Inside Starhawk’s visionary novel, The Fifth Sacred Thing (Bantam, 1993), lies a lush, thriving community of people in post-revolutionary California who have adopted an earth-based, ecofeminist set of values and ideas. While the rest of the country, and presumably the world, suffers through extreme corruption and poverty, the people of San Francisco seem to have figured it out. They live simply, help one another, and, above all, value the earth and its elements.
After a violent revolution, the people of this not-so-distant future San Francisco decided they want to live life differently- live a life in harmony and appreciation for the environment. They have chosen to honor the Four Sacred Things that sustain life.
“The earth is a living, conscious being. In company with cultures of many different times and places, we name these things as sacred: air, fire, water, and earth. Whether we see them as the breath, energy, blood, and body of the Mother, or as the blessed gifts of a Creator, or as symbols of the interconnected systems that sustain life, we know that nothing can live without them.
To call these things sacred, is to say that they have a value beyond the usefulness for humans ends, that they themselves become the standards by which our acts, our economics, our laws, our purposes must be judged. No one has the right to appropriate them or profit for them at the expense of others. Any government that fails to protect them forfeit its legitimacy” (Starhawk, 1993).
The magical city is filled with productive gardens growing on street corners, flowing streams, gondolas as public transport, and a happy, engaged community that fosters cultures, roots, and ideas. Energy healers, witches, engineers, strong female leaders, and all kinds of people- young and old- live in multicultural neighborhoods where everyone speaks more than one language and all religions are honored.
Starhawk’s writing centers around ideals of goddess spirituality with political undertones that together create a narrative explanation of the ecofeminist movement. The Fifth Sacred Thing is a great introduction to ecofeminism, as throughout the story she highlights all the values and ideas of the movement such as cultural diversity, matriarchal leadership, and social justice and how they can be applied on a large scale.
The book is set against a backdrop of a desperate and failing authoritarian country, a stark contrast that shows what could happen to our society. In her example of southern California, people are forced to obey a corrupt official religion, dying of hunger and thirst, and suffering from even greater crimes of humanity. The environment has been ravaged, almost to the point of no return, by which everybody is negatively affected.
When one of the main characters, Madrone, ventures south, away from her safe haven to offer her healing to rebels fighting the government, she describes to those she meets the way her “fairytale” city works. They can hardly believe that everyone has enough to drink and eat and that everyone is given equal respect, opportunities, and access. Additionally, everyone’s daily habits contribute to sustainability, bartering is the mainstay of the economy, technology furthers the health of the earth, and healthcare is free to everyone. Gender roles are nearly obsolete, marriage is no longer institutional, and integrity replaces the justice system.
Through the lovable characters’ interactions and reactions, page-turning events, and inner dialogue, we see an ecofeminist analysis and criticism of the world we currently live in, as well as plentiful reasoning for why we need to turn it around before the possible worst happens.
While the politics in this book are subtle and the story is mostly spiritual in nature, Starhawk is a known ecofeminist and this book seems to be a way for her to creatively spin an example of her idea and values. Within this world of pagan rituals and rich cultural diversity, Starhawk has created a working example of how ecofeminism can benefit our species and world.
If you are interested in ecofeminism or earth-based spirituality, The Fifth Sacred Thing is a great springboard for learning more about the movements. I would also recommend this book to anybody who is dissatisfied with the way our society works now, to anyone who desires environmental harmony and social equity, or to those who wish to see how love can save the world.
Kelsey Sutton, Volunteer