The Prescient Pessimism of Octavia Butler

This is the first in a series of monthly readings of novels that engage with the consequences of climate change and social collapse. While novels cannot always reliably predict the future, they can provide our imaginations with the resources necessary to contemplate the scale of the ecological and political disruption that has already begun.  

In the 2020s and ‘30s, fire ravages California towns. Migrant caravans make their way on foot towards the closed border of Oregon. A new President promises to “make America great again” through authoritarianism and political violence.  

This is the future imagined by Octavia Butler in Paradise of the Sower (1993) and Parable of the Talents (2000) but it is also, of course, partly our present. While we have not completely hit the apocalyptic depths of Butler’s imagination – slavery has not yet made a widespread return in the US, for instance – her novels provide us a way of thinking through issues surrounding climate-induced collapse.

For anyone looking for consolation in the ruins, not much can be found in Butler’s work. She presents a pessimistic view of how people raised under an ideology of capitalist individualism will adapt to the collective challenge of social and climatic collapse.  

Denial

At the beginning of the Parable of the Sower, Lauren Olamina, the teenage African American protagonist, whose diaries make up the novel, lives in the walled community of Robledo in southern California. Outside the walls, society has collapsed. Headless bodies are left to rot on the street and unprotected houses are “trashed, burned, vandalized, infested with drunks or druggies or squatted in by homeless families.” For Lauren, the sight of so much suffering causes particular pain and vulnerability, as she has “hyperempathy syndrome,” a side-effect of being born from a drug-addicted mother that causes her to feel the pain of the people that surround her. Empathy, Butler suggests, will be at odds with the “every person for themselves” mentality of a collapsed society.

Butler makes it clear that this collapse has been caused by a mixture of climate change and unregulated capitalism. Drought and crop failure have led to widespread deprivation, and the state has abandoned any pretense of public responsibility. Even basic public services have been privatized, so calling the cops or the fire department costs money. In other words, the Ayn Randian dreams of the right have come true.

Despite the horror outside their walls, some residents inside Robledo remain strangely oblivious to the precarity of their own situation. When Lauren confesses to best friend Joanne that she is preparing for their community to be destroyed by learning survival skills and storing supplies, Joanne responds by saying that “we’ll get through these bad times and back to normal.” Lauren, though, recognizes that Joanne’s optimism is just self-deception: “She was too bright to take anything but the most superficial comfort from her denial. But even superficial comfort is better than none, I guess.”

On the surface Joanne’s denial is ridiculous: there is only an easily breached wall between her and the apocalypse. Yet, in some ways, many of us also take “superficial comfort” from the belief that somehow “we’ll just get through.” The timescale maybe different – most communities in the US are not in imminent danger of collapse – yet warnings about an accelerating warming are often met by indifference or a blind belief that positive progress always wins. The UN warns that we are on the verge of a climate catastrophe, yet for most of us the warning does not stick.

And, of course, some communities in the US are in danger of immediate climate-related destruction as we saw in Paradise, California.

Eventually, Joanne and her family move to a protected corporate enclave, where residents have to work to pay off their never-ending debt to the company that feeds and houses them. Shortly afterward, Robledo is attacked by looters high on a drug that encourages its takers to set fires, and with a small group of others, Lauren is left to confront the reality of collapse.

Collapse

To reach the promised lands north of California, Lauren walks highways with a sea of other people:

“The freeway crowd is a heterogeneous mass – black and white, Asian and Latin, whole families are on the move with babies on backs or perched atop loads in carts, wagons, or bicycle baskets, sometimes along with an old or handicapped person…Almost everyone was filthy. Their bags and bundles and packs were filthy.”

While there are many differences, it’s hard not to read Butler’s 1993 description of the mass migrations of North Americans and not think of the so-called migrant caravans moving from Central America to the US border. In Butler’s novel, people are also fleeing a collapsing state and heading toward closed borders where there will be met with hostility and violence.

The real migrant caravan was supported along its way both by aid groups and the good will of local communities. As The New York Times notes,

“Participants have depended on the aid of locals as they travel north. Town and state leaders have organized shelters and medical tents. Church and civic groups have appeared with pots of tamales, rice and beans, spaghetti and, in one town, rice pudding cooked in enormous pots over wood fires. Water has been handed out, often in small plastic bags.”

In Butler’s novel though there is no such support. Individuals and small groups stick to themselves due to the threat of “predators.” Lauren dresses as a man while travelling, since women, in particular, are targets, but this does not stop her and her group from being attacked, and Lauren from having to kill to survive.

In the event of an actual US based collapse, how would communities respond? Would refugees support each other, and would local communities step up, as happened recently in Mexico, or would people turn on each other? Certainly, Butler believed that in the US, a culture of capitalist individualism would devolve into violence and mindless destruction. Her description of the predatory environment surrounding her fictional migrant caravan reflects her pessimistic view of human nature under capitalism where the motives of strangers are always suspect.

Survival

Eventually, Lauren does escape the dog-eat-dog world of the highway by forming the community of Acorn in northern California based around the new religion of Earthseed, a collection of “truths” that Lauren writes in her notebook. Central to this religion is the idea of change:

All that you touch

You Change

All that you Change

Changes you

The only lasting truth

Is Change

God

Is Change

It’s unclear how much Lauren’s invented religion reflects Butler’s own philosophy, but the injunction to accept change suggests that in a collapse scenario, the best response is a clear-sighted acceptance that nothing will ever return to normal. In this way, Lauren’s religion mirrors the philosophy of deep adaptation, where the focus switches from how to stop climate change to how to survive it.

While it is not an explicitly anarchist community, Lauren’s community survives for a while through the practices of mutual aid. In this way, Butler’s fictional rendering of future survival in the midst of a violent, collapsing society parallels the ideas presented in the anonymous anarchist text Desert that was published in 2011.  The author or authors of Desert reject the traditional leftist idea that activists can change the world:

“The specter that many try not to see is a simple realization – the world will not be saved. Global anarchist revolution is not going to happen. Global climate change is now unstoppable.”

According to Desert, the best hope of flourishing in an overheated world is to find spaces “between the cracks” in which anarchists can create functioning communities and even flourish. Yet, even in the “cracks,” anarchists are at disadvantage, as religious extremists are more likely to fill the gap left by a collapsing superstructure: “The terrible inheritance of leftist failures and successes has only left the field open for the growth of millenarian theocratic authorities among the slums and ‘large islands of chaos.’” This is exactly what happens in Parable of the Talents, as Acorn is attacked by religious extremists, who reject Acorn’s communitarianism and alternative religion.

Acorn’s attackers are also followers of Andrew Jarrett, an extremist who successfully runs for President by promising to “make America great again.” Here, Butler’s prescience is almost uncanny, as she predicted word-for-word Trump’s campaign slogan by imagining how a demagogic politician would run a nationalist campaign in a time of fear and deep uncertainty. While Trump does not share the religious extremism of Jarrett, Butler’s fictional President encourages violence in a way that is familiar to us by criticizing the acts of his followers “in such mild language that his people are free to hear what they want to hear.”

Jarrett’s followers enslave Acorn using remotely controlled collars that electronically “whip” the wearers. The middle sections of The Parable of the Talents are the most brutal of the two novels, as Lauren and her community are subject to extreme deprivation and torture. Here, Butler presents a pessimistic view of the human capacity for cruelty, as guards who are viewed on the outside as “good men” participate in horrific acts of abuse.

There are also clear political implications of Butler’s description of future slavery. After all, Acorn is a racially mixed community that is enslaved by white Christians following an authoritarian leader. Butler suggests that the underlying white Christian supremacism that once enabled slavery in the US has not disappeared, and in a collapse scenario, those same supremacist views will be enacted with impunity.

Eventually Lauren and her community manage to kill their captors. By the end of book, Earthseed has become a popular and wealthy religion. The group is even able to fund a space flight where Earthseed members are sent out to fulfil their destiny of “taking root among the stars.” Yet this is not an unambiguously happy ending. As well as Lauren’s diary, the novel also contains the words of her estranged daughter, Larkin, who labels Earthseed as a cult and criticizes it for its interstellar ambitions when “so much needed to be done here on earth – so many diseases, so much hunger, so much poverty, such suffering, and here was a rich organization spending vast sums of money, time, and effort on nonsense.” The implication here is that Earthseed may have been a positive force when it held together a small radical community, but as a national religious movement, it too is subject to the corrupting forces of wealth and personal ambition.

Butler’s Pessimism

Butler described herself as a “pessimist, if I’m not careful,” and in the Parable novels that pessimism is centered on the human response to apocalyptic conditions, especially the response of people raised under the individualistic ideology of capitalism. She suggests that many of us will deny the reality of collapse, even when it is imminent. And when society does collapse, Butler suggests many people will resort to violence and theocratic extremism.

You could argue that Butler’s pessimism is tempered by her protagonist Lauren, who arguably offers an exception to a bleak view of human nature. She does prepare for the coming collapse, and she does help build an egalitarian community. Unlike some of the other characters in the novel, she is helped by her hyperempathy syndrome that puts her at odds with the selfishness of the surrounding culture. However, when Lauren’s communitarian ideas are scaled up and gain national prominence, she, too, becomes focused on power and success rather than genuine community building.

For the reader, none of this is very comforting, especially as some of Butler’s science fiction predictions are becoming reality. If we read Butler’s novels as actual parables, then perhaps the best we can do is to take a realistic look at what is coming and think about how to build communities that can survive.

Next month: The Water Knife by Paolo Bacigalupi

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