Earthseed Part 1
Did Octavia Butler offer us a new way of doing spirituality and religion?
Before we get into this new series, a quick thank you. I feel the need to say it, and will probably say thanks again soon because the response to this has been tremendous and humbling. I don’t want to spend too much time talking at you before kicking off the extended Earthseed series, but just some quick notes:
I started this in a bit of a rush. It’s something I really wanted to do, but the whole Twitter thing accelerated the process. So, now that I’m a little settled into this new place I’m going to try to release something every Wednesday and every Sunday. For now I’m thinking Wednesday will be Earthseed and Sunday will be more tied to current events (although still zooming out from there), with a few paid posts sprinkled in here and there.
This Earthseed series will soon be its own tab on the site. It’ll basically be a long serialized essay about this novel approach to spirituality and religion in hectic times from Octavia Butler’s two Parable books, but more on that in the first installment below.
I think that’s about it. Thank you just one more time for tuning into this, and look forward to hearing what you think about Earthseed!
In The Beginning (An Intro to Earthseed)
As you might know, in Matthew 13 Jesus sits on a boat, in a lake, and tells the crowd assembled before him what has become known as the parable of the sower. He speaks of a farmer who goes out to sow seeds in a field, and the seeds fall in four different places. Some fall on the path and are quickly eaten by birds. Others fall on rocky ground, and wither away. A few fall amid thorns and are choked before they can grow. Finally, some seeds fall in good soil, and bring forth grain, “some a hundredfold, some sixty, some thirty.”
Maybe you already knew this is where Octavia Butler got the title of her 1993 novel, Parable of the Sower. But, if you’re unfamiliar, that’s okay. You won’t need to know the book to get the gist of what I’m trying to say, because I’ll be doing some summarizing right now, and I’ll try my best to explain the plot of the Parable books (there’s a sequel called Parable of the Talents) throughout. First off, Octavia Butler’s main character in these novels is an Afro-Latine teenager named Lauren Olamina. She’s the one who thinks up Earthseed, which can be understood as a new religion, or maybe as a new way of doing religion. She doesn’t do this in a vacuum; she creates it in the context of a collapsing world. The collapsing world is our own, just slightly in the future and falling apart a little faster. The location is California, the year is 2024 as the first book opens, and Lauren and her family live in a walled community near Los Angeles called Robledo. In this vision of the not-so-distant future the social contract has collapsed, crime and the use of a dangerous new drug run rampant, and a Christo-fascist movement is ascendant (among other issues). Lauren and her neighbors venture outside the walls of their community as little as possible, and although many know deep down that they can’t hide forever, all of them are determined to protect their little walled haven as long as they can—all except Lauren, that is. Lauren makes clear from a young age that she’s determined to confront the truth that their physical walls can’t hold collapse back forever. So she prepares, materially by packing a bug-out bag, and spiritually by piecing together, little by slowly, a new spiritual approach to life. In the shadow of her father, Robledo’s pastor and religious leader, Lauren imagines and records the beginnings of a new approach to religion; she calls it Earthseed: The Book of the Living.
If you appreciate these essays, please consider making more of them possible!
Over the course of Parable of the Sower, and its sequel, Octavia Butler fleshes out Earthseed, both by giving us passages from “The Book of the Living” and by showing us how it plays out in action, in a group, and in community. Throughout, she makes clear that Earthseed is attractive to people in large part because of how well it responds to their crumbling society. Butler tells us about Lauren developing this new faith at the same time as she tells us about company towns returning to the U.S., only this time with shock collars around the necks of enslaved workers. Simultaneously, a Christo-fascist movement is growing, eventually becoming so powerful that in Talents they capture the presidency. (Andrew Steele Jarret, the fascist leader who becomes President, wins with the campaign slogan “Make America Great Again,” a detail that sparked renewed interest Butler’s work after the rise of Donald Trump). For much of Sower, we walk with Lauren and her companions along Route 1, the iconic highway running along the West Coast, and around this motley crew lie all forms of collapse and devastation. Murder, rape, pyromania and assorted mayhem shocks us along the way, but Butler makes clear that the decay has been gradual and continuous rather than the result of any one apocalyptic event.
Lauren’s brain and soul child, Earthseed, is responding to these conditions, responding to gradual collapse and to the intensity and necessity of the brutal society she and her companions find themselves in. From the first verse of Earthseed we begin to see how it’s both informed by circumstances, and how in replying to those circumstance we can begin to forge a way through, and out:
“All that you touch You Change. All that you Change Changes you. The only lasting truth Is Change. God Is Change.” - The Book of the Living, verse 1: God is Change
Lauren is working, in part, against what she sees as the shortcomings of her dad’s religion. In the first half of Sower Butler shows us that his specific Christianity in this dystopian world means unquestioning faith, a faith that closes its eyes while the world burns, and simply prays for the best. Lauren not only wants, but needs a faith that is active and empowering, where people are inspired to do, are given permission to act and even spurred into action. She needs this to survive, and because she’s convinced that it’s the only way towards a world where humanity itself can survive, and thrive. Lauren is convinced that we need a new God, or a new way of relating to God, or maybe a new way of understanding the universe and our place in it.
The Parable books sparked scholarship and popular discussion, especially after people saw Trump’s “Make America Great Again” slogan, which rightly made people wonder about Octavia Butler’s prophetic abilities. But this connection is just the barest beginning when it comes to the parallels between Lauren Olamina’s world and our own. Her United States is devastated by capitalism. Climate change wracks the planet, refugees move in droves across the country, people distract themselves from reality with virtual games, and on and on. The first book begins in 2024, and although we won’t exactly see a world that resembles Butler’s when the clock strikes midnight on December 31st, 2023, many of the key trends are already clearly identifiable. Climate change is escalating, companies are union busting and implementing ever more controlling methods by which to track and extract from their employees. The government itself might try to bust up the biggest national strike in a generation today. Homelessness is up, even as millions of houses sit empty. Refugees and migrants flee their homelands in record numbers, only to be met by ever more militarized borders.
All this to say, it’s no surprise that people have turned back to the pages of the Parable books looking not only for entertainment, but for a hint of how to approach this world and the future we face. And even though plenty of people have just found an exciting story, thousands more have also looked to the substance of Earthseed, the spiritual path planted within the books. Some, like the founders of the Earthseed Land Collective, have taken it to heart as literally as possible, founding a community that attempts to learn from Acorn, the community where Lauren and the Earthseed adherents first try to practice their beliefs. Others, like the SolSeed movement, formed more disparate collectives online to discuss Earthseed and its principles, and try to spread the good word to others. But so far these efforts have been limited, not taking off the way they ultimately do in Parable of the Talents, a success that only comes after years of struggle in the chaos of a dystopian society. There are of course plenty of reasons why the ideology extracted from these dystopian novels hasn’t taken hold, but this lack of application, so far, in the wider world can sometimes obscure the truth that there’s a huge amount we can, and maybe should learn from Earthseed.
This extended, serialized essay will argue that the core elements of Earthseed are not just interesting but vital for anyone who wants a better and more just future where people and this planet are able to survive and thrive. Namely, in addition to organizing, movement building, and working with established religions and spiritualities we also need to embrace new ways of doing spirituality and religion that are responsive to collapse, that both give people agency and compel them to exercise it, that promote a more symbiotic relationship with the natural world, and that help us work against inequality and capitalist exploitation. Earthseed is not perfect, by any means, but it incorporates and synthesizes threads from existing traditions such as Womanism and Igbo religion and spirituality and blends these with Afro-Futurism and other existing schools of thought and theology. In doing so, it begins to reveal a very applicable new way of doing spirituality that provides a model for a very real faith. So, all told, I think we should take it seriously. Not just as a part of a profound, wild, dystopian book but as something that we could really incorporate and learn from.
For now, I’ll leave you with the Book of the Living (hyperlinked), and next time we’ll start getting into some of the components Butler drew from in assembling Earthseed. I look forward to hearing what you think about part 1, and what you think about Butler’s work more broadly.
Thanks for reading the introduction to this series; see you next Wednesday for part 2! - Josh
This Earthseed series is just getting started. If you’d like to get updates, or make more or this writing possible, please subscribe and share!
Bibliography (with some good reads linked!):
 The Book of the Living, Verse 1
 Aguirre, Abby. “Octavia Butler’s Prescient Vision of a Zealot Elected to ‘Make America Great Again’ | The New Yorker.” Accessed March 23, 2022.
 Purifoy, Danielle M. “‘To Live and Thrive on New Earths’: The Earthseed Land Collective and Black Freedom.” Southern Cultures 26, no. 4 (2020): 78–89.
Holden, Rebecca J., and Nisi Shawl, eds. Strange Matings: Science Fiction, Feminism, African American Voices, and Octavia E. Butler. Seattle, WA: Aqueduct Press, 2013. Pg, 186.