Stef Craps, Ghent University
A decade and a half after her death, Octavia Butler is having a moment. NASA has named the landing site of the agency’s Perseverance rover, which is searching for signs of ancient microbial life on Mars, after the African American science fiction author, and just a few months earlier her 1993 novel Parable of the Sower finally made the New York Times best-seller list.
One reason why this book has struck a chord is that it conjures up a nightmarish vision of an America burning itself down that many contemporary readers find all too recognizable. The first in a two-book series, Parable of the Sower offers a prescient glimpse of California in the 2020s. Written as a response to and critique of the neo-conservative assault on the welfare state, and published less than a year after the 1992 Los Angeles riots, the novel depicts a dystopian future where society has largely collapsed due to global warming, growing wealth inequality, and corporate greed. Poverty, crime, and exploitation are rampant outside a few gated communities such as the one on the outskirts of LA, Robledo, in which the protagonist—Lauren Olamina—grows up. Strictly speaking, Parable of the Sower is not a post-apocalyptic novel, as it is not concerned with sudden endings. Butler extrapolated from current trends, taking them to their logical extremes, without resorting to abrupt transitions or definitive catastrophes. As Lauren puts it, “things are unraveling, disintegrating bit by bit.”
Parable of the Sower also resonates in this time of Black Lives Matter protests and the ensuing societal reckoning with the racist foundations of the US because of its thoughtful engagement with practices of enslavement both past and present. In many ways, the novel is a neo-slave narrative: it tells the life story of a young African American woman through journal entries, her journey north in search of freedom and safety recalls that of fugitive slaves travelling along the Underground Railroad (as well as evoking Latin American immigrants illegally crossing the border into the US), and the many citations of and allusions to the Bible echo classic slave narratives, as does the importance placed on literacy and the quest for education. Moreover, twenty-first-century forms of economic servitude and social oppression, such as debt bondage to multinational corporations and sexual trafficking, are explicitly interpreted by the characters in terms of a continuation of or variation on antebellum chattel slavery. Thus, the novel challenges redemptive accounts of US racial history and discredits self-congratulatory proclamations of the triumph of capitalism.
An additional reason for the recent resurgence of interest in Parable of the Sower, besides its frighteningly realistic “collapse of civilization” story and its timely reflection on the enduring legacy of slavery in America, is that the novel provides a narrative blueprint for a sustainable future, achievable through processes of societal transformation prefigured by the community Lauren founds on the principles of a religion she has created herself. She realizes early on that nostalgia is not a viable solution to the problems ailing society. Ruefully observing that “People have changed the climate of the world. Now they’re waiting for the old days to come back,” she knows that the old order is broken beyond repair. Embarking on a perilous northbound journey on Highway 101 after her Robledo community has been destroyed by drug-crazed intruders, she gathers a diverse group of people around her whom she tells about and teaches the religion she has invented, “Earthseed,” a belief system whose basic tenet—“God is change”—emphasizes flux and impermanence.
Acknowledging that the world is in constant change, and that people can and must adapt, Earthseed rejects individualism, private property, and discrimination based on race, gender, class, or sexuality; it embraces diversity, interconnectedness, and interdependence with the human and non-human world. Through Earthseed, the novel offers a utopian vision that can serve as an alternative model to the unjust and moribund system which led to the political, economic, and environmental crisis. Towards the end of the narrative, Lauren and her followers found the first Earthseed settlement, called Acorn, in Humboldt County in northern California. Earthseed’s ultimate destiny, though, as prophesied by Lauren, is to “take root among the stars”: she imagines the future of humanity in terms of interstellar travel and the establishment of Earthseed communities in solar systems beyond planet Earth.
Empathy plays an important role in facilitating the creation of Lauren’s progressive community. Butler contrasts the callousness and indifference to human suffering of the existing social (dis)order with her protagonist’s extreme sensitivity to the pain of others. Born with “hyperempathy syndrome,” a genetic defect caused by her mother’s drug use while she was pregnant, Lauren can feel the pain and (less often) pleasure of others. She vacillates between seeing hyperempathy as a disability, since it makes her more vulnerable, and an asset, “something that might do some good,” as it could become the basis for a more compassionate and caring society. In fact, Parable of the Sower’s attempt to imagine utopia from the ashes is reminiscent of Rebecca Solnit’s A Paradise Built in Hell, which describes the “disaster communities” constituted through mutual aid and collectivity that spring up in response to breakdowns of the prevailing social order, giving the lie to the commonplace notion that disasters reveal the worst in human nature.
However, the feasibility of Butler’s utopian vision as articulated in the novel is a moot point. For one thing, the ending is ambiguous. It strikes a hopeful note, but it is unclear whether Acorn can actually survive in a hostile wider environment marked by violence, anarchy, and climate catastrophe. In any case, as a relatively isolated agrarian enclave, it does not obviously pose an effective challenge to global capitalism. Moreover, as a fictitious genetic mutation, hyperempathy syndrome—the “novum” in this otherwise realistic science fiction tale—may seem like tenuous ground for real-world socio-political change; besides, it sometimes leads to decidedly unethical behaviour. In addition, Earthseed’s focus on an interstellar destiny can be seen to undermine its commitment to bettering life on this planet. Even so, Parable of the Sower stands out for envisaging ways that could lead to a radically improved world, thus giving contemporary readers a refreshing break from the relentless horror show of the Trump era and the standard doom and gloom that tends to predominate in speculative fiction.
Climate change is a central topic of our time, and we are living through increasingly drastic changes that impact our way of life. Octavia E. Butler’s Parable of the Sower takes place in the U.S. It is set in an imagined near future, but climate change-induced disasters such as hurricanes, floods and drought are part of America´s very real recent history. Butler´s novel anticipates climate disasters now happening worldwide. Violent storms, monsoons, and slow-onset climate change, such as dry areas getting drier, have cost millions of lives, livelihoods and homes.
In 1990, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) suggested that climate change would have “the greatest single impact” on human migration, with several million people having to move due to increasing water levels, increasing drought and heat or other factors that make agriculture impossible to sustain. Estimates on the number of climate change refugees vary greatly, from a “modest” 25 million up to a billion – though the most commonly cited estimate is 200 million people displaced by 2050, according to the International Organization for Migration.
This graphic by the New York Times illustrates the global reduction of livable land areas. The article that follows the graphic, entitled “The Great Climate Migration,” goes on to discuss the ways climate change is affecting families in Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador. Many from these countries are currently being forced to move in the hopes of finding a living because an increasing drought has made agriculture unsustainable. As a consequence, what food is being produced becomes more expensive, and many people can no longer afford to provide for themselves and their families.
Many Central Americans migrate north, hoping to find work in the US. This route is dangerous. Nearly half of immigrants trying to enter the US from Guatemala, Honduras, or El Salvador report that they lost a relative to violence along the way. But hundreds of thousands of Central Americans and others in similar situations worldwide choose to face similar risks saying there simply isn’t an alternative anymore due to climate change.
Within families, deciding who should migrate and who should stay behind can be extremely challenging. Some people migrate alone or bring only part of their family, planning to search for a job in order to support the rest of their family, perhaps one day hoping to return. Others bring their entire families, hoping to start fresh somewhere else. One example of the former is Delmira de Jesús Cortez Barrera, who brought her infant son with her when she moved from the rural west of El Salvador, but left her two daughters in the care of her parents. Over a fourth of Cortez’s income was sent back to her parents to make sure her daughters were fed. Alternatively, families may bring all of their children, or children may migrate alone. UNICEF reports that 50 million boys and girls have been internationally or internally displaced due to climate change.
In Octavia E. Butler’s Parable of the Sower the situation is not so different. Though our protagonists travel a shorter distance, “only” within state lines, they are also migrating because climate change has contributed to making their homes practically unlivable. As in Central America, the weather in Parable of the Sower is not the only one to blame. The gated communities of South California encourage inequality and amplify the effects of climate change-driven financial insecurity.
Lauren and the other protagonists migrate in the hopes of finding a better place and making something new, something better and most important of all, sustainable, in a world where that is becoming increasingly difficult. Their journey, while shorter, is still not without its dangers.
In Parable of the Sower, Octavia E. Butler depicts a future, eerily similar to our own time, where the United States is struggling with socio-economic inequality more than ever. Inequality is sometimes an invisible human rights issue. At the communal, national, and global levels, wealthier people often do not see poorer people whose daily labour makes their more comfortable life possible. But inequality is a major, global human rights issue, in itself and as a driver for political conflict and crime. According to the Center for Economic and Social Rights, all people are entitled to “the human right to work, the right to an adequate standard of living, including food, clothing, and housing, the right to physical and mental health, the right to social security, the right to a healthy environment, and the right to education.” The Parable of the Sower portrays a world in which these rights are under threat.
Inequality in the United States
In the United States, both wealth and income inequality have steadily increased in recent decades. A 2017 report, titled “Billionaire Bonanza: The Forbes 400 and the Rest of Us,” found that the three wealthiest individuals in the US, Bill Gates, Jeff Bezos, and Warren Buffett, hold more than wealth than the bottom 50% of American citizens combined.
Compared to other Western countries, the US is worse off in terms of both wealth and income inequality. In 2018, the first World Inequality Report was published; summary here. By analysing the income share of the top 1% of the populations compared to the bottom 50%, the report found significant differences in development between 1980 and 2016. Whereas Western Europe and the US had similar levels of inequality in 1980, this had changed by 2016. In Western Europe, the inequality levels remained relatively stable, whereas the gap widened significantly in the US, as shown by the graphs from the report.
Moreover, the Covid-19 pandemic has only served to make issues of social and economic inequality in the US more apparent. More than half a million Americans have died because of the virus and millions have lost their jobs. And yet, some of the wealthiest Americans have flourished. According to “Updates: Billionaire Wealth, U.S. Job Losses and Pandemic Profiteers,” despite the aforementioned tragic consequences of the pandemic, by the end of February 2021, American billionaires had experienced an increase in their combined wealth of $1.3 trillion, or 44%, since the middle of March 2020.
Inequality and Race
Inequality and race have always been deeply intertwined in the US, and this is still true today. Black citizens consistently come off worse in social and economic statistics than both the white population in the US and the population as a whole. The gap is most visible in terms of wealth (as opposed to income), as can be seen by this graph from Institute for Policy Studies.
Alongside wealth disparity, income disparity is also growing. The Pew Research Center points out that: “The difference in median household incomes between white and black Americans has grown from about $23,800 in 1970 to roughly $33,000 in 2018” and that “Median black household income was 61% of median white household income in 2018 […].”
Similar to the fictional future in which Butler’s novel takes place, the number of gated communities has increased since the 1980s, both globally and in the US specifically. Numbers are uncertain because many gated communities are privately owned, which you can read more about in a 2012 article from Forbes, “America’s Most Exclusive Gated Communities.” The article references the American Housing Survey from 2009, which estimated that almost 11 million American households were part of gated communities, an increase from around 7 million in 2001. Although gated communities are normally created to offer a safe environment for those living inside the gates, there are also negative side-effects. This form of segregation leads to increased social stratification between rich and poor.
The Retreat at Twin Lakes, a gated community in Sanford, Florida became famous in 2012 for the death of the African-American teenager Trayvon Martin at the hands of George Zimmerman, who was volunteering for the community’s crime watch. Martin did not live in the gated community himself but was rather visiting relatives who lived there. Zimmerman took the case in his own hands because he deemed Martin’s behaviour suspicious and suspected that he could be a burglar. During his trial, Zimmerman was eventually acquitted after claiming self-defence and because there was not sufficient evidence to contradict his version of the events. The incident showcases how the rigid distinction between insiders and (perceived) outsiders can potentially have fatal consequences, an issue which also plays an important role in Parable of the Sower.