Sunday, May 1, 2011

Starhawk's talk on bringing the spirit of wilderness to the city

Noted activist and author Starhawk spoke to a sold-out NYC room in early April, organized by Evolver.  A recurring theme was the importance of connecting to the natural world.

Starhawk's new children's book, "The Last Wild Witch," tells of a town in which everything is perfectly organized and very orderly.  Next to it is a magic forest, in which lives a friendly witch.  The town's children are excessively well-behaved but occasionally break into free-spirited behavior, which troubles the villagers, who blame the trees and try to destroy the forest.  The children connect with the friendly witch, and find joy and courage as well as wildness. 
Ultimately, they save both the witch and the magic forest. 

Occasionally, we'll encounter natural forces more powerful than ourselves which cannot be ignored, like the recent Japanese tsunami and earthquake.  As in the story, we generally plug up our ears to hearing nature's calls, most of which are subtle and easily ignored.  But the forces of nature want us to listen.  By entering into the subtle conversation, natural forces can help us cope with the mess we've created. 
Urban people can't help but be disconnected from nature.  For many, the environment isn't a real part of their daily lives, but something outside it, something experienced in a Discovery special.  Starhawk teaches gardening to young people in some of San Francisco's poorest neighborhoods.  As an extreme example of this disconnect, some of them don't know that food comes from dirt.  

How do we break the spell of this cultural separation from the natural world?  Pressing far past our edge could take us beyond safe urban locations, into the wilderness. While that's good to do now and then, we don't have to go that far to regain the connection. Letting the wildness in can start by simply getting our hands in the dirt, or by regularly making a very simple shift in awareness.

As a spiritual writer and teacher of some note, Starhawk has long had a regular meditation practice.  For about twenty years, it was internally focused: the flow of the breath, an image, a thought.   Then she was spontaneously drawn to focus externally, silently watching and listening to the natural world.  Whether in a park or a garden, or an urban street or vacant lot, we can connect to the natural world through awareness and intent. 

In addition to focusing out onto the natural world, we can evoke wilderness within us, through pursuing some form of creativity that's eccentric, silly, and not so socially acceptable. "If you lose social inhibition, you become dangerous." How often have you blocked your own impulse, instead of going into into an uncomfortable place? If you're not making mistakes you're not learning, and part of accepting the wild is acknowledging and allowing our mistakes, and that of others.

While good ways to enhance our personal growth, how do these approaches help accelerate the evolution of our larger society, whose institutions seem paralyzed in the face of multiple world crises?

Starhawk cited systems theorist Donella Meadows, lead author of the 1972 book The Limits to Growth,  one of the first efforts to predict with computer modeling what would happen when rising human population and constantly increasing rates of growth meets limits to the Earth's finite resources.

Here's some background.  The book, a major early milestone in the sustainability discussion, concluded that unlimited growth could not continue permanently and would have to be replaced by a steady-state economy.  Despite mountains of supporting evidence, The Limits To Growth has been vigorously attacked by business interests ever since its publication.

More recently, Meadows proposed 
twelve leverage points at which to intervene in systems, based on the observation that there are levers, or places within a complex system (such as a firm, a city, an economy, a living being, or an ecosystem) where a "small shift in one thing can produce big changes in everything."  The most effective interventions are those that change or transcend the system's dominant paradigm.  Meadows wrote that "...Many today see Nature as a stock of resources to be converted to human purpose. Many Native Americans see Nature as a living god, to be loved, worshipped, and lived with. These views are incompatible, but perhaps another viewpoint could incorporate them both, along with others..."  Starhawk's injunction to get back in touch with nature is just such a paradigm-changing middle way.

Speaking to more mundane leverage points in the system, she noted that our government is doing the exact opposite of what should be done - laying off firemen, cops, and school teachers - so a tiny minority of the very rich can avoid paying taxes.   "You don't have to be a rocket scientist to know that the Arctic is melting.  Yet, the people who thought they could safely harness nuclear power were dumb enough to put the plant's backup generators in their basements, vulnerable to same floods that could knock out the plants."

We need to evoke the primal creativity of wilderness now in society, to alter the self-destructive systems of business as usual, and bring abundance out of scarcity. Bringing the wild into our urban lives can put us in greater harmony with the natural world, and allow us to receive help from allies within the forces of nature - such as bacteria, compost, and mushrooms.

With things falling apart, we have a time of opportunity to create new things, and we need to have a vision and the energy to make it happen. Part of the vision is a relocalized food growing systems, to create systems that are both smaller and more complex.

With constantly increasing use of resources no longer possible, a new paradigm based on maximum cycling and recycling of resources is the only sustainable course.  Not mentioned by Starhawk, but a good illustration, is Annie Leonard's online video, The Story of Stuff.  It shows how our economy is based on rapidly turning natural resources into consumer goods, many of which are not truly needed, and then quickly into trash, trucked and landfilled at great cost.  The alternative includes full product reuse and recycling, and the composting of all biodegradeable waste, returning it to the soil.

Mushrooms can play a big role. Botanist Paul Stamets explains in this TED Talk how mushrooms can clean polluted soil, produce insecticides, and break down the toxins in nerve gas.

To help manifest this broad vision, Starhawk produces permaculture trainings which aim to teach visionary and practical sustainability solutions to social change activists, and to teach practical skills, organizing and activism to visionaries. 

Starhawk encouraged listeners to take a risk and go past their edge; and to exercise the power that they already have in order to strengthen their capacity to be of service.  To those already working to improve the world but still feeling overwhelmed with all the bad news, she offered a note of comfort: remember that you're not the only person working on this.  We're all part of a team. 

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