Octavia Butler’s Parable of the Sower highlights the progression of some of the most important environmental issues currently affecting our world. It is no secret that the industrialization of the planet has negatively affected the Earth’s climate over the past century, with the problem only compounding on itself and getting worse every day. Literature is a very effective medium through which to inform the public about problems and where they can lead if current habits do not change. Speculative literature is particularly good at getting such themes across because the writer can create a universe independent of reality in which things are as different as the author wishes. In Octavia Butler’s Parable of the Sower, excessive degradation of the natural environment and the worsening ecology of cities give a powerful message about what could happen if we do not protect our world.
Butler’s book can be analyzed using an ecocritical approach, looking at the different environmental factors that affect the characters in the novel. In the words of author Michael Cohen, ecocriticism focuses on “literary (and artistic) expression of human experience primarily in a naturally and consequently culturally shaped world: the joys of abundance, sorrows of deprivation, hopes for harmonious existence, and fears of loss and disaster” (Cohen). In Butler’s dystopian world, all our current fears have come true and the world has degraded to the point where chaos is rampant and the majority of American citizens do not feel safe in their own homes.
Throughout the entirety of Parable of the Sower, water is described as an expensive commodity that must be saved and preserved. Desalinization plants are necessary in order for people to have enough water in their daily lives. Based on Butler’s emphasis on the neglected and dangerous state of the environment, it can be assumed from the text that the lack of rain is the result of years of climate change and environmental neglect.
“It only rains once every six or seven years” (Butler 61)
This creates a devastating situation in which the supply of water is much lower than the quantity of water demanded, due to the affected climate and pollution that brought about this dystopian society. According to the basic economic principles of microeconomics, this disjoint in supply and demand has caused the price of water to rise incomprehensibly high. This basic economic theory is supported by Butler when she says “water now costs several times as much as gasoline.” (Butler 21). Therefore, the way that climate change has affected this dystopian society is therefore directly analogous to it’s effect on the water supply, where water is used as a signifier for many greater issues.
Natural and Social Degradation in Olivar
Conservation of resources is an issue that is brought up more and more in today’s world as well, and people are constantly encouraged to make changes in their lives in order to try conserving natural resources. However, for the most part, humans are still neglectful and incredibly wasteful. The issues that exist in Parable of the Sower were caused by the people themselves. Professor of philosophy Marienne Sawicki states that any environment “expresses the terms in which its residents value their world” and that land “embodies certain social realities” of a place (van Eck). Since the citizens of dystopian America did not value their natural environment, the degradation got worse and worse.
“Parts of it sometimes crumble into the ocean, undercut or deeply saturated by salt water” (Butler 141)
In the small city of Olivar, people were more or less forced to sell themselves to a company in order to save themselves from poverty and from having to give up their homes to the rising ocean levels caused by global warming. Because of this, homes and businesses that used to exist on the beach are gone, and the economy is crumbling, leaving citizens helpless and dependent on the company.
What is Butler trying to say about the relationship between environmental and socioeconomic degradation?
Fires and Lack of Order
In the text, fires in California are decimating the landscape and depleting it of productive agricultural land and other resources. In response to the decrease in food sources, people are forced to become stingier and look out for themselves and less for others. This in turn creates an unpleasant social environment, filled with fear and distrust as people are afraid of others taking their belongings and leaving them without. The environment “lacks any form of permanence or stability,” as described by Mathias Nilges in his article “We Need the Stars.” There are drug addicts roaming outside community walls, murdering people and burning down homes. There are no authorities that can be relied upon and those that are hurt can get no compensation for their loss, contributing to a very unhealthy ecology even in places where people are considered better-off. The constantly changing environment forces them to adapt and change with it. However, the people in the world of Parable of the Sower are exhausted by the constant need to adapt. They would rather return to a more repressive and ordered social state then live in chaos (Nigels). This is why they are willing to work low-paying jobs in bad conditions and give up their economic freedom, just in order to keep their homes and have some sort of routine.
How does Butler imply that we can prevent the situation in Parable of the Sower from becoming reality?
Cohen, Michael P. “Blues in the Green: Ecocriticism under Critique.” Environmental History, vol. 9, no. 1, 2004, pp. 12. JSTOR, JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/3985943.
van Eck, Ernest. “The Harvest and the Kingdom: An Interpretation of the Sower (Mk 4:3b-8) as a Parable of Jesus the Galilean.” Hervormde Teologiese Studies, vol. 70, no. 1, 2014, pp.1-10, ProQuest Central, http://libproxy.lib.unc.edu/login?url=https://search.proquest.com/docview/1680764042?accountid=14244.
Nilges, Mathias. “We Need the Stars-Change, Community, and the Absent Father in
Octavia Butler’s Parable of the Sower and Parable of the Talents.” Callaloo, vol.32, no. 4, 2009, pp. 1332–1352. Project Muse, doi:10.1353/cal.0.0553. http://muse.jhu.edu/article/367933.