Magic and action: Starhawk aims to show people how to go beyond rumination

Jun 5, 2007 at 8:52 pm

Starhawk: Earth activist Starhawk, who appears at this weekend’s Earth Spirit Rising conference, is actually optimistic about the possibilities of mitigating, and even reversing, the damage to the planet.
Starhawk: Earth activist Starhawk, who appears at this weekend’s Earth Spirit Rising conference, is actually optimistic about the possibilities of mitigating, and even reversing, the damage to the planet.
“Mother Earth transition team.”
That is how Starhawk, one of the presenters at this weekend’s Earth Spirit Rising conference, describes our role in healing the planet and discovering our sacred connection to it.

“I’m encouraged” she told me during a phone interview. “I think even in the last year we’ve seen a tremendous attitude shift, and I think it began with Hurricane Katrina.”

Starhawk is the self-described “author of many works celebrating the Goddess movement and Earth-based, feminist spirituality,” and “a peace, environmental and global justice activist and trainer, a permaculture designer and teacher, a Pagan and Witch.” She has authored or co-authored 10 books, including “The Spiral Dance: A Rebirth of the Ancient Religion of the Great Goddess,” a work that has long been considered the essential text for the Neo-Pagan movement. Her earth activism has taken her most recently from sites as diverse as Seattle for the World Trade Organization protests, where she was jailed (and used the time to teach the tenets of organizing) to environmental reclaiming work in post-Katrina New Orleans.

Conference organizer Mark Steiner says: “Starhawk’s decades of work exploring the realms of environmental spirituality makes her uniquely qualified to address the environmental crisis, particularly because the environmental crisis is a spiritual crisis.”

Starhawk spoke to me from her home in California, about her work and specifically about her participation in the sixth Earth Spirit Rising conference. I asked her to “unpack” some of those descriptors, and her answers reveal a woman whose love for the planet and for the people who share its abundance guide a life of committed, informed and generous work for its salvation.

LYNELL EDWARDS: So, help us understand some of these ideas.
“I should start with Earth-based spirituality, because for me that really is where everything starts. It’s the understanding that the earth is alive and that we are all part of that life, and that all living things on the earth have a kind of consciousness of their own. It’s not always similar to ours, but it is a consciousness and awareness. For me it’s about approaching that knowledge with the sense of wonder and reverence that we bring to questions of the spirit. And if you believe everyone and everything on earth is interconnected and interdependent, then you kind of have to be involved in trying to protect the beauty and the diversity of the earth’s natural wonders and systems. And you also have to be involved in bringing about a greater amount of justice for human beings, because human beings are all interconnected and all part of that great creative loving life force.”

Starhawk’s earth-based spirituality began in the 1970s when many women were exploring questions about women’s liberation and empowerment, particularly in the mainstream faith traditions. She was raised in the Jewish tradition, and there was, for her, an absence of female images of authority. The idea of a female rabbi, she recalls, was non-existent. She discovered there were ancient traditions in Europe and the Middle East that saw the divine as female, believed nature was sacred, and that bringing life into the world, as women do, was sacred. Now, she says, “as I’ve grown older, for me it’s the emphasis on the earth and nature being sacred that’s more important than the gender.”

But what about the terms pagan and witch?
“Pagan and Witch are different words you can apply to the ancient earth-based traditions of the Goddess,” she says. The word witch, she adds, “is sometimes scary to people. But it comes from a root Anglo-Saxon word that means bend or twist.” The word willow, for instance is linguistically kin. Historically, she says, “witches were those who could twist your fate a little bit, who could bend and shape the future in some way.” In pre-modern cultures, “the witches were the herbalists, healers and counselors in their communities, and the prejudice against them came from a time in the 16th and 17th centuries when both the Catholic and Protestant churches felt threatened.”

And permaculture?
“Permaculture is the practical application of believing the earth is sacred,” she explains. Very briefly described, it’s a practice of self-sustaining environmental practices that don’t require a lot of external inputs. Every element — solar energy, organic wastes — serves many different purposes, just as they do in a natural system like a rainforest. “One of the things I like about it is that it’s a system for lazy people,” she jokes. “Permaculture is the system for people who want to lie in the hammock and let the leaves fall and mulch themselves!”

She continues, “As I began to weave it together with what I knew about earth-based spirituality, I realized it was important not only to chant about healing the earth, but to know how to do something about it.” Permaculture provides,” she explains, “a framework for putting all those things together. It’s not so much a set of techniques as a set of ethics and principles” reflecting “a spectrum of practices.” And the ethics are very simple: “Care for the earth; care for people; share the abundance.” Most importantly, living these values “will make us healthier, happier and richer in abundance of the things that feed us.”

And how is the spiritual, even the Wiccan, an important dimension of this?
“For me, the spiritual dimension has to do with consciousness. It’s the understanding that we can make choices about where we put our awareness. We can learn to let all those other inner dialogues go away for awhile, and if we can we’re very deeply nourished by the spirit and the energies of the natural world.” But spiritual practices aren’t limited to Goddess-based worldviews. She adds, “I think that within every faith tradition you can find some strong sense of concern for the natural world, whether you think of it as the living body of the goddess or God’s creation. There’s been a movement among evangelicals to really embrace understandings of ecology and the importance of caring for the environment. If you think God created the world, then surely he wouldn’t want us to just trash it.”

In the 20th anniversary release of  “The Spiral Dance,” you say, “We see the Goddess as immanent in the earth’s cycles of birth, growth, death, decay and regeneration. Our practice arises from a deep spiritual commitment to the earth, to healing, and to the linking of magic with political action.” What does that mean for you?

“If you believe all these things, you can’t just sit on the hillside and meditate on them. You actually need to be active in your community; you need to be aware of what policies are being made, you need to do whatever kind of actions work for you. The magic is powerful when it’s connected to action in the real world.”

What do you want people to take from your workshop and presentations at the conference?
“In the workshop, I’m going to be focusing on creating rituals that celebrate the earth; I’m going to teach people how to really go out in nature and observe and be present in nature, how to look for some of the things we look for when we do permaculture design or when we want to receive some of the energies that are there to help and inspire us.” Specifically, “the rituals we use honor the four elements of air, fire, water, earth, and they’re pretty common to everybody in that sense.” She adds, “We might brew up a potion or two, which is like an actively aerated compost tea. It’s a tremendous earth healer and fertilizer that will inoculate your garden with beneficial soil bacteria.” Explaining that the science of the potion is primary, she says, “If you take that science and add consciousness and intention to it, then it works just a little bit better.”

Despite what may seem like a desperate environmental crisis, with gas prices nationwide bumping up toward the $4 mark, and global warming wreaking havoc on the climate and the coasts, Starhawk is optimistic about the possibilities for mitigating, and even reversing the damage. She believes “we haven’t even picked the low-hanging fruits,” the easy things we can do to effect real change. And the key to this, for people in general, is to “just think hard about what they have observed; I believe that each of us does actually have a deep connection to the earth, and if we go outside and if we really listen and make that a practice, we’ll get our own messages about what the earth is experiencing and what she needs and wants from each one of us.”
Finally, she says, “The main thing I want people to know is that the situation is crucial, urgent, but it’s not hopeless. It’s only hopeless if we give up and don’t do anything.  Once we actually accept it and move into this phase, then I think we’ll find we have more community, healthier foods, more physical and emotional and spiritual health, more beauty and abundance around us, more time for relationships with family and friends.”

Lynnell Edwards is a Louisville-based writer and poet. Contact her at


A conversation with Paul Rogat Loeb, activist



Paul Rogat Loeb, who speaks at this weekend’s Earth Spirit Rising conference, is a social and political activist who fights for issues of social justice, humanitarianism, environmentalism and civic involvement in American democracy. He has written five books, including “The Impossible Will Take a Little While: A Citizen’s Guide to Hope in a Time of Fear,” and “Soul of a Citizen: Living With Conviction in a Cynical Time.”

            Loeb’s presentation, “Hope in a Time of Fear,” starts at 11:30 a.m. Saturday. For more information on him, go to For more on the conference, go to


LEO: What will you discuss at the conference?

PAUL LOEB: What I generally talk about is this basic question of, How do ordinary human being respond to what’s going on in our world? Because, we’re facing huge crises — Iraq, global warming, the economy working less and less well for most folks, and so the question is, Do we as ordinary people have any say or influence in what happens? I think very often our culture convinces us that we don’t, and that there’s not much we can do.     Obviously, there is. The fact that (LEO founder John Yarmuth) is now in Congress is a very direct example. I was in Louisville five days before the election. There were tons of people volunteering, and I was signed up to help’s Call for Change program, where people not in competitive districts would make calls to voters who sometimes voted and sometimes didn’t. I was stuck in Louisville because of Breeders’ Cup, and I thought, Well, I’ll make my moveon phone calls. The first ones were for Yarmuth … I got maybe eight or nine people to vote who otherwise wouldn’t. Which doesn’t sound like much, but if 100,000 or 200,000 people do the same, then you’re talking about a million or two millions votes. That’s the kind of thing that can change elections. If you change enough elections, you can change history.


LEO: If you break it down, it adds up.

PL: When we feel powerless, we think, Well, what’s my one individual action gonna do? The answer for most of us, to be honest, is not very much, in isolation. But taken together with enough other people acting, then the answer is, it can be huge. So the core of what I have written about for 30 years is, How do you get ordinary people to try and join in that stream of citizens who are involved with working for justice? Because if you do get enough of them, you can change.

            There’s an example from “The Impossible Will Take a Little While,” a story about Vaclav Havel, writing three years before the dictatorship fell in Czechoslovakia, East Germany and the Soviet Union, he’s writing in 1986 and he’s describing this — well, two things. One was — he’s describing the growth the democracy movement in Czechoslovakia. In the first case, he talks about the rock band Plastic People of the Universe, a Czech band that was influenced by Frank Zappa and the Velvet Underground and some other American bands. The authorities didn’t like their music and they said it was — I love these phrases — “morbid and not socially constructive” — kinda like the Dixie Chicks. The problem was, they were constructive, and that’s why they got in trouble.

            And so, they started breaking up their concerts with police raids and preventing them from making a living and throwing them in jail. And Havel, who is a little more respectable at this point, and a little older, forms a defense committee, and then the defense committee evolves into a group called Charter 77. That’s the pivotal democracy movement in Czechoslovakia. That ultimately overthrows the dictatorship. I love this example, because you start off, on the one hand, defending the rights of a rock band, and you ultimately end up achieving the bringing down of a dictatorship. That’s the way history sometimes leaps in very unexpected ways, when you act with courage.

            Nelson Mandela uses the phrase, “the multiplication of courage.” So one person takes a risk, and another and another. Or conversely, one person goes silent in a situation where there’s a real moral issue, which I think happened a lot after 9/11, and the silence becomes pretty contagious as well. So it works both ways.

            That’s part of the lesson. The lesson about the leaping is important. But Havel has another lesson about the sort of power of bringing people in. He’s talking about a petition to free some political prisoners that they circulate. Everyone was mocking him and saying it’s not gonna make any difference. The tone and the words were familiar to me, because they’re the same ones that people use here. And Havel, looking back about seven years later, before the dictatorship falls, says, Well, you know, we didn’t actually succeed in freeing the prisoners that time, so you could say we failed.

            He said, But I wouldn’t see it that way, because two things happened. One is, because we were acting, they knew they weren’t alone, so that encourages them to keep on. That was really important. And two, the people who signed the petition didn’t stop there. They went on to play dissident music, put on dissident plays, speak out in the classrooms and the pulpits and everyplace else. And you take all that together, and you’ve got a movement that they really don’t know what to do with. There are just so many of us speaking out, they can’t throw us all in jail anymore like they could seven years ago when we were just a small number.

            What this suggested to me is that when you’re  trying to ask for change, you’re really doing two things. One is, you’re trying to achieve your immediate goal — win an election, stop a war, free some political prisoners. But you’re also trying to achieve something larger, which is bring new people into involvement. If you do enough of that, you can lose your first goal, as important as it is, and ultimately win. So I just think it’s a really powerful lesson.


LEO: It seems like Americans have lost perspective, and we are very comfortable in whatever makes up our lives. What is at stake that would motivate us to change, beyond people who are driven already?

PL: I think it’s hard. I think we have to be able to rebuild some form of connection to work for change, whether it be a Sierra Club or the local Democratic party, which used to be on paper … but one of the things Howard Dean did was very interesting. He said, Suppose we actually make this participatory instead of run by the consultants and fundraisers? Which doesn’t mean consultants and fund-raisers don’t still hold a lot of power — I would argue too much power. But it does mean there’s an effort to at actually have something where people could meet face to face and say, You know what, in the Kentucky Democratic Party, this is what we ought to stand for, and actually determine it themselves. You actually have to start rebuilding these organizations from the ground up. Instead of sitting around passively bemoaning things.

            One of the things that’s double-edged, actually, is the Internet, because — I look at something like, which I think is a wonderful organization, and they have two sorts of things that they did. One is, you get an e-mail and it says click and respond and your senators will get a message. Now, that’s a very good thing in a sense, in that it allows me, in a small amount of time, to have my senators or Congresspeople know which way I want them to vote. And that would’ve been impossible without that technology. I do that very often.

            But by and of itself, it doesn’t build that sort of face-to-face movement where you’re really saying, Here it is, let’s talk about what we wanna do. So, moveon’s also tried, and continues to try to build that. They have local meetings and vigils, phone calls, a sort of intermediate  thing. What’s interesting, throughout all of their efforts, it’s a relatively small percentage of people who end up participating in that. They have 3 million people — 100,000 did the phone calls. Had another couple hundred thousand done it, maybe a couple more seats would’ve flipped.

            This is not in any way to blame moveon — that is to say there’s something in our culture that makes it easier, and more comfortable, for us to click and respond than to go to a house meeting with a bunch of our neighbors, even though when we do — I’ve gone to some of them — A) it’s gonna be pretty fun, because these tend to be good people, and B) some interesting things, and some unexpected things, may come out of it.


LEO: Do you have a theory about why people are so reticent to do that part of it?

PL: It does take a little bit more time, but again, I would argue that — I’ve made friendships coming out of contexts like that, so there’s good things that come out of it on a social level. But I think we fear it. I think maybe we’ve — well, what is it? We’ve been taught to fear social movements, to kinda stigmatize them, so even if we are involved, we sorta don’t wanna be involved with these other folks. I think that we are time-pressed, but we do find time for lots of things. I think there’s a feeling of, I don’t know, futility. We’ll do the click and respond because it’s so easy, so we don’t have to say, Well, what if it doesn’t work? If it doesn’t work, we’ve lost 15 seconds. No big deal.

            Somehow getting someone to go down the street is a bigger commitment, and we say, What will it matter? I think the answer is, Yes, it can matter quite a lot, but the biggest impact isn’t gonna be in that really direct way.


LEO: People want to see quicker change.

PL: Yeah, because what’s gonna happen from going to that meeting is not so much a great impact on that immediate vote in the Senate or whatever it happens to be, but the building of some connections — six months later you might contact that person and work on something together. Those human connections are critical, but we don’t think of them in their true context.

            Another story: I looked at the Rosa Parks story. I was on a CNN show, and Rosa Parks was on it and they were describing what I would consider the classic telling of the story, which is, one day this woman comes out of nowhere and, in the phrase of CNN , starts the civil rights movement. And it’s completely nonsense. At that point, for a dozen years she’d been in the NAACP. She was their secretary. She’d been working with all sorts of other people, building a community that was engaged to try and change things. And in the conventional telling, that drops out. So does the fact that she actually went to training sessions at the Highlander Center in Tennessee, where she met a whole other generation of civil rights activists.

            If I’m gonna contrast the conventional telling with the reality, the conventional telling says, Some amazing person came out of nowhere and instantly changed history. And that’s just not true. She was an amazing person. But, an amazing person went to a meeting of the NAACP … and kept on doing some fairly unglamorous other things, and then brainstormed with other people on how to make change, because change is always — there’s a phrase in “The Impossible Will Take a Little While” where the minister Jim Wallis, of Sojourners, says, “Hope is believing in spite of the evidence, and then watching the evidence change.”

            I think it’s great phrase about immovable walls suddenly moving. But at the same time, hope is also about intentionality, and consciously saying, How are we gonna change this thing? I always ask the question about who got Rosa Parks involved? We know the answer to that, which is her husband, Raymond Parks, who was involved in the NAACP before her. But we don’t know who got Raymond Parks involved. He was a barber. Some anonymous people got an anonymous barber, an ordinary person, involved in the civil rights movement, and he got his wife involved, and then a dozen years later comes the action that everyone acknowledges as making history. And so I look at that and I think, OK, we may not be Rosa Parks, but maybe we would be the person who gets involved the other person who gets Rosa Parks involved. That alone gives me another reason why those human connections are so powerful.


LEO: It seems like we all want to know what will be tangible, and that can keep you from doing anything. A lot of people who’ve influenced me, for example, have no idea they did.

PL: Right. We want guarantees.


LEO: Is that a contemporary phenomenon?

PL: That’s a good question. I don’t know. It certainly is a contemporary phenomenon — whether it was also true earlier is what I don’t know.


LEO: There’s a paradox — we’re better off now in a lot of respects than we’ve ever been, and that seems to make us forget what matters. That’s a cliché … Bill Maher recently posed a rhetorical question, I think he was talking to Bill McKibben, about what would happen if we could save the world by everyone giving up their TV remotes. You know, you’d have to get up and change the channels. Do you think they would? The point is, we don’t want to let go of anything.

PL: I’ve got a journal on it — I’m doing a lot of stuff on global warming and trying to figure out a book on the cultural and political aspects. I picked up the morning Seattle paper recently, and they had a special auto section. Completely loaded, the coolest features of the hottest cars, and I want to say it was a 16-page section. And each one of them has a different manufacturer. The first half was, I guess, advertisement copy that looks like an article about the car.

            Here’s the weird thing — Seattle is, as American cities go, very environmentally conscious. We were the ones who, our mayor came up with the idea about, if George Bush isn’t going to do anything about global warming, local mayors could pledge to meet Kyoto standards, and there’s now 400 cities who’ve signed on, including New York, Chicago and Los Angeles, and Louisville and Lexington. So I looked at this section. There isn’t a single mention, in 16 pages, of fuel economy. Not a single one. They go on about the CD and DVD players in the cars, and their ultra navigation and their torque. I mean, I’m not an auto expert — the zero to 60 and all that. Their design and details about the seats, every conceivable thing. Not a single one mentions fuel economy. And here we are, where every car that goes on the road that’s not high mpg essentially digs us into a deeper hole, because those cars are gonna be on the road for 10 to 15 to 20 years. That really is pretty stunning.


LEO: It seems like there’s two kinds of people. People like yourselves who consider these things, and the other side, so to speak that will, rather than dig in on the substance of the discussion or argument, will just marginalize. It’s mean and vicious and off the point. We never get around to talking about the issues.

PL: It’s true. I just did a piece for Huffington Post about the politics of the John Edwards haircut. Basically, it pretty well happened by accident. The guy’s traveling. And he’s squeezing stuff in at motels. You’ve gotta look good for TV because that’s all the commentators will talk about. So somebody schedules the haircut, and then later they get the bill and it’s this god-awful amount, and they define him from that.

            I got some interesting responses when I sent it out to my list. There was a political reporter for the Montgomery, Alabama newspaper. One election, perhaps 1980, the national media spoke to him, a brand name reporter, and asked him, Who is the smartest, most qualified candidate? He replied immediately: Alan Cranston. Then the pundit said, There’s no way America will elect him, because he’s bald. As long as that becomes the currency, you’re damned if you do and damned if you don’t.


LEO: It makes you just not want to pay attention to anything.

PL: There is actually something I wrote about in a couple of my books, called the perfect standard. It works two ways. We hold ourselves up to this perfect standard that says, If we don’t know every single thing about an issue, and if we can’t answer every conceivable question, and we’re not as saintly as Gandhi and eloquent as King, we’d better not get involved. And then we do the same thing to other people. We say, Who are they to stick out on some question they don’t have the answer to?

            Basically what it does is, it knocks us out of the game, and you can use it to knock anybody out of the game, because, hey, we all have our flaws.


LEO: It’s so diminishing.

PL: It’s hugely diminishing.


LEO: It’s perverse, because I am not so sure we always hold our own selves to that standard, but we certainly hold our “leaders” to that standard. We say, on the one hand, that we want regular people, and then when people show they’re regular, we crucify them.

PL: Exactly.


LEO: Have you developed any ways to talk about this that cuts through and gives people some way forward?

PL: I think it does go back to the perfect standard, the part where we hold ourselves to it. My response is: Let go of that. Don’t feel like you’re gonna have to know the answer to everything. Don’t feel like you’re gonna need to know every move, don’t even feel like you’re gonna need to know the guaranteed outcome. Jump in. You’re gonna make some mistakes. If you do everything perfectly, things still aren’t gonna turn out exactly has you hoped. But only by jumping in and learning as you go can a) things change in society but b) you’ll get the skills and confidences to actually be able to eventually feel a little less intimidated about all of it.

            There’s things that I do that just seem routine to me because I’ve done them for so long. I’m not talking about things like writing books, but things like knocking on a door in a campaign or making a campaign phone call or even going to a march. All of those things, I’ll make a decision based on time and energy, but I don’t make a decision based on intimidation. I just think, obviously I can do this. Whereas a lot of people would look at it and say, Oh, I couldn’t do this. Because they haven’t done it.


LEO: Is part of your pitch to get folks to think past that?

PL: Exactly. There’s a whole lotta things that any of us can do. Then some of us may have gifts in one area and more in another. But an awful lot of what needs to be done is stuff any of us can do. We grow into it. One story: There’s a woman named Virginia Ramirez from San Antonio who, when she started out, dropped out with an eighth grade education, and then in her 40s got involved. She was so intimidated. The first time she agreed to hold a house meeting, she literally couldn’t open the door. She was paralyzed — What if I say the wrong thing, what if somebody asks me something and they don’t like my response?

            She eventually gets involved in this community organization, and  becomes a local leader, and in a dozen years she’s talking in D.C. to a group of senators and congresspeople, on a job training bill. And I said, Weren’t you nervous? Well, she said, I prayed to God I wouldn’t make a complete fool of myself, but to be honest, I was so much more intimidated talking to my neighbors the first time, or the first time I talked to the San Antonio City Council. By the time I got to D.C., I was used to it. And it’s just a perfect example. I have never talked to a Senate committee, and I would be intimidated by that.


LEO: Do you think the brand of change you’d like to see includes completely working through the status quo, or somewhat, or completely apart from our institutions and our government?

PL: I guess I would say there is a toolbox of social change, and that there’s different tools that have different strengths and limits. There’s things you can do with a screwdriver that you can’t do with a hammer. I would say, often people give up on the conventional political mechanisms. And the reason is, in part, they’re frustrated. You don’t always win all that you want. At the same time, if I look at everything, all the truth that has come out about the workings of this administration since January, when Congress changed and the new committees were put in place, if you didn’t have those Congressional committees, you would not have those —you wouldn’t even have any investigations of the U.S. attorneys stuff. You wouldn’t have investigations of things like Abu Ghraib and the oil companies, and on and on. That’s huge.

            But then people look and say, They still haven’t gotten us out of Iraq. And it’s true. It’s a very complicated question. How do you put pressure — when you’ve got a one-vote majority in the Senate, and that’s Joe Lieberman, who’s on the other side of the war. How do you build a coalition to make it happen? And that’s not an easy thing. People tend to say, We give up, it’s all bankrupt.

            What I would say is, you need to do simultaneous things. The electoral stuff matters, and matters profoundly. If we haven’t learned that after Bush, I don’t know when we’re gonna learn it. Is that all you wanna do? No, I’d say it’s not all that you wanna do. You’ve gotta find a way to build independent power. One of the things the organization that Virginia Ramirez works with does, it’s sorta about electoral politics. They meet in a community and come up with a platform. They then invite the politicians through and they say, This is what we want, sign on or sign off. If you lie to us, we will remember, so tell us if you agree with it or not.

            They’ve also registered thousands of voters. They’re not waiting for the politicians to lead, they’re taking the lead. I guess you’d call that sorta working within the system, but it’s also changing the dynamics of the system. That’s very important.

            Is there a place for things like street protests and nonviolent civil disobedience? Absolutely, because it’s what gets people’s attention. It gets people thinking. You want to do that in a way that it doesn’t increase the culture of fear and play to the political right, which — leaving aside the morality of smashing up a Starbucks window — is why politically it’s a terrible idea, because that does feed a culture of fear. Even if you happen to disagree with Starbucks. I think that those working outside have their place.

            But ultimately you have to say, What is changing the ground of the culture? So either it allows decent political leadership, it creates decent political leadership, it pressures it. Look again at the civil rights movement and, say, the role of Kennedy and Johnson. Their initial response was, This is causing us political trouble, we sorta wish it would go away. And in fact, Johnson was one of the most astute politicians America ever had. He said, When we sign the civil rights bill, we’ll lose the South for at least a generation, the Democrats will, which turned out to be true. He knew the political cost, but he signed it anyway and put his political capital on the line, which is absolutely to his credit. But he did it only after the issue got raised so profoundly by grassroots efforts. I guess he still could’ve ducked the challenge, but it was presented to him in such a way that it was hard to escape, and then he stepped up to the plate and responded.


LEO: It seems that today, fewer people in leadership roles are willing to risk their own self-interest for the greater good.

PL: If we talk about electoral politics, the whole managed process of the campaigns has gotten much worse, the media culture has gotten much more, I don’t know, unforgiving. You look at something like — probably after Dean lost in Iowa, he’d lost the nomination anyway, but then what totally buried it was “the scream,” and what that really was is, there was a crowded room, there was lots of noise, he was shouting over it, and his microphone didn’t pick up the background noise, and he was trying to shout over it. And somehow he is crucified for this.

            And, yeah, he was upset because he lost Iowa, but in the scale of things, say, compared to starting the war or ignoring global warming while things go worse, or giving massive tax cuts to the wealthy, I mean if it’s a sin at all, it’s a pretty damn minor sin. Maybe like crossing in the middle of the block against the red light or something like that.


LEO: It’s bizarre how those sort of things become prominent.

PL: Part of it is, we’re conditioned to believing the worst. I remember Garry Trudeau was speaking a while ago, one thing he said really stuck. He said, You know, if you say that all politicians are corrupt, all lawyers are thieves, all businessmen are greedy, all preachers are hypocrites, you end up with no way to hold anybody up to any standard. And he said, What you have to do is be able to say, OK, here’s a person doing something, they’re not living up to what they ought to be, we need to hold them up to that. But not make the blanket assumption. And I think we really do.        And again, I think part of it is, we’ve had six years of plundering at the federal level — I don’t know any other way to describe it. I wrote a piece where I compared us to the African “lootocracies,” where government is set up to enrich their cronies, like something out of Nigeria or the Russian mafia. That’s how they’ve been functioning as much as they can, and that definitely — one of the bad effects, besides the plundering, that makes it really hard for people to say, You know, it could be different. Political leaders could actually try to do something good and useful to address the real problems that we have. But instead, we’re so inclined to believe the worst.

            And again, when you go with something like Edwards, yeah, somebody should’ve said, Wait a moment, what’s this haircut bill? The point is, these things have happened in life. Say it’s a rainy day on the freeway and I didn’t look carefully enough in my mirror and I sideswiped a car and had to pay 1,200 bucks. I can say, Well, I wish I hadn’t, but it doesn’t mean I’m a bad human being. And I think the haircut is really in that kind of category of action, and yet I think our reflex instinct is to say, Aha, you see, they’re really just hypocrites.

            I’m not suggesting that any of these folks are perfect. They’re not. But what it does is, it prevents us from saying we have some real choices in front of us. They’ll come up with something on anybody.


LEO: This conference has an element of spirituality. Where does that enter your work?

PL: I think it enters it in the sense that, one of my early books is called “Soul of a Citizen,” and people say, Well what do you mean by soul? Is it the thing that lives on after you die? And I say, I don’t really know what happens after I die. I think of soul as the core of who I am. So what I would argue is that, and this is something I’ve written about for a long time, is that when we withdraw from the world, something does happen to our soul in that it kind of atrophies. And so what I would say is the core of who we are blooms as we engage with real and hard issues about what it means to be a human being, and our responsibilities to other human beings and our responsibilities to the planet. And to me, I guess that’s a spiritual connection. It’s about who we are and what we wanna live for.

            And we can live — somebody wrote a letter to the local paper here after 9/11and said, Be a patriot, go out to the mall and buy a sofa. That’s one definition of what to live for. But it’s not mine. Although I don’t have anything against sofas.


LEO: There’s more talk these days about environmentalism, going green. Wal-Mart’s changing. Is this gonna be trendy for a while?

PL: That’s a good question. I was reading this Rupert Murdoch interview — he’s become a convert on global warming. I’m having this mixed response. The first response is, I still think he’s an SOB. The second response is, Well, that’s probably a good thing, because if we don’t deal with global warming, none of the — either we deal with it or human civilization is at risk of ending. At the far end, the consequences are just so large. So, you know, does that mean — it’s kinda like having Stalin on your side in World War II. Better than against you, but it doesn’t necessarily make him a good guy.


LEO: We have to engage all people, not just those we agree with.

PL: We do. Absolutely. And, who knows, maybe a conversion there will lead to other things, although something in me doubts it. But what you’re saying is true, particularly on something like global warming. We really are gonna have to talk with everybody. And the solutions are gonna have to come from all sorts of folks, and they may not be folks we agree with on other issues.

            There’s a guy named Rich Cizik, who’s vice president of the National Association of Evangelicals, who’s been speaking passionately about global warming. That is one of the most important steps toward shifting the culture that’s occurred, even though we haven’t necessarily prevailed. But there’s now a serious discussion inside the evangelical community that didn’t exist several years ago. Tremendously important.


LEO: That’s a moral issue. Bill McKibben says he’s not optimistic, but you’ve gotta keep trying. What is your own point of view on that?

PL: I think it’s pretty similar. McKibben has an essay in my last book, and we did an event for it in New York. I wish CSPAN had been there. It was one of the best conversations I’ve ever participated in. When McKibben was introducing it, he said it was pretty odd for him to be the person talking about hope, because he’s usually the person who points out all the bad news. And I think the answer is, We don’t really know. I think you have to act. You don’t know what things are going to accomplish.

            I’ll give you an example — I don’t think McKibben’s ever written about this, even though it was his role — in the same event, I was talking about the evangelicals. There was a campaign called “What Would Jesus Drive?” around SUVs, and it got a huge amount of publicity. I think it actually made some impact. And I said, Well, this came out of the evangelical community, this is really hopeful. And Bill said, Actually, I came up with the idea. I didn’t know that. And what happened is, he’s a Methodist, and somewhat active in what I call liberal Protestant circles, and he came up with this idea for this campaign, and then decided that if it came out of those circles it wouldn’t have nearly the impact that it would if it came out of the more conservative religious circles. And so he convinced, I think it’s the Evangelical Environmental Network, to take the lead on it.  And they ran with that. And it had a much greater impact.

            Here’s another example — you don’t know this is gonna have much impact, but you do your best and you try, and it actually does. He was working with six or seven recent graduates of Middlebury College, and they just decided they’d convene a national day of demonstrations on global warming, which is Step It Up ’07. They didn’t know anyone was gonna respond. But you end up with 1,500 events, in every major city in the country. And lots of small places.

            So I think what I would say, and what I would very much agree with McKibben on, is you really don’t know if any of this is gonna work or not. But you have to do it anyway. This goes back to Havel, who said, “Hope is not prognostication, it is an orientation of the heart.” Which I think blends the political and the spiritual side. Hope is not a prognostication. It’s not for telling the future.  It’s an orientation of the heart. It’s saying, I’m gonna jump in and try and tackle some of these things, whether or not I succeed. Because I’m not gonna necessarily know the impact of what I do. Sometimes I’ll know it very quickly, but sometimes I may not know it till years later, or I may never know it.


LEO: If you let that stop you, you’re screwed.

PL: If you let that stop you, not only you’re screwed, we’re screwed, and you end up with a world that is run by Bush, Halliburton and Enron and Exxon. That’s a pretty ugly world. It’s amazing — these institutions, these fearful, shortsighted, on some level, corrupt individuals, we’ve handed over the keys to them.


LEO: I know any number of average folks who just can’t believe that sort of assessment, though. It’s just too fantastic to believe. They are nice, average people who would say, “Oh, you must be exaggerating.”

PL: I remember early after 9/11, there was a woman, a sales rep for one of my publishers, and she had liked my “Soul of a Citizen” book, and she’d actually tried to get a school to use it for their freshmen, which a lot of schools have done. She was on my e-mail list, and she said, I have to go off your list, because you’re saying bad things about the president, and he’s a decent human being, he’s a God-fearing human being. And he’s just trying to do the right thing, and you’re criticizing him. And she was, an absolutely sincere, nice woman. She volunteered at local food bank, she was good-hearted. But I think she also bought into a blind trust that’s really dangerous. Obviously, Bush does have, now, one of the lowest approval ratings ever, because so many things have gone spectacularly wrong on his watch. But it’s — I think we have a tendency, especially accentuated by fear, which 9/11 sure stoked, we have a tendency to hope that the people at the wheel know what they’re doing.

            It’s really scary. If you basically acknowledge that we have the equivalent of a drunken teenager at the wheel of a really big truck, barreling down the highway — you know, maybe high on other stuff too — that’s pretty scary.


LEO: And we’re playing games in the back seat.

PL: Yeah, we’ve got our Playstations, and we’re just watching that. … There’s a streak of authoritarianism in our culture that says, We trust them. The other thing I think that happens, and this is more speculative, if I look at what I call the roots of global fundamentalism — because we’ve got it here and it’s there in the Middle East, and there’s right-wing Hindu parties, every religion has its variants of it. And what I think part of the root is, is this kind of sense that the ground on which we stand has sorta melted away. Particularly economically. You used to be able to think — maybe not if you are black — but if you’re white, there will be a job there for you, it will be a decent job. If you worked hard, you’d be able to retire, you’d be able to get by. Maybe send your kids to school. All that stuff’s gone out the window now.

            So I think there’s a whole lot of free-floating uncertainty and fear, and then all these people stepping up to offer false explanations. You know, it’s the fault of the gays, it’s the fault of the liberals, and so on. 

MICHAEL DOWD/Earth Spirit Rising package

A conversation with Michael Dowd, itinerate evolutionary evangelist



The Rev. Michael Dowd is a charismatic preacher, teacher, and evolutionary theologian and the author of “EarthSpirit: A Handbook for Nurturing an Ecological Christianity,” and the brand new “Thank God for Evolution! How Science and Religion are Spurring Each Other to Greatness” (out this fall). Dowd and his wife, Connie Barlow, travel the country to talk about what they call “the marriage of science and religion for personal and planetary well-being,” and about issues of sustainability, the epic of evolution, deep ecology and evolutionary spirituality movements.

            Dowd and Barlow are presenters at this weekend’s Earth Spirit Rising conference; they will lead an all-day workshop Friday, and Dowd makes a presentation Saturday afternoon. For more information on Dowd and Barlow, go to For more on Earth Spirit Rising, go to


LEO: What will you be talking about at the conference?

MICHAEL DOWD: A couple things. I just completed a book called “Thank God for Evolution,” about a sacred, meaningful view of cosmic history and how that can be understood in a sacred, meaningful way that transforms people’s lives more effectively than religion, in a way that inspires them to be of service to the world.


LEO: That’s pretty deep …

MD: It’s very powerful. I’ll probably have 60 or 70 blurbs from leading atheists, leading evangelical Christians, leading Buddhists, people all over the map theologically and religiously and philosophically, because this perspective is such a bridge builder. It helps people cooperate who used to see each other as enemies. It’s revealing what’s true about the nature of reality, and it can be seen as sacred.


LEO: Obviously, the way these things get talked about in the political realm seems pretty polarizing right now.

MD: Yes, and I’m so glad because it’s just plowing the field for my book (laughs). My book is going to be such a different perspective. My whole life is going to be devoted to publicizing this book.


LEO: So you are talking about science and religion together?

MD: Here’s what I think — science can deepen and enrich and strengthen people’s faith. Evolution can deepen and enrich and strengthen people’s faith. That’s what nobody out there’s saying right now. Even the intelligent design people don’t say that. Most of the intelligent design people do assume a 14 billion year universe. But they don’t see evolution in any kind of sacred or God-glorifying way. The way I use God language, people all over the map, from atheists to evangelicals, can find a way in. Nobody else is doing that that I know of. What’s not happened yet is, there hasn’t been an articulation of a perspective that people, whether they’re Christians or non-Christians, whether they’re conservatives or liberal, whether they’re Catholic or Protestant, whether they’re atheists or whatever, can find a way of looking at the history of the universe and the history of humanity in a way that touches, moves and inspires them religiously. And that’s what we bring. That’s what my wife and I bring that’s unique, and we speak to every different kind of audience you can imagine. The only kind of audience I’ve never spoken to is just Muslims, like a whole group of Muslims, but I’ve spoken to groups of Hindus, Christians, Jews, atheists, scientists, liberal Christians, conservative Christians, Catholics, Protestants, I mean, you say it, Quakers, Mennonites, and wherever we speak, people say something like this after our program: “I’ve never heard it quite put like that, yet I’ve always known it’s true.”

            It’s not that I’m telling people new things, I’m just putting it together in a new way that they feel like in their gut that they’ve always known is true. And what it does is, it ends the war, or at least is a first good step toward ending the war in our culture between science and religion. I mean, just yesterday I sent a copy of my book to eight Nobel Prize-winning scientists, all of whom requested the book. I sent an e-mail to them and told them a little bit about the book, and said if they were interested I would send them a copy of the book so they could review it and possibly offer a blurb. But eight of them said they wanted a copy. And so, I sent a copy of the book to Bill Clinton, to Al Gore, Hillary Clinton. I’m putting this book out, because it can change the conversation around this whole science and religion debate.

            It won’t happen quite this year, because the book doesn’t come out until October, although it will begin building buzz in the late summer. I’m working with some major people in the wiki world and online and the blogs and stuff like that, so there’ll be some conversation generating, but by next spring it’s gonna be the talk of the nation, there’s just no question about it, because nobody is saying this kind of reconciling perspective.


LEO: Do you find it maddening when you hear people say, for example, that the science is still out on global warming?

MD: I don’t find it maddening, I find it understandable. I completely disagree. I find that well over 95 percent of the scientists in the world agree on global warming and climate change. But I understand those who reject that or those who are trying to point out that’s not the case; some of those are coming from a religious perspective. They believe Jesus is coming back any day, and the end of the world’s gonna happen, so they don’t care about a 100 years from now or 200 years from now, it’s not what they’re tracking.

            Some people, it’s for economic reasons. They’re involved in the oil industry or they’re got vested interest or, you know, whatever, in some of the industries that are creating a lot of carbon dioxide, so they’ve got a vested interest in not seeing the evidence as evidence. So I have compassion for those people rather than finding it maddening. And by having compassion rather than getting upset about it, I actually am able to win people over a whole lot more effectively than if I just, you know ...


LEO: There are a lot of people who want to be talked to in a normal way who just don’t feel like that is happening.

MD: Short answer, 80-90 percent of these audiences we speak to are on a more moderate to liberal end of the spectrum, but most of them are surprised that Connie and I are actually gleeful that there are museums like (the new Answers in Genesis Museum in Northern Kentucky). For example, at the Grand Canyon they sell a book put out by creationists. Now, we are completely coming from a different perspective — we come from a mainstream perspective, you know, what 98 percent of the scientists in the world will agree on, which is evolution. We’re evolutionary evangelists, that’s what we do. In fact, we’ve been called North America’s evolutionary evangelists.

            But even though we’re coming from a totally evolutionary perspective, for us it’s far more important that young people, for example, are able to be at the Grand Canyon and have some literature that helps them be in this place with the deepest sense of reverence and awe, so we don’t care that they’re selling a book there that’s coming from another perspective. Because, frankly, until evolution — and this is what my book tries to do, and only time will tell whether it’ll be successful in doing it — but until my book or until some version of evolution is shared with conservatives so they get in their gut that evolution can be understood in a sacred, meaningful life, they’re gonna continue to reject evolution. And I think they should.

            And when I speak to conservatives — one time I spoke to a group of evangelical students up in Canada. I knew about 80 percent of the audience didn’t accept evolution, they were not creationists but intelligent design people, but they did not accept evolution. I started off saying, “Now, those of you who reject evolution, you are absolutely right to reject evolution.” And it was silent, and I said, “Because the only version of evolution that most of us have even been exposed to is a chance, meaningless, purposeless, mechanistic, cool, directionless, Godless process. And that’s not what I talk about.” More silence.

            And I said, “Now, if you’ll allow me to, not because I’m trying to convert you or convince you, it’s OK with me if we differ, but if you’re open to it, I would love to share with you why I am passionately excited about a God-glorifying, Christ-glorifying, scripture honoring way of thinking about evolution.” And I was silent for 10 seconds. You could feel the whole world open up in that place. They wouldn’t let me speak. And I had seen some of the same young, like 18-, 19-, 20-year-old young men that are very antagonistic at the beginning of my program, I’ve seen some of these same guys come up at the end and literally give me a bear hug and say, “Now, you haven’t converted me entirely, but I’m not threatened by your perspective.” That’s a huge move in an hour and a half.


LEO: I assume you do deal with some hostile audiences.

MD: I do, but I don’t engage them. I’ve never in five years of speaking in every kind of religious and non-religious setting, you know, churches, colleges, universities, whatever, not once have I entered into a debate, because once I sense that somebody is wanting to combat me or enter a debate, I stop. I bless them. I don’t try to convert them or convince them. I’m just not interested in that. But Connie and I basically believe that the one with the best story wins. If we’ve got a way of thinking about the big picture that just makes sense scientifically, philosophically, theologically, it touches people’s hearts, it moves their soul. If we’ve got a way of talking about the big picture that does all that, young people especially are gonna be like, “Well, duh, of course.”

            So we’re not interested in converting people to this perspective, we’re just interested in offering a way of thinking that we find, and many people find, inspiring. So inspiring that, well, obviously, this is the direction that we’re moving in.


LEO: How much intersection do you feel is necessary with the political process and the institutions that exist in our society?

MD: I think it’s huge. I mean, one of the things that I talk about again and again in the programs is the vital importance of aligning, like when we look at how has evolution — well, most people don’t know, but they call it a “divine trajectory” of evolution, a divine arrow, that it is going somewhere. What we see is evolution consistently produces greater complexity, greater diversity over time and a greater interdependence over time. And meanwhile, we see greater compassion, wider circles of compassion. For most people in history, we have compassion for people only in our little tribe or our little clan. And now we have many people, not everybody, but we have compassion for people all over the world. So we see this greater complexity, interdependence throughout the world now.

            We used to just cooperate on this very small scale, so we see this trajectory and the way that that unfolds, and I do a whole piece in my program, and I have charts that show this stuff, but the way that this unfolds is, each level has to figure out how to align the self-interest of the parts with the well-being of the whole. So if the part does well to the whole, it benefits, and if the part harms the whole, there’s some cost to the part. So that it’s in the general self-interest of the parts to do well to the whole that they’re a part of, and it’s also in their self-interest to not harm the part.

            On the human level, what that means is we’ve gotta create this system of economics and governors, this is essential, that aligns the natural self-interest of individuals, corporations and nation-states with the well-being of the whole. If individuals, corporations and nation-states do well for the larger common good, they benefit, and individuals, corporations and nation-states that disregard or harm the common good are taxed or penalized, or there’s moral structures. So it’s in their own self-interest to do well to the larger planet. It’s also in their self-interest to not harm the planet.

            That doesn’t mean that everybody becomes good or enlightened or saved or everybody “gets it” or everybody becomes ecologically sensitive. No, it’s a matter of restructuring the things. That’s why the political realm is so vitally important, so that the natural self-interest of the individuals, corporations and nation-states is aligned, and that means changing our tax structures, it means changing a lot of things. But I think that will definitely happen in the next 50 or 60 years.


LEO: Don’t you think people with a vested interest in the status quo are pretty hard to move?

MD: Not when they see it’ll be in their self-interest to do so. Some will, no question. I don’t want to be Pollyana-ish about this or make it seem like it’ll be too easy. I mean, one of the interesting things from an evolutionary standpoint is that the major thing that drives complexity in evolution, the major thing that drives evolutionary transformation, is chaos, breakdowns and bad news. So when people think we sound so optimistic about the future, they ask if I’m a natural optimist. I say, No, I’m not an optimist at all, because an optimist believes that no matter what we do, things will get better and better. A pessimist is somebody who believes that no matter what we do, things are gonna get worse and worse.

            You know the word ameliorate? I’m an “amelioratist” — I believe that what we do is gonna make a difference, no guarantee one way or the other. But when I look at long-term trends, I’m hopeful and inspired, because one of the things I see that drives the process of creativity and transformation is breakdowns, chaos, stuff like that. I want them to have no shortage of that in the next 40 or 50 years.


LEO: It does create teaching opportunities.

MD: Yes, and it creates opportunities for collaboration, it creates opportunities for creative relations, politically, economic and artistic. I mean, what is actually happening in the next four or five years is that the artist, the playwrights, the poets, the movie-makers, the TV producers, the musicians being engaged by this great story, what we call the Great Story, that is the epic of evolution told in a sacred and meaningful way.

            That’s what we mean by the great story. We see this great story as being infused throughout culture, through a whole range of art forms, and that’s what’s gonna engage people’s hearts, that’s what’s gonna engage their imagination, that’s gonna engage their creativity.

            And I think my book will probably play a role, a catalytic role in that process. Just in the beginning, but I think it will be a significant beginning.


LEO: You don’t live any particular place — you’re basically on the road all the time?

MD: Yes. For five years and a few months now we’ve been living — we call ourselves itinerate evolutionary evangelists. We travel permanently all over North America. We don’t have a home base, we don’t have any place we cycle back to more often than any other place, we just live on the road. We don’t even have an RV, so we don’t have a home or a storage den. We live permanently apartment to apartment. We’ve got a high-top Mercedes van — it’s actually called a Dodge Sprinter, but the only thing that’s Dodge on it is the nameplate. It’s actually made by Mercedes.

            So that’s what we’ve got, it’s our bedroom on wheels, so we almost always sleep in the van, even though we stay at people’s homes. Ninety-five percent of the time we’re staying at people’s homes, anywhere from a few days to a week or longer. And what we do is, we take over their guest bedroom and use that as our little office, so we’ve got card tables and laptops, and we move all our stuff in, so we basically just make their guest bedroom our office. And then we sleep in the van at night. But the thing is, we sleep in the same bed every night.

            I mean, if we had to sleep in the same bed every four or five days, we’d go nuts. The fact that we can always have the same bedroom allows this itinerate lifestyle to really, really work for us. Some people have these palatial, gorgeous guest bedrooms, and they wonder why we’re going out to the driveway, but then I remind them that it’s the only thing that’s constant in our lives. It’s the only consistency that we have. And then they get it.


LEO: Something interesting is how different, it seems to me, the perceptions of people in Louisville may be from, say, people in Tulsa, or Portland, or Phoenix. Have you picked up on this? Do you agree that people see things differently in different parts of the country?

MD: It’s amazing. I’d say yes. People see things differently, that’s very true. And people think about things differently, that’s also very true. But there’s so much about us humans that is deeper than seeing and deeper than thinking. It’s about how we behave, what we hear, what we hope for, what we yearn for. And those things are pretty common. And it doesn’t matter whether you’re liberal people or conservative people, Christian, Jew, no matter the person and no matter what their philosophy, a lot of what we have in common is human. So it’s pretty much the same whether we’re in Portland, Oregon, or somewhere in the middle of Nebraska. But some of the thinking and some of the worldview, some of the culture, is very different in different parts of the country.


LEO: Do you think that that’s a big issue? Is there a way you can get folks to rise above that and see the collectiveness of what we’re all after?

MD: We certainly try to do that. Most of the audiences we speak to are on the more moderate to liberal side, as I said before. But even in very conservative parts of the country, the moderates and the liberals find each other, and there’s a lot of interest in this stuff. And yeah, there’s progressive papers like yours in locations where you are. Now, of course, Louisville is fairly liberal for your part of the world, but still what we find is progressive people find each other, and they find ways to communicate, and what I’m trying to do is to help liberals and progressives to have more compassion and more understanding of their Pentecostal and evangelical conservative neighbors and friends, and to offer the kind of perspective that I’m offering in this book and in our workshops as a way of building bridges to these conservatives.

            The two main audiences that I see really loving my book are all of the progressive and liberal and science-based people who want to finally have some common ground to talk to their brother or their sister or their mother or their aunt or their uncle or their children or their neighbors or their friends, people who are conservative. Because there’s this religious divide that separates so many loved ones — people know family and circles of friends that they just can’t talk about certain things around. So I see liberals and progressives and science-based people giving this book as a gift to some of their more conservative friends.

            But paradoxically, I also see evangelicals and committed Christians giving this book to their atheist and secular friends as a way of saying they haven’t been able to effectively share why their faith is so important, and my book talks a lot about their personal traditional concepts, but does so in ways that science-based people and non-religious people can say, “Oh, wow, I got it. OK, that’s what you mean. That’s a different story, that’s pretty cool.”

            So I think religious people are gonna  give this book to their non-religious friends, and non-religious people are gonna give this book to their religious friends as a way of having something, a common ground to talk. And that, for me, is exciting. If my book doesn’t do anything else but help heal some of the wounds and the gulf between loved ones, I think it will have done a great service.