The profile below is part of the Ms. Blog’s “Telling Her Story” series for Women’s History Month. Check back throughout March for more profiles of women doing great things in their communities.
At a time when the threat of climate change is looming large, it’s easy to succumb to despair. But activists like pagan author and ecofeminist Starhawk are finding ways to bring communities together, build coalitions and envision a brighter future.
“It’s important that we do allow ourselves to hope,” she says.
In her most recent book, Starhawk has given readers a reason to hope. The novel, City of Refuge, is about a future society built on egalitarianism and environmentalism that uses nonviolent principles to defend itself against violent invasion. It’s a sequel to her 1993 book, The Fifth Sacred Thing, which drew praise for its vision of a sustainable future after environmental collapse.
Starhawk’s former publisher, Bantam, passed on the new novel on the grounds that too much time had passed since The Fifth Sacred Thing and that there was no longer an audience for a sequel. Undaunted, she turned to Kickstarter, raising $79,090 from 1,481 backers last August, and the book was published several months later. It’s now available through Amazon.
If the message of The Fifth Sacred Thing was how to successfully resist violence without becoming the thing you fear, City of Refuge is about how to build a new world when people are painfully wounded by the old one, she explains.
In The Fifth Sacred Thing, civilization has collapsed after environmental catastrophe. Those in the northern part of California, now called Califia, have used their knowledge and principles to ensure that all residents have abundant water and food, providing work, free education and supportive social structures. Southern California, however, has degenerated into a totalitarian state focused on warfare at the expense of human rights. When the army of the Southlands comes to take over Califia, it is defeated when the people invite the soldiers to join them instead of fighting, saying, “There is a place set for you at our table, if you will choose to join us.”
Though it appears that the threat from the Southlands is vanquished, main characters Bird and Madrone know it is only a matter of time before war comes to Califia again. That’s where City of Refuge picks up: The two characters take the fight to the South, this time using all tools available, including magic, persuasion, activism and warfare, to try to show the people there is another way to live.
“There is a deep breakdown in the systems that we have,” she says. “We are encouraged to blame this group or that group for our problems. We need to provide other answers.”
City of Refuge offers some of those answers, and Starhawk has been sharing wisdom for decades, beginning with her first book, The Spiral Dance, published in 1979. The book helped galvanize the rise of modern paganism—an umbrella term for a number of loosely related, earth-based movements that seek to revive, reinvent and update pre-Christian religious traditions—and inspired a generation of ecofeminists.
A year later, she co-founded Reclaiming, a “community of people working to unify spirit and politics.” She has also protested against nuclear power plants, was a member of Witnesses for Peace in Nicaragua, was involved in nonviolent resistance in Palestine and joined the Occupy movement in Oakland, California. Starhawk’s work has enabled her to “build a broader, deeper experience of being able to hold my belief in human goodness, in the face of a lot of evidence to the contrary,” she says with a chuckle.
Now, at 64 years old, she shows no signs of slowing down. Currently she is part of a group of pagan activists affiliated with the global justice movement, a network of activist groups fighting for equitable distribution of resources around the globe, and also keeps a busy schedule giving workshops about permaculture, activism and consensus building. For example, workshops in March covered topics such as “Resolving Conflict,” “Weaving Future Visions” and “Restory the Future,” in which participants discussed how to manifest a future worth living.
She also established the Emerald City Green Entrepreneurs program in the Bayview Hunters Point neighborhood of San Francisco, an area of the city largely known for its high rates of poverty and crime. The program teaches inner-city youth how to create urban farms.
All of these activities spring from her earth-centered spiritual beliefs. “Spirituality is our engagement with the world,” she says. “It’s not just about meditating on the mountain—it’s about marching in the streets.”
Photo of Starhawk by Stephon Readmond