And when we do that, then we can actually do things like grow our food and provide for our needs in ways that instead of harming the environment actually enhance and help regenerate the environment around us.

TS: So could you help me understand how a business, let’s say, could learn from permaculture?

S: Yes! You know, one of the projects I’m involved in right now, actually, is making a movie out of my novel, The Fifth Sacred Thing. And we drew up a whole green plan for that production based on permaculture principles. And one of those principles, you could say, is that abundance springs from relationships. Not necessarily from amounts of stuff, but from relationships between people.

So looking at our green production, we’re saying, first of all, “OK, how do we eliminate waste? How do we recycle things like set construction elements?” In so much of movie-making, there’s tremendous amount of waste. Well, if we’re going to recycle and reuse them, we can also do that to build relationships. We could donate materials to Habitat for Humanity.

If we’re going to create sets—because The Fifth Sacred Thing is set in San Francisco of the future where all of the streets have been turned into gardens. So if we’re going to be creating garden sets for the movie, can we do it in a way in which they can remain as legacies in the city?

And to do that, we need to have relationships with departments in the city, with local community gardens, with organizations that are training at-risk youth in the inner city to do things like urban food production and gardening. And as we build those relationships, we also build a tremendous backlog of goodwill and PR for the movie for when it eventually comes out.

TS: So this was all based on the permaculture principle that abundance thrives when relationships are positive and healthy and thrive?

S: Yes. And it weaves in. Permaculture has a set of three ethics: care for the earth, care for people, and care for the future, which to me are also the core ethics of earth-based spirituality. And then it has many different principles that you try and apply in your design.

Another one of those principles is that waste is a resource. I think almost any business can look at that and go, “Hmm, where do we have a waste stream, and how could we turn that into a resource?”

I knew somebody who had a wonderful business producing worms and worm castings that they managed to locate right next to another business that was a coffee roasting—local coffee house and coffee-producing business. And so they could take the waste stream from the coffee grounds and use it to raise up their worms. And that thing that otherwise would have been a waste turns into a resource.

In San Francisco, the city is now running its buses on biodiesel that they make from the grease collected from restaurants that had been going into the landfill as kind of a toxic waste stream. And now it becomes a resource that can help us use less fossil fuels and produces less emissions than running them on regular diesel.

TS: Very good. Very helpful, I love it. Now, briefly, Starhawk, you mentioned Wicca, and that as a practitioner of Wicca, this is a form of earth-based spirituality where you’re [also] working with healing and herbs. And I’m curious to understand Paganism, the Wiccan tradition, and earth-based spirituality, and how these all fit together and the differences. Can you educate me on this?

S: Yes. You could say earth-based spirituality is the broadest category that includes everything from indigenous spirituality to probably millions and millions of people who might not identify with any particular spiritual tradition, who might even think of themselves as atheists, but who actually find their sense of renewal, their sense of personal regeneration comes when they’re out in nature.

And then Paganism is also a broad category. [There are] many, many different kinds of dreams and traditions that basically draw on pre-Christian, pre-Judaic elements, mostly from Western Europe and from the Middle East. But there are also many cultures in the other parts of the world—in Africa—that may or may not call themselves Pagan, but share a lot of the same different sensibilities.

And then Wicca is one particular kind of branch of Paganism. Within Wicca, there are also many other small traditions. So it’s kind of like—you could say you’ve got the monotheistic traditions. You’ve got Christianity as a broad category. Within that, you’ve got Catholicism and Protestantism. Within Protestantism, you’ve got the Baptists and the Methodists, and hundreds of [other] small sub-traditions.

TS: And how did you first become, I guess we could say, a witch, a member of the Wiccan world?

S: I got very interested in Wicca originally when I was a teenager. And when I was in first year of college at UCLA back in the early ’70s, a friend and I did a project on witches and we met some witches who told us, “Hey, this is not just about casting spells and riding around on a broom. This is actually the pre-Christian religion of Western Europe that worshipped a goddess and worshipped nature, and [it] has survived in hidden ways all down through the centuries.”

For me, that was a tremendously romantic idea I just loved. But it also—I don’t know, it felt right. It felt like it hit something in my core. So I began to learn about it, study about it, and then a few years later, the feminist movement revived itself, and I got very involved in that. And we started to look at the question of religion through a feminist lens, and saying, “How come there [are] all these male gods and male priests, male ministers? Where is there something for women? Where is there something about women? Where is there something that sees women as sacred?”

And at that point, I kind of went, “Well, there is this old religion of the Goddess,” and started studying and researching and discovering that there were lots of old religions of the Goddess. In fact, if you go far enough, there is, you could say, a Goddess layer beneath all of the world’s spiritualities.

Because, really, people have all started out from groups of people who were indigenous to somewhere, and who lived close to the earth because there was no other option. And people who lived close to the earth tend to experience the earth and to reverence in the earth and the forces that bring life into being. They might not all call it the Goddess, but they all share a similar sensibility of the importance of all of those forces that keep life in balance.

TS: As a world spiritual tradition, is the Wiccan—should I call it a religion? I mean, is it a religion, Starhawk? The Wiccan religion?

S: Yes, it’s a religion. No crazier than any other religion.

TS: Is the Wiccan religion growing, shrinking, kind of the same size over the last several decades?

S: It’s grown quite a lot over the last several decades. At one point, it was called one of the fastest-growing religions in the world. Of course, it’s starting from a much smaller base, so it doesn’t mean it’s as big as Christianity or a lot of other religions that have been openly proselytizing for years.

But I think one thing that actually helped us, ironically, has been the Internet. Before the Internet, it was very difficult to find other like-minded people safely. There is still a lot of stigma about being a witch or calling yourself a witch in many places, and people would be afraid to openly put out that they were interested in this. With the Internet, that became much, much easier to do. And so it’s allowed the tradition to grow and to become much more open and much more public.

TS: OK, so we talked about what the real cornerstones are of earth-based spirituality. But what about the Wiccan religion? Are there different guideposts or core compass ideas that are part of Wicca?

S: The Wiccan religion is really particularly a Goddess-focused religion. Many Wiccans also worship a god as well, or multiple goddesses, gods, Mysterious Ones of many genders. But the heart of it is, again, this sense that we are part of a living being, and that calling it the Goddess, to me, is a way—because assigning a single gender to a deity is always kind of a metaphor.

By calling it the Goddess, [it] means we honor the principles of life, of bringing life into the world, of the imminence of spirit embodied in the natural world, in the human world in nature and in culture. We’re not looking to get out of this world into some spirit realm somewhere outside. We’re really looking at how the sacred plays itself out in this world of everyday life.

TS: Now, a lot of religious traditions are finding themselves, here in the 21st century, needing to be quite innovative. We really need to change how we relate to this or that, and we want to use technology in a different kind of way. And I wonder, when it comes to a tradition that’s pre-Christian, like the Wiccan tradition, is there a sense that the Wiccan tradition needs to evolve in some kind of way to be relevant for our time? Or is it already encoded to be perfect for our time and nothing needs to change?

S: [Laughs] Well, one of our favorite chants goes, [chants] “She changes everything she touches, and everything she touches changes.” I would say we are definitely on the side of change. And in part, that’s because nobody in Wicca would claim to have an absolutely intact tradition that goes back thousands of years with no changes. So much of our tradition was lost or hidden or broken that we’re kind of forced to be creative and be inventive.

And in fact, that’s actually one of our deepest values. And one of the things I most love about our tradition is that our rituals and our ceremonies encourage so much creativity. My own particular branch is called Reclaiming. We’re a group that started in the ’70s with a lot of people who were drawn to Wicca, drawn to spirituality, drawn to the Goddess. Many of us came from activist backgrounds and with ideals of feminism and a non-hierarchical approach to organizing.

So when we do ritual, our rituals are very collaborative. They have a certain pattern where we’ll always start with a grounding meditation, we’ll create a circle, we’ll call in the elements of earth and air and fire and water and spirit, we’ll call in the Goddess and whatever other gods, Mysterious Ones, and goddesses we want to work with.

And oftentimes, in our rituals, each of those pieces will be done by somebody else. So it’s not just one person doing the whole thing. And it gives everybody a chance to step up and be priestess of the moment, to express something, to create an invocation, to create a psalm or a chant or a dance or homilies—whatever comes to you. And to me, that’s part of the beauty of the rituals, that they’re not always the same. There’s elements that remain constant, which gives us a grounding and gives them a form and a shape, but within that, there’s enormous room for creativity.

TS: Now, when you say you call into the circle the elements and then the goddesses or gods, what do you experience when you call in the goddesses and the gods? Do you actually have a sense that a consciousness is entering the circle?

S: Sometimes very powerfully so. In some sense, when we invoke or we call something in, what we’re doing is honoring them, expressing our gratitude, expressing our awareness and our appreciation of that aspect of life, and opening within ourselves the doorway that can open up to what those forces represent.

So if we’re calling in a goddess like Demeter—the goddess of agriculture, grain, of fertility, of abundance—we are opening up inside of ourselves that willingness to receive and to share and to give forth and to do what is necessary to create and to nurture abundance. So there’s a definite feeling tone to it.

And sometimes when we work in a deeper level of trance, we’ll do what we call “aspecting,” which is really kind of allowing your own personal consciousness to recede a little bit and allowing another consciousness to take over. When that happens, it can be very powerful and very amazing, and it can have lasting impact on you.

TS: I’m interested to know more about that. How do you go into a trance, first of all?

S: Practice. [Laughs]

TS: Is it through drumming? What are you doing?

S: Drumming and breathing and meditation and speaking trance, too. We have a form of trance we use a lot [that] we call “drum trance,” where someone is drumming and someone is speaking—kind of like a guided journey or a visualization. And that helps open the gates for another kind of awareness.

TS: Now, [in] the classic image of witches meeting in the woods—the moon is present, and the rituals related to the moon are very important. And I’m curious to know how the moon figures in your Wiccan life.

S: Well, the moon is the primary way that we see the Goddess, and we see the Goddess in the many aspects of the moon. The waxing moon is like the Maiden aspect, the young, the powers of newness and inspiration and beginnings. The full moon is like the Mother aspect of creating not just a physical mothering, but of mothering projects and mothering art and mothering change—that phase of life where you are really actively taking responsibility for so much. And then the waning moon is like the Crone, the older woman—the phase of life where you sort of move from actively doing and striving to more teaching and passing things on, where you find wisdom and you find, often, the deepest power.

So for us, they’re all ways we can see the Goddess. And also, in Wicca, every image of the Goddess, every image of the God that we use, they symbolize some kind of cycle of transformation. And the cycles of transformation always work both within us and without us. So the moon cycle that’s going on in the sky around us is also a cycle that moves within us in our human lives through the lifespan, but also can move within us [in the sense that], you know, every project that you do has a beginning, has a period of fulfillment, has a time of letting go and passing on.

TS: It seems that even for people who aren’t particularly interested in earth-based spirituality or Wicca, there’s something about the full moon that gets almost everybody’s attention. And I’m curious, what do you think would be a good ritual or a good way to make the most, if you will, out of the full moon, out of those times when the moon is full?

S: Well, what we like to do when the moon is full is gather together in a circle and think about what it is we’re trying to bring into fulfillment, and what we might be grateful for that has already come to fulfillment, and to pass around a cup of something to drink. In my circles, we use juice or water. We don’t use alcoholic drinks in ritual, but some circles use wine.

And [we] pour libations, just a few drops on the ground as a thank you, as an offering for the things we’re grateful for. And then [we] ask for the help that we need from the universe, from the Goddess, from one another, for the things we’re trying to bring to fruition.

And we’ll often put one person in the center—each person, one at a time—and give them the opportunity to speak their thanks and also their desires, and then sing and chant and pour some of our own energy into them to help bring about the fulfillment of what they’re working towards.

TS: Now, Starhawk, I know you’ve written a new book called The Empowerment Manual: A Guide for Collaborative Groups. And in this book, you help people who are working in groups to talk to each other more effectively. This is what I read about the new book: you help people with collective decision-making.

And I was very curious about that because as someone who works in a hierarchical culture, in a business culture, the idea of collective decision-making actually—I don’t know what it does, I would say, makes my hair stand up, or something. I can’t imagine that it works. And so I’m curious, how do you help people actually make decisions collectively?

S: Well, I would say—you’re reminding me of when I was in graduate school and I was working in a bunch of collectives. And I’d go in, and one of my professors—I’d talk about our difficulties, and she’d look at me and she’d say, “A group without a leader is like a body without a head.” [Laughs] “A person without a brain. It’ll never work.”

TS: That’s kind of, I think, what I’ve been, at least, incultured to believe. So I’m quite curious about this.

S: But I’ve been working in such groups for 40 years, and I have seen them—many times they do have their issues and their struggles, like any group, but I have also seen them work really well. And that was why I wrote The Empowerment Manual, to try and identify, what are some of the elements we need to have in place for those groups to work well and to work effectively? And what are some of the things that keep those groups—what are some of the special challenges the group faces when it doesn’t have a formal hierarchy, when it doesn’t have someone in charge or a boss you can go to?

And there’s actually, on my website, a whole section of the book on decision making called “The Five-Fold Path of Productive Meetings” that people can go to and download for free, if they’re interested in that aspect of it. It talks about things like, how do you run a meeting by consensus and make it work well?

For me, I think what’s important in a collaborative group is to understand that just because a group doesn’t have a formal hierarchy, it still has a structure, and it still will have differentials of power, but it may be a different kind of power than power over or the authority that someone has as a boss or a teacher or the CEO of a corporation.

There’s a kind of power that I call “power from within,” which is creative power, the power that we all feel when we’re writing or singing or working or coming up with new ideas. That kind of power is something I think we want to foster both in hierarchies and in collectives, because without it, everyone is very deeply disempowered and you don’t get exciting, creative things happening.

But there’s also a kind of power that I think is a little harder for people to see and understand, which is—I call it “social power” in the book—the power that one person has in a group of equals in terms of how much influence you have, how much your voice is listened to. That kind of power—I think there [are] always differentials in groups of humans. As much as we might want total equality, the truth is that some people gain more of that power because they earn it, and sometimes people gain that power without earning it.

When they have that power without earning it, we call that “privilege.” When someone has power just because they have the right skin color or they come from the right family or they come from the right class or have the right background or the right gender. And that kind of power, I think, we are [also] working hard to limit and do away with.

But earned social power is what indigenous cultures might call “eldership”—that kind of power you earn by contributing to the group, by taking on responsibilities and fulfilling [them].

TS: But Starhawk, the kind of obvious question, which is, you have a group and there are people who just disagree. They just disagree. How are we going to, in a time-effective way, get a decision out of this group?

S: When you’re working in a group that works with consensus and knows how to use consensus and does it well, you embrace disagreement. Disagreement and conflict in a group is a sign of its health. It’s a sign that people care about what they’re doing and that people have a wide range of ideas and opinions and feelings about how to do it.

And so what you do is you try to hear that range of opinions and feelings. You try to identify the ones that are so strong that they might block the group from going forward. If we’re talking about, we want to create a ritual and somebody wants to start a huge bonfire and maybe they’re from another part of the country and don’t realize how hot and dry it gets here in California in the summer. That might be a concern I would raise. I would just say, “No. No way are we going to do that at this time of year out here.”

But if somebody wants to light a candle, and maybe somebody wants a scented candle. Maybe somebody likes cinnamon. Maybe somebody likes lavender. Maybe somebody else is allergic to scents. We’d listen to all of that and we’d say, “All right, Janey over there is not going to be able to come to the rituals if we have a scented candle.” So we’ll eliminate that possibility. We’ve eliminated the bonfire. We’ve heard the whole range, but now we’re hearing candles, and maybe we’re also hearing that we use water for cleansing and transformation more than fire.

So you work it out. And if you do that in the right kind of spirit, with the right kind of respect, then everybody’s overwhelming needs and concerns get heard and get addressed. And they don’t become deep conflicts. And those other things that are more preferences or more creative ideas can get synthesized, they can get built upon, they can actually end up with something that might be different from what I might have thought and what you might have thought originally, but might actually be something a lot better.

TS: So do you believe that the business world could run effectively on consensus and collective decision-making?

S: I would say that in the business world, what’s most important is to have a form of decision-making that actually fits the real structure that you’re working with. If you have a real structure where somebody’s in charge, where somebody ultimately is calling the shots—if you have Sounds True where somebody decides, “We’re going to interview this person or not interview that person,” you might be more honest and more effective to have a form of decision-making that’s consultative rather than attempting to do consensus if, in the end, one person is going to be able to override it.

But I think the business world can definitely benefit from a lot of the aspects of consensus, which are, again, this process of listening to the full range of ideas, listening to the really strong concerns, and out of that, trying to synthesize a way to go forward—rather than one person comes in with one proposal, one person comes in with another, one person comes in with another, and we choose among them.

TS: Well, I’m happy that you were inspired to write something like The Empowerment Manual: A Guide for Collaborative Groups in that I sense that part of your inspiration had to do with helping activist groups and other groups that are really working to make changes in the world [to] become more effective at what they’re doing, so that we can really move forward the progressive agenda. And I’m curious if that’s true, if that was really part of your inspiration here.

S: That was exactly my inspiration. I could see so many groups I was working with or knew about—the full range, from spiritual groups to political activists to community groups to transition town groups to permaculture groups to intentional communities—all coming up against the same issues over and over again.

Diana Leafe Christian, who wrote one the key books about intentional communities, Creating a Life Together, she says 90 percent of intentional communities fail, and mostly because of conflict. So that’s a tremendous waste of resources, and it’s a tremendous legacy of heartbreak for people who set out with these beautiful, high ideals and then run into so much disappointment. If we can make that work better, [if] we can make our own groups work better, then we can be that much more effective in changing the world in all the ways that so many people are working so hard in order to do.

TS: Now, I just have two final questions for you, Starhawk. Here’s the first one: You have been working as an activist for several decades, and I know that you’ve studied very carefully what creates change on a global scale, and where the real leverage points are for this. And so what I’d like to know is, when you consider this analysis that you’ve been immersed in now for quite a while, where [are] the greatest leverage points for change?

S: You know, if I knew the answer to that, [laughs] if anyone knew the answer to that, we would be so much further along than we are now. But I think one of things about political activism is, in a sense, it is a mystery.

You can do the same things—look at the Occupy movement of last year. When that started, nobody would have imagined it was going to become what it became. I remember seeing the call-out, and thinking, “Oh, I’d love to go to that if I wasn’t already teaching a permaculture course right then.” But nobody thought it would be more than just a big demonstration at Wall Street that might last a couple days and then be over. And instead, it seemed to hit one of those chords, and suddenly there were Occupys everywhere.

You can’t know when one of those moments is necessarily going to strike. But what you can do is look at the things that you most passionately care about and say, “How can I put my best energies towards working for those things?”

You can also do strategy on a smaller level. Oftentimes what we’ll say is, we can look at a system. We’ll look at climate change and say, “All right, what are some of the key pillars of support that are pushing us into this irreversible destruction on the planet?” And we can identify them. We can say, “There’s the oil companies.” We could say, “There’s the coal. We could say, “There are the tar sands.” And then we could pick which of those are most strategic to look at.

We could look at something like the tar sands—and people have done this and are doing this, and there are people down there in Texas right now sitting in trees, blockading, trying to keep the pipeline from being built. And we’re saying, “OK, what are some of the things that allow the tar sands to go forward?” Well, they’re pushing to build these pipelines so that they can transport and export that oil. That’s the key pressure point. That’s one of the reasons why people have been so adamant opposing the Keystone Pipeline.

There [are] also people in Canada who are opposing their attempts to put one out through the West Coast, down in British Columbia, that would have an outlet in one of the most sensitive biological areas and tremendously treacherous navigational waters. If we can stop those pipelines, that’s going to ultimately have an impact on their ability to develop more and more of the tar sands, where James Hansen, the NASA climate scientist, has said [that] if we fully develop the tar sands, it’s basically game over for the planet.

You can look at those things strategically. You can do that left-brained strategy and analysis, which I think is tremendously important. And you can also look at the question intuitively, saying, “What’s my heart telling me right now that I most passionately care about? How do I devote my best energies to that thing?”

TS: And then just one final question, which is, our program is called Insights at the Edge, and I’m always curious to know what someone’s personal edge is. And what I mean by that is, what in your own life would you say is the sort of growing edge of your own inner development and expression? What would you say is your own edge right now?

S: That’s a great question. In permaculture, and actually in biology, we talk a lot about edges. Because edges are the places where two systems come together, and edges are often the most dynamic places. That can mean the most tension, but they can also be the most fertile, the most creative places. The edge where the ocean meets the shore has one of the most tremendous amounts of diversity of any biological system.

And I think that’s true for us as humans, that our growing edges are those places where the things we’re comfortable with meet the things we’re uncomfortable with. The things we know meet the things we don’t know. I’d say for me, my biggest growing edge right now is working to make a feature film out of my novel, The Fifth Sacred Thing. We’re really pushing to make—it’s the kind of story, because it’s really an epic struggle between Northern California in the future where they’ve achieved this eco-topian, peaceful society, which then gets invaded by Southern California, which has become much more fascist and militarist.

And a lot of it centers around the question of, how does a peaceful society defend itself against violence without becoming what it’s defending against? So it’s not like one of those small stories you could shoot in your backyard. It really cries out for special effects and crowd scenes and expensive stuff. So we’re really working to make a big feature film out of it.

And that for me is a huge edge, because it’s pushing me right up against—you know how you always get pushed up against the things you resisted? Those systems of big money and big power and big media and all of those things. Suddenly, it’s like I’m having to interact with them in a whole different way, and that’s definitely, for me, a place of challenge and a place of growth and a place of tremendous excitement.

TS: Well, I wish you all the best with that. Goddess speed. May it happen.

S: Thank you. Well, last summer we did a Kickstarter campaign to get the money to get to this point, and it was tremendously successful. We raised over $76,000 in three months, and for me, that was a big edge to put myself out there and ask people to support something on that level. And it was just tremendously gratifying how much support we did get, and I’m so grateful for that.

TS: And if you’re interested in knowing more about this film in development, you can check out thefifthsacredthing.com. Starhawk, thank you so much for being with us on Insights at the Edge.

S: Thank you.

TS: Starhawk has created, with Sounds True, a four-session audio series called Earth Magic: Sacred Rituals for Connecting to Nature’s Power, and also an audio program on Wiccan Rituals and Blessings and The Beginner’s Guide to Wicca.

SoundsTrue.com. Many voices, one journey. Thanks for listening.