Starhawk is an author, activist, permaculture designer and teacher, and one of the most respected voices in modern Goddess religion and earth-based spirituality. She is the author of twelve non-fiction and fiction books, including the classics The Spiral Dance and The Fifth Sacred Thing. Starhawk directs Earth Activist Training, teaching permaculture design grounded in spirit and with a focus on organising and activism.
In 1999, after the demonstrations in Seattle against the World Trade Organization, I ended up in jail for five days. Confined in a cell bloc with about twenty other women arrested at the actions, I soon recognized that all of them were much younger than I was. Because we were withholding our names in solidarity, we didn’t talk much at first about the details of our lives outside, but instead talked politics, strategy, movement gossip and cast the occasional spell. One of the to-me very young women advised the others, “You’ve got to take care of yourselves. The average life-span of an activist in the movement is two and a half years before burnout.”
At that time, I was forty-eight. I’d been an activist for decades, at least since the age of fifteen when I was first arrested at Christmas time in Beverly Hills, along with Santa Claus, for handing out balloons that said, “Peace on Earth: Stop the War in Vietnam.”
Why haven’t I burned out long ago? And how do I keep going even in the face of setbacks such as the recent assumption of power by Trump and his gang?
During the AIDS crisis in the early nineties, a counselor who worked with the dying spoke to our community. “Healing is not curing,” he said. “It’s a process that makes you more than what you are.”
His words apply as well to activism. Activism is not always winning: it’s a process that makes us more than what we were, the actions that align with our deep desire to bring about more justice, balance and compassion in the world. Such actions bring about their own reward.
Activism involves both saying ‘no’ and saying ‘yes’ – ‘no’ to the destructive acts and policies that harm and oppress people and denigrate the earth, and ‘yes’ to the alternatives. In our own lives, we can avoid burnout by balancing the ‘no’ times, the marching and protesting and taking direct action, with times of saying ‘yes’ – feeding the hungry, planting the permaculture food forests, training the students who will carry the work on.
The needs around us are dire and urgent and can seem overwhelming. But I often think of the words of my friend Mary. When her son was a baby, we used to go out to a park that was always covered with trash. Mary would always bring a bag.
“I know I can’t clean it all up,” she would say. “But I just pick up the garbage in my path.”
What’s in my immediate path? What can I do now? Doing solidarity work in Palestine, when the situation for nonviolent activists looked grim and everyone expected it to only get grimmer, I was always impressed by the courage and spirit of the organizers. As long as they saw something they could do – whether it was organizing a Children’s Fun Day in Rafah for kids who every day experienced gunfire and explosions – or accompanying a family whose home was threatened with destruction by the military, the organizers knew the secret – that action and engagement counter hopelessness and despair.
Personally, I find great sources of renewal in connection to nature, and in a spirituality that sees the sacred as immanent in the natural world and in human relationships. The cycles of birth, growth, death and regeneration are always at play around us, and every day in the garden I am reminded that there is no fertility without decay.
But the greatest support for activists is a truly welcoming, nurturing movement, a community of people who can see and care for us in the fullness and complexity of who we are. I believe our great challenge in these times is to build such a movement, comprised of all who have faced oppression but also of those whose lives have been privileged, but who nonetheless yearn to be agents of justice. For the greatest burnout comes, not when we face our opponents, not even when we face injury or loss or jail, but when we feel hurt and betrayed or unfairly judged by our own allies. When we see the movement as an ecosystem with many niches to be filled, when we learn to critique one another constructively instead of attacking, when we can hold one another accountable in a container of kindness and compassion, then we can create an atmosphere in which people feel encouraged, supported and held even in the face of the horrors around us.
And in moments we can glimpse the new world that is possible. Cancun, 2003 – internationals, campesinos and Mexican students gather to protest the WTO, and our permaculture group sets up a model graywater/handwashing station by the food line. A campesino woman from a remote village observes our bicycle-wheel water pump and nods her head. “We don’t have running water in our village – we don’t have thousands of dollars for a pump. But this – this would work!”
New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina – a garbage truck driver pulls up beside the community clinic, flops down on a massage table for a half-hour massage by a volunteer, and then goes back to his rounds.
Occupy Wall Street – thousands descend on the financial district and within days, a community springs up, with food and a library and graywater systems and meetings that at times are excruciatingly slow and frustrating, but at times are shining models of direct democracy.
Standing Rock – an encampment of tipis and yurts on the plains by the river, where every action is a ceremony, where the sacred fires burn day and night and tribes comes together who have never before united.
In these moments, we know that victory is not something in the future to be gained.
It is already here. We are living it, now.
Juliet Davenport is an Oxford physics graduate who used her studies to bring climate change and business together to found Good Energy, one of the UK’s first entirely renewable electricity supplier and generator companies in 1999.
Climate change is one of the biggest issues facing society today. It will affect us all in our everyday lives – some more than others. I have made it my work at Good Energy to increase public awareness of the issue and provide an optimistic response to human-made climate change, by promoting renewable technologies and sustainable energy use.
It was at university, studying atmospheric physics, that I was first awed and concerned in equal measure by the wonder and fragility of our climate system; but I found it difficult to see how I could make a difference. You would have hoped that our politicians would respond, but they seemed to be wading through treacle.
So rather than spend my time arguing with sluggish politicians, I decided to take positive action by setting up Good Energy. The aim was to give people an opportunity to do something about climate change in their everyday lives. We wanted to offer a solution that could appeal to ordinary people, to say ‘yes, this is big and quite a scary issue but you can do something about it’.
What really motivated me, when we first started in 1999, was that there were no organisations committed to driving forward renewable energy or delivering it to people’s homes. Households and businesses had very little choice about where their energy came from, and no one was encouraging them to take action on climate change.
At the time, it felt like we were just a tiny part of the bigger picture of energy use in the UK, and a lot of people were sceptical about whether renewables could work in practice. In fact, at that time, the whole of the UK renewable industry could fit in a tiny room above a pub in west London.
We’ve seen incredible progress since then. Renewables now make up around 25% of the UK’s electricity generation – a huge increase from just 4% in 2005. And greenhouse gas emissions have fallen by nearly a third in the UK since 1990.
Today, nearly a million homes are now generating their own power with solar PV panels on their roofs. I remember being in a meeting where one of the Big Six CEO’s dismissed solar technology completely as “the sun doesn’t really shine in the UK.”
How wrong he was!
Now we are in a position unthinkable 15 years ago, but of course there is still a very, very long way to go.
Despite some setbacks to the industry and the premature scrapping of government measures to support the sector, I still believe that, with the right mix of generation and supporting technologies, in the future the UK can be powered purely by renewables. I see a future with solar panels on every home and renewable power in every community.
This will mean a lot of change, but one of the many things that excite me every day is seeing what technologies and solutions will come up next, and where they can take us.
The recent growth in green gas is one step, which is increasing the proportion of heating – of buildings and water – which comes from sustainable renewables. Heat is well-known to be a really difficult area of the energy system to decarbonise.
Good Energy launched its carbon neutral green gas last year, containing 6% biomethane, with the rest of the emissions balanced through carbon reduction projects in Malawi, Nepal and Vietnam.
These projects include distributing efficient cook stoves to over 45,000 families. Many women and children around the world do not have access to clean air and electricity. It makes me really proud to be involved in such projects which make a real difference to people’s lives as well as helping to prevent climate change.
As well as supporting women and children globally, I’m also a passionate advocate for encouraging diversity in the energy sector right here in the UK, and getting young people excited about science. Seeing new talent joining the energy sector really gives me a boost.
The United Nations Sustainable Development Goals are a big focus for Good Energy. One of those goals is ‘gender equality’, and I have always felt that our business needs to embrace this and help set an example for the energy industry – we’re really proud to already be a 50:50 workplace. I hope that by sharing my experience it will inspire other women to follow their passion, become entrepreneurs, and do what they love.
So what next? Tackling climate change is a huge challenge, but I also see it is as an opportunity for positive change in our society. We can all take easy and practical steps to make a difference, for instance by simply signing up to a renewable energy provider, joining a local environmental campaign group, or making responsible choices about the things that we buy. Facing the collective challenge can bring people and communities together. I’m optimistic.