“The Destiny of Earthseed is to take root among the stars.”— Parable of the Sower (1993) by Octavia Butler
Editor’s Note: This is a shortened version of a longer essay titled “The Most Dangerous Story Ever Told: Ecological Collapse, Progress, and Human Destiny”, which includes a review of Christopher Nolan’s film Interstellar. You can read the complete essay here.
One of my favorite works of science fiction is the Parable series by Octavia Butler. Butler is credited as both the first African-American and the first woman science fiction writer. The two published books which make up this series are Parable of the Sower (1993) and Parable of the Talents (1998).
Octavia Butler’s Parable books are set in the near future when the United States has all but collapsed due to economic, environmental, and political pressures. Corporations hold people in virtual slavery. People live in walled neighborhoods. Hunger, theft, rape, and murder are normal outside of the walls. Again, it is the resemblances to the present day that are most disturbing—including an ethno-nationalist president who promises to “Make America Great Again”.
Butler’s heroine, a precocious teenager named Lauren Oya Olamina, creates a new religion, which she calls “Earthseed”, that is adopted by a small community of refugees who gather around her. The main tenets of Earthseed are: “God is Change.” and “Shape God.” Essentially, this means that change is the one unavoidable thing in life, but that we can shape that change (to a limited extent) with forethought and work.
But there is a third tenet of Earthseed: “The destiny of Earthseed (humankind) is to take root among the stars.” (“the Destiny” for short). Olamina teaches that humankind must leave the earth and settle on other planets in order to survive. She believes the Destiny can give humankind something to strive towards and to change us:
“I wanted to give us a focus, a goal, something big enough, complex enough, difficult enough, and in the end, radical enough to make us become more than we ever have been. We keep falling into the same ditches, you know? I mean, we learn more and more about the physical universe, more about our own bodies, more technology, but somehow, down through history, we go on building empires of one kind or another, then destroying them in one way or another. We go on having stupid wars that we justify and get passionate about, but in the end, all they do is kill huge numbers of people, maim others, impoverish still more, spread disease and hunger, and set the stage for the next war. …
But we can choose: We can go on building and destroying until we either destroy ourselves or destroy the ability of our world to sustain us. Or we can make something more of ourselves. We can grow up. We can leave the nest. We can fulfill the Destiny, make homes for ourselves among the stars, and become some combination of what we want to become and whatever our new environments challenge us to become”.— Lauren Olamina (in Parable of the Talents by Octavia Butler)
For Olamina, the Destiny offers a kind of “species immortality.” It’s curious, though, that she never seems to consider that it might actually be this pursuit of immortality or transcendence—as individuals and as a species—which drives that cycle of creation and destruction she wants to escape.
“Today we are living the grotesque spectacle of the poisoning of the earth by the nineteenth-century hero system of unrestrained material production. This is perhaps the greatest and most pervasive evil to have emerged in all of history, and it may even eventually defeat all of mankind.”— Ernest Becker, Escape from Evil (1975)
According to Ernest Becker, it is this transcendental impulse which leads to the rise and fall of civilizations. He argued, in the 1974 classic, The Denial of Death, that a basic human drive is the denial that we are going to die. He sees religion, art, science, war, and politics—even civilization itself—all as “immortality projects”, ways of trying to transcend death. The problem, Becker says, is that these immortality projects are maladaptive. They sever us from our connection to nature and from the flow of life—of which death is a part—and, ironically, end up hastening our end.
Butler’s second book of the Parable series, Talents, ends with humans launching a rocketship—inauspiciously named the “Christopher Columbus”—into space in search of a new home. But the story doesn’t actually end there, or it wasn’t supposed to. There is actually a third book, which was never finished and never published, to which the first two books were intended as prequels. Butler tentatively titled it “Parable of the Trickster”*, which would have been appropriate, it turns out, since the Destiny is a kind of trick.
There were many drafts of this story among Butler’s papers (she died in 2006), but they all focus on an extrasolar colony of Earthseed followers who have settled on a planet they call “Bow”. The planet is gray and dank, and the colonists are miserable and wish they’d never left Earth. In the different drafts, disasters of various kinds ensue, some environmental, like disease, and others of human making, like dictatorships and religious purges. As Butler explained in an interview: “The real problem [the colonists face] is dealing with themselves”. Gerry Canavan elaborates on this in his review of Butler’s unfinished work:
“So of course we discover that achieving Earthseed’s Destiny, despite Lauren Olamina’s dreams, hasn’t solved the problem of the human at all, only extended our confrontation with the very difficult problems that drove its development in the first place—only removed them to some other world where they can take some other form. The Destiny was essentially a hyperbolic delaying tactic, a strategy of avoidance; even achieved, it’s worthless in its own terms. The fundamental problem is still how to make a better world with such bad building blocks as human beings.”— Gerry Canavan, ‘“There’s Nothing New Under The Sun, But There Are New Suns”: Recovering Octavia E. Butler’s Lost Parables’
Though there’s no indication of it in the first two books, Butler’s notes for Trickster reveal that she was aware of the problem with the Destiny and the dilemma of human nature. She wrote: “We can’t afford to assume that another living world with its own biota and its own eons of existence will be able to tolerate our nonsense…taking, and putting back nothing—or putting back poisonous waste.” Unfortunately, the Trickster story has yet to be told.
Throughout the ages, tricksters have played significant roles in the mythologies and fables of peoples around the world. Loki in Norse mythology, the spider Anansi from West Africa, Coyote and Raven among American Indians, and more recently, Shakespeare’s Puck and even Bugs Bunny, are a few examples. The function of the tricksters is to check human hubris, to humble even the most powerful, to cause us to question conventional wisdom, and to remind us of our limitations. We ignore the trickster at our peril.
“The Earth is where we make our stand.”— Carl Sagan
So what is our destiny as humans? From dust we come, and to dust we return. Yes, but what kind of dust is the question. The dust of the earth, life-giving humus (which shares its etymological origin with the word “human”)? Or star dust, the stuff of cosmic ovens? Of course, both are true, in a literal sense. But symbolically speaking, which one we choose to focus on has profound impacts on the course of human history.
The Destiny is actually just the latest version of a very old story, the most dangerous story ever told, the story of progress. Except in the older versions, instead of the stars (i.e., the “heavens”) being our destination, it was heaven. Whether it is the heavens or heaven, though, the goal is the same: a fresh start, unburdened by the consequences of, or the burden of having to learn from, our past mistakes. From ancient times to the present day, the dominant myth of civilization has taught us that our home is not the earth, that our destiny is to transcend our physical limitations, that those who would be heroes must reach beyond the here and now. But as Paul Kingsnorth has explained, the dominance of this transcendental narrative has had disastrous results for our planet:
Heaven and hell are progressive concepts. The great, world-conquering Abrahamic religions gave us, in their mainstream manifestations, a vision of a world governed by a stern Sky Father, whose cosmology would steward us from Genesis to Apocalypse. Good behavior was the path to leaving this world behind and being promoted after death to another, better, one. This God is not immanent—present in the world—but transcendent—above it—and this is where we are encouraged to be too.
It is not hard to see how this cosmology translates into its secular version—silicon transcendence via computer; an uploaded immortality. In essence, they are the same story; only in the newer version, we have made ourselves the Sky Fathers. There is, after all, no need of God if you can do His job better.
It is not hard to see, either, how the progressive vision, in its religious or its secular form, has led us to ravage the earth: to disconnect us from nature and our own bodies, entomb us in dying cities, suck the water from the aquifers, fell the forests, and replace the fish in the oceans with plastic. Progress is a quest for transcendence: a quest to always be somewhere else; somewhere better. Mass extinction and climate change represent the collateral damage of linear progress: regrettable but necessary if we are to move forward to where we must be.— Paul Kingsnorth, A Storm Blown from Paradise
As time goes on, more and more of my daily news feed consists of reports of ecological collapse: fires, hurricanes, floods, droughts. It’s increasingly easy to believe the earth is telling us to leave. It’s increasingly tempting to believe that there might be hope among the stars. (This is exactly the message of Christopher Nolan’s film Interstellar. You can read a review here.) Especially when the same scientists who have warned us about climate change are also promoting missions to space. But this is just an extension of the pipe dream of progress which has brought us to this place.
The earth isn’t telling us that we don’t belong here. The earth is telling us that we do belong here. It’s telling us that this is our home, that we are a part of it, that we are inextricably intertwined with it—so much so that, when we hurt our home, we hurt ourselves.
We were born here and we are meant to die here. That is our destiny. It always was. We can either embrace it and, in the words of astrophysicist and science popularizer, Carl Sagan, “look Death in the eye and to be grateful every day for the brief but magnificent opportunity that life provides.” Or we can continue to deny it, to tell ourselves wishful stories about interstellar travel and making a home for humans on other planets, and thereby hasten our extinction.
Humans are explorers and pioneers, yes. That cannot be denied. But we are also caretakers and cultivators (from the Latin colere: to till, tend, respect, inhabit). Both of these natures are within us. And if being human means anything, it means being, not just from Earth, but also of Earth, a part of it. We will continue to look up**, but we must also remember to look down. Even as we explore the universe, we must, as Carl Sagan famously reminded us, look back at the “pale blue dot” that is the Earth, that is our home:
“Our posturings, our imagined self-importance, the delusion that we have some privileged position in the Universe, are challenged by this point of pale light. Our planet is a lonely speck in the great enveloping cosmic dark. In our obscurity, in all this vastness, there is no hint that help will come from elsewhere to save us from ourselves.
“The Earth is the only world known so far to harbor life. There is nowhere else, at least in the near future, to which our species could migrate. Visit, yes. Settle, not yet. Like it or not, for the moment the Earth is where we make our stand.
“It has been said that astronomy is a humbling and character-building experience. There is perhaps no better demonstration of the folly of human conceits than this distant image of our tiny world. To me, it underscores our responsibility to deal more kindly with one another, and to preserve and cherish the pale blue dot, the only home we’ve ever known.— Carl Sagan, Pale Blue Dot (1997)
* One of the parables of Olamina’s Earthseed religion reads: “God is Change. God is Infinite, Irresistible, Inexorable, Indifferent. God is Trickster, Teacher, Chaos, Clay—God is Change. Beware: God exists to shape and to be shaped.” One of the things I appreciate about the Parable series is that each book (including Trickster) is critical of the one it follows. For example, the narrator of Talents isn’t Olamina, but Olamina’s daughter, who sees her mother as a selfish and dangerous zealot.
** This phrase evokes the recent Movie “Don’t Look Up”, which I reviewed elsewhere. “Looking up” in that movie was code for accepting climate change science. In Interstellar, “looking up” is shorthand for a paradigm of perpetual progress, and “looking down” is shorthand for an earth-centered paradigm. It’s interesting to consider how much of our contemporary language and popular culture uses this same terminology. “Looking up” is equated with optimism and hope, while “looking down” is equated with depression and hopelessness.