Water the Key to Life

Octavia E. Butler’s “Parable of the Sower” is an exquisitely written first-person narrative that follows a young woman’s journey as she navigates life through a “very grim near-future who has assembled a new belief system, a new religion” (Butler 3), and adopted a new family/clan. The preceding delineates how Lauren Olamina, the story’s main protagonist, demonstrates a need and will to survive by means of structuring normality in a clasped world of destruction. The author does not offer an explanation as to what caused the demise of American civilization, a useful technique for those who are not fans of fantastical futuristic prose (the author notes: “my rule for writing the novel was that I couldn’t write about anything that couldn’t actually happen” (Butler 3)). Readers will be captivated by the realistic struggle of the characters to rebuild some semblance of normalcy. The most normal of all basic human instincts is belief, and by creating her own belief system fostered around the concept that “change is ongoing. Everything changes in some way…Every living thing, every bit of matter, all the energy in the universe changes in some way” (Butler 218). The aforementioned denotes how the character Lauren transcends her theory of inevitable change as the starting point of her “Earthseed” theology. To Lauren, and by extension the author, “God is Change, and in the end, God prevails. But God exists to be shaped” (Butler 76). With the preceding statement in mind, in this story Lauren shapes her intellect of the Bible and its teachings to justifiably interpret what she describes as her own “idea” of God, “Earthseed.” It would be false to call “Earthseed” a religion (it is a concept) though it is referenced as one in the story; presumably, there were no other accurate adjectives/nouns that could be used that would require little explanation, but for the sake of argument this religion is not actually a religion. Butler explains “some other religions and philosophies do contain ideas that would fit into Earthseed, but none of them are Earthseed. They go off in their own directions” (Butler 261). The end of the quote is most important, the fact that other religions and philosophies direct (whether subtly or blatantly) their followers/believers into specific basic tenets as mandates to be good Buddhists, Muslims, or Christians, etc. is exactly why “Earthseed” is not a religion because it allows its followers to shape/change their interpretative belief system around God themselves. Intertwined throughout this world-building narrative of inevitable change is a most interesting subcategory of climate change.

Beginning in the year 2024 (only 9-years from the present day future) there is a prevailing negative effect induced by climate change and global-warming that is referenced throughout the entire book, a depleted hydrological system. This inevitably causes a life-threatening critical shortage of fresh water “often referred to as an intensification and acceleration of the hydrologic cycle” (Alavian et al. 20). Hydrologic cycles are abstract models that describe the storage and movement of water among the biosphere, atmosphere, lithosphere, and the hydrosphere. Hydrologic climate change results in increased variability causing short bursts of sporadic intense rainfall and extended warmer and dryer timespans. The adverse effects on the world’s hydrologic system is the underlined threaded theme of climate change that allows “Parable of the Sower” to interpretively be classified as cli-fi. There are two types of hydrologic systems: glacier/snowmelt and precipitation that will be effected by global-warming and climate change.

According to Alavian et al. in snow-driven hydrology, changes in the pattern of precipitation and the associated acceleration of snow and glacier melt from rising temperatures are projected to significantly affect runoff and available water for human consumption, agriculture, and energy generation. Changes in the timing of runoff can cause increased flooding, failure of storage infrastructure, landslides, and loss of surface soil. In systems fed by snowmelt it is generally the amount and timing of the runoff that matters. Hydrologic variability, while always present, is more predictable and so less significant.

In contrast, Alavian et al. notes in rainfall-driven hydrology, flood and drought cycles are much less predictable and their severity has a significant impact on available water quantity, quality, sanitation, agricultural production, energy, and environmental sustainability. Climate change will exacerbate the uncertainty and severity of hydrologic variability. Climate causes structures to “crumble into the ocean, undercut or deeply saturated by salt water. Sea level keeps rising with the warming climate and there is the occasional earthquake” (Butler 118). Regardless of the hydrologic regime, the impact of hydrologic variability and climate change on coastal regions, such as California the setting of this story, is expected to be significant through sea level increases on the sea-side and increased flooding from the land-side.

The tracing theme of negative hydrologic climate change is what makes this novel cli-fi, but literal references to weather and climate change only occur intermittently throughout the novel; Butler portrays “a world in which global-warming is doing things like creating a lot of erratic weather and severe storms and drought” (4) all over the United States. These erratic weather conditions are the results of global-warming: “tornadoes smashing hell out of Alabama, Kentucky, Tennessee, and two or three other states. Three hundred people dead so far. And there’s a blizzard freezing the northern midwest, killing even more people” (Butler 54). The abovementioned murderous storm systems leave death and disease in their wake as they overflow and contaminate fresh water reserves, inflating the cost and need for water to be greater than that of oil or any other resource. The following quotes reference the importance of water as people in the novel “went home to put out all the barrels, buckets, tubs, and pots they could find to catch the free water” (Butler 48); “there are too many poor people—illiterate, jobless, homeless, without decent sanitation or clean water. They have plenty of water down there, but a lot of it is polluted” (Butler 53). This is to say, there is water for human consumption, but the quality of the water is deadly. Moreover, drought is a variable impediment: “wind and maybe a few drops of rain, or maybe just a little cool weather. That’s all there has been for six years” (Butler 47). This demonstrates that global-warming has increased the amount of precipitation evaporation in the air creating years of gapped intervals of rain, and making the atmospheric layers too warm to generate an adequate amount of rainfall and eliminating snow in its entirety. But what caused this climate change?

Octavia Butler does not give a punitive answer to this question; instead, she intelligently presents both sides of the argument: one side arguing God and nature as inevitable climate change factors through natural planetary evolution, and the other side arguing humans’ interferences for the change in climate and global-warming. In a conversation between Joanne and Lauren, Lauren asserts “people have changed the climate of the world. Now they’re waiting for the old days to come back” (Butler 57). In this regard Lauren could be interpretively deemed as the eco-friendly activist. One the other hand, Joanne and many others argue that people cannot change “the climate in spite of what scientists say. [They] says only God could change the world in such an important way” (Butler 57). These two oppositions allows “Parable of the Sower” to be enjoyed by both eco-activists and individuals who choose to disregard, or misinterpret, scientific facts.

Octavia Butler’s “Parable of the Sower” is a highly recommended book due to its eloquent writing and powerful storyline that is inundated with subtextual themes of slavery, economic disparity, gruesome violence, and sexual overtures. In terms of being placed in the category of cli-fi genera, Butler superbly focuses a tracing theme of hydro disparity throughout, a theme not elaborated by many other authors. However, intellectually, it seems the prevailing thesis of this novel’s motivation is “in spite of [someone’s] loss and pain, you aren’t alone. You still have people who care about you and want you to be all right. You still have family” (Butler 303). As demonstrated in the novel Lauren and the members of her traveling clan adopted one another as a means to survive and rebuild, despite the struggles that adverse hydrologic climate change has on the food and water supply.

Works Cited

Alavian, Vahid, Halla M. Qaddumi, Eric Dickson, Sylvia M. Diez, Alexander V. Danielnko, Rafik F. Hirji, Gabrielle Puz, Carolina Pizarro, Michael Jacobsen, and Brian Blankespoor. “Water and Climate Change: Understanding the Risks and Making Climate-Smart Investment Decisions.” The World Bank: Public Disclouser Authorized. N.p.: The World Bank, 2009. N. pag. Print.

Butler, Octavia E. “Parable of the Sower.” New York: Grand Central Publishing, 1993.

Butler, Octavia E. “”Devil Girl from Mars”: Why I Write Science Fiction.” mit communications forum. 2009. Web. 10 Feb. 2015. http://web.mit.edu/comm-forum/papers/butler.html

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