Doren Damico

Link to The Ubuntu Biography Project

Octavia E. Butler is known for writing stories that address universal issues of race, gender, politics, religion, and sexuality. She is the iconic female science fiction author of color, penning 12 novels and a volume of short stories from 1971 to 2005, and winning numerous awards.

She is also a futurist. Her Parable series (1993-1998), Parable of the Sower and Parable of the Talents (henceforth identified as the Parables),  depict the socioeconomic and political collapse of 21st century United States due to poor environmental stewardship, corporate greed, and the growing gap between wealthy and poor. Into this social chaos, Butler delivers us the community of Earthseed, a small group of survivors led by protagonist Lauren Oya Olamina, with a destiny to send humans to the stars. 

Civilization is to groups what intelligence is to individuals. It is a means of combining the intelligence of many to achieve ongoing group adaptation. 

Civilization, like intelligence, may serve well, serve adequately, or fail to serve its adaptive function. When civilization fails to serve, it must disintegrate unless it is acted upon by unifying internal or external forces.

Earthseed: The Books of the LivingParable of the Sower 

Futurist Octavia Butler

Many science fiction writers might be considered futurists–people who study and predict the future on the basis of current trends. Octavia Butler’s Parables delve into a 21st century United States eerily filled with issues that now plague our own times. They point to a world in the midst of climate collapse, a world struggling with ineffective government systems, a world being destroyed by corporate greed, and a world where the gap between wealthy and poor instigates social chaos.

In an interview about how the Parables are a cautionary tale about the future, Butler said:

It is to look at where we are now, what we are doing now, and to consider where some of our current behaviors and unattended problems might take us. I considered drugs and the effects of drugs on the children of drug addicts. I looked at the growing rich/poor gap, at throwaway labor, at our willingness to build and fill prisons, our reluctance to build and repair schools and libraries, and at our assault on the environment. In particular, I looked at global warming and ways in which it’s likely to change things for us….I considered spreading hunger as a reason for increased vulnerability to disease….I imagined the United States becoming, slowly, through the combined effects of lack of foresight and short-term unenlightened self-interest, a third world country.

Butler had a great sensitivity to the sordid history of the US, and a keen understanding of where such problems in our environment and society are headed. The Parables explore a United States in slow and insidious decline. But they also imagine a world where survivors become heroines, healthy communities are hybrids of many races working toward common goals, and hierarchical thinking is challenged.

Kate Elliott describes Butler’s unique blend of realism and hope in the short video below, saying: 

She brings a combination of utter, unrelenting vision of how terrible people can be with a complete, total compassion for human beings.

How the Parables Point to Our Own Times

For many people, economic life is hard.

In the Parables, life is hard in the LA area, even for people who were recently stable, employed homeowners. Drug addiction, growing poverty, homelessness, scarcity of work, lack of rains and water, and a predominance of corruption and inadequacy within government organizations such as the police and social services, have resulted in rampant criminal activity by those who are just trying to stay fed and alive. It can be dangerous to travel to work, and many neighborhood communities are enclosed by walls to maintain a sense of distance from the disintegration of a stable society. Some neighborhoods, like Olamina’s, have begun to focus on subsistence farming. If a community doesn’t have walls, it will fall victim to fire, theft and scavengers, and the police or fire department, may or may not help–even if you pay the bribes they require.

Sound familiar? Perhaps things don’t seem so dire to those of us hiding in our homes behind computers and various forms of escape, living in our lovely walled communities, or to those of us who benefit from white privilege. Most of us are are still vying for the middle class dream. But many of us, far too many hardworking people, are living check to check and are one paycheck or health crisis away from ruination.

Economists first began tracking the middle class in 1970. But while household income required to be considered part of the middle class keeps going up, the number of people meeting that classification continues to go down. 2015 was the first year on record when US citizens in the middle-income bracket did not make up the majority of the country. And while there is growth upward and out of the middle-class bracket for a third of the median group, there is also a third of that population falling into poverty. Poverty in our country, is increasing!

From where I’m looking, much of these things are happening in LA today. My recent work advocating for the homeless has opened my eyes to homeless encampments nearly everywhere I go. The prices of rent, food, gas, childcare, and healthcare, are only going up. Decades ago, a household could live well on one income provider. Today, even two income providers may not be enough to stay above the poverty line. And while poverty in this country remains relative to those of third world countries, there are many communities in the U.S. with little hope for relief from unconscionable wage slavery, high housing costs, health care challenges, and near or actual homelessness.

Global warming is creating drought and dis-ease. 

In the Parables, global warming is effecting water supplies. Rainfall is infrequent and water has become scarce in LA areas and can be dangerous to procure. Many people are migrating north toward climate areas with a richer water supply. As Olamina and her small community move northward away from their burned out neighborhood and the dangers of urban living, they struggle to find water. 

Today we stopped at a commercial water station and filled ourselves and all our containers with clean, safe water. Commercial stations are best for that. Anything you buy from a water peddler on the freeway ought to be boiled, and still might not be safe.

The Journals of Lauren Oya Olamina, Parable of the Sower

Water is life, and so it is an essential commodity. 0.003% of the water on Earth is fresh, drinkable water. In the last 50 years in the United States, the West has experienced less rain, as well as increases in the severity and length of droughts. In California, 43% of its 163,696 square miles is currently rated as moderate to severe drought, and 41% as abnormally dry. As Earth continues to heat up, droughts are expected to become more frequent and severe in some locations. For the United States, this will be most critical in the Southwest.

In addition to the growing dangers of a lack of water, the safety of our water supplies is a great concern. Butler clearly surmised that poor water and water scarcity contribute to poor health, and can cause extreme societal conditions. In California, the drought has negatively affected farming industries and raised water prices throughout the state.

The current crisis in Flint, Michigan, should be a cautionary tale. During a 2014 attempt to reduce the costs of water, the city’s temporary water source from a nearby river, in addition to poorly treated waterlines, became tainted with lead and other toxins. The results have been devastating for the community to include many people who are ill, numerous children exhibiting the neurological damage of lead poisoning, ongoing litigation, and outrageous water prices for a water system that remains compromised.   

Water defenders, like the North Dakota Sioux, understand the dire need to protect our water supplies. In 2016, 2000-4000 activists began protesting to protect their land and water from the dangers of the 1, 172 mile Dakota Access Pipe Line for transporting oil, taking a stand to halt the construction of pipe lines under the Mississippi river. In a horrible twist, water canons were used to attack the peaceful protesters. All attempts in court to stop the construction have failed. Water protectors are now dealing with the fact that oil pipelines leak. In 2017, there were 5 oil spills along the Dakota Access Pipe Line.

These stories exemplify what Butler was predicting, that shortsighted, monied interests would contribute to the ruination of natural resources such as water.

Political corruption is wreaking havoc on society.

In Parable of the Talents, Butler develops a story arc having to do with the election of a Christian fundamentalist president, who seeks to make America great again and cleanse it of non-Christian faiths. His term takes an already-weakened United States to near collapse. 

Andrew Steele Jarret was able to scare, divide, and bully people, first into electing him President, then into letting him fix the country for them. He didn’t get to do everything he wanted to do. He was capable of much greater fascism. So were his most avid followers.

Asha Vere’s Narrative, Parable of the Talents

Mr. Trump, the current and 45th president of the United States has imposed tariffs on nearly $60 billion of steel, aluminum, solar products and washing machines, many of which are directed at our ally, Canada. This action has endangered one of the most open trading relationships under the terms of the 25-year-old North American Free Trade Agreement, and has catalyzed fierce criticism and opposition. 

“Let me be clear: These tariffs are totally unacceptable,” Trudeau (Canada’s Prime Minister) said at a press conference announcing retaliatory measures.

The Wall Street Journal reported that, “The Trump administration’s trade policies will hamstring the U.S.’s robust economic growth and threaten as many as 2.6 million jobs, according to a memo from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce’s top official.”

A July 22nd article by Allen Rappaport of the New York Times, reported on the recent meeting of the Group of 20 (an international forum for the governments and central bank governors of 20 countries). “The International Monetary Fund projected last week that the currently announced tariffs would reduce global economic output by $430 billion, or half a percent, in 2020, if they remained in place and shook investor confidence. It argued that the United States was particularly vulnerable to a slowdown because it would bear the brunt of tariff retaliation from other countries.”

The trade war has provoked much debate and several retaliatory threats from trade partners, but it is only one of the many concerns erupting out of the policies of the current administration. From implications of Russian interference in the presidential campaign and various attempts to destroy the investigation, to a practice of placing inept officials in essential leadership roles, and undermining important environmental and scientific issues, the U.S. is in a tumultuous state.

Whether one takes the long view that climate fluctuations are a naturally occurring reality on Earth, or that it is being negatively hastened by dangerous human disregard, climate change is a serious and practical concern for the well being of all humans on the planet. Here are just a few of the ways that the Trump administration, in its first year, has negated the impact of and needed response to climate change (read the full list with explanations and MANY links/articles/data in the National Geographic article in my references section):

12-2016
Right after the results of the election the Environmental Data and Governance Initiative is started to create “data refuges.”

4-2017
Climate Change Staffers Reassigned

Interior Department Scrubs Climate Change Website

Scientists March on Washington

EPA Scrubs Climate Change Website

EPA Dismisses Science Advisors

5-2017
Trump Budget Proposes Steep Cuts For the Environment

6-2017
U.S Pulls Out of Paris Climate Agreement

12-2017 Trump Drops Climate Change from List of National Security Threats

There is an Increased Show of Racism and Acts of Hatred

While the president in Parable of the Talents and his ineptitudes bring on a war between the United States and Canada/Alaska, it is his fanatical followers that play a crucial role in the Parables’ main storyline.

During Jarret’s first year in office, the worst of his followers ran amok. Filled with righteous superiority and popular among the many frightened, ordinary citizens who only wanted order and stability, the fanatics set up the camps.

The Journals of Lauren Oya Olamina, Parable of the Talents

Say Her Name: Nia Wilson – link to “Not Without Black Women”

Social media today is filled with stories of racists and Trump fanatics bolstered to show their hatred. The August 11, 2017 event in Charlottesville, where white nationalists clashed with a small group of counter protestors erupted in racial rage, hatred, violence, and resulted in the deaths of 3 individuals. There have been numerous stories recorded and shared on social media where white Americans are harassing people of color, yelling at them to “go back to where they came from,” and accusing them of illegally entering the country, at stores, pools, and neighborhood parks. Three days ago, 18-year-old Nia Wilson, a vibrant young African American, was stabbed to death in an Oakland bart station by a “maniac” white man. Such blatant hate crimes are on the rise!

We are coming apart.

The community, the families, individual family members…. We’re a rope, breaking a single strand at a time.

The Journals of Lauren Oya Olamina, Parable of the Sower

The United Nations Human Rights Office of the Commissioner strongly condemned the rise of racism and xenophobia in the U.S. after the events in Charlottesville. “We view these events as the latest examples of increasing racism, racial discrimination, Afrophobia, racist violence and xenophobia observed in demonstrations across the USA.” And they urged the U.S. to adopt effective policies as a matter of priority. “The government must be vigilant in combating all acts of racism, xenophobia and racist violence, wherever they occur. Recent incidents in California, Oregon, New Orleans and Kentucky, as well as Charlottesville, demonstrate the geographical spread of the problem.”

Functional slavery and unjust internment continue.

Butler uses the Parables to educate the reader about slavery and internment. In Olamina’s journals we see reflections on the U.S. slavery policies of the past. She also illustrates the existence and implications of wage slavery through conditions where workers must pay all they earn for board and sustenance in “company scrip,” resulting in unrelenting debt. Workers are further immobilized by withholding of identification papers, high costs and difficulties associated with obtaining proper licenses, and through separation from their children.

In Parable of The Talents, the burgeoning community of Earthseed is attacked and taken over by fanatical “Crusaders” of Christian America. Butler uses this brutal 3-year internment to depict slavery. People must wear “shock collars,” and do forced labor with little food, no medical care, and violent abuse, as part of their “re-education.” Women are regularly raped, many people are killed, and all the children are taken from their families to be placed in “good Christian America homes.”

It was never legal to collar non-criminals, never legal to confiscate their property or separate husband from wife or to force either to work without pay of some kind. The matter of separating children from parents, however, might have been managed almost legally.

Asha Vere’s Narrative, Parable of the Talents

While reading this book, I was all too aware of the current immigration crisis, where refugees and asylum seekers are being separated from their children at the borders. This practice under the Trump administration’s zero tolerance policy, resulted in widespread outrage, with references to the holocaust and Japanese internment camps. Social pressure has caused a recent alteration such that families with young children are now being housed together. Yet, there are still many flaws in this system, with stories of intolerable conditions, withholding of medical care for pregnant women, long adjudication periods, and thousands of children  interred in cages and/or placed in foster homes. At the date of this writing, there are 71 children in custody who cannot be reunited with their parents under the policy change because officials do not know who their parents are. They’ve been separated from their families, traumatized, and cannot yet be reunited, inhumane and immoral acts, all for the purpose of creating a “deterrent to border crossing.”

It’s hard to believe that kind of thing happened here, in the United States in the twenty-first century, but it did. It shouldn’t have happened in spite of all the chaos that had gone before.

Asha Vere’s Narrative, Parable of the Talents

Many asylum seekers are unaccompanied minors, fleeing corruption and violence from the top 3 violent countries of Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador. This is a growing concern, and the U.S. must find humane ways of dealing with the influx of asylum seekers. The U.S. is also culpable in creating some of the conditions in these countries, such as through deportation of violent criminal gangs that developed in the U.S., like the El Salvadorian MS 13, which targets girls and children.

The U.S. has one of the highest incarcerated populations in the world, at 2.2 million. It is known for imprisoning the most vulnerable in our society, racial and ethnic minorities, low-income people, immigrants, children, and the elderly – populations most likely to suffer from injustices in the criminal justice system. Sentencing practices include disproportionately long prison terms, mandatory sentencing without parole, and treating youth offenders as adults. People of color are over represented, having a 56% incarceration rate compared to their being 29% of the overall population. 7% of state prisons and 15% of federal prisons are run by for-profit organizations, corrupting the political sphere with major donations, and making money off of prison laborers who earn between 86¢ and $3.45 in daily wages. An article by the American Academy of Arts & Sciences stated: “The social inequality produced by mass incarceration is sizable and enduring for three main reasons: it is invisible, it is cumulative, and it is intergenerational.”

This social inequality is also found in the gap between owners and workers, an effect of the hierarchical structure our country is based upon and also the compulsory money market. Our economy rests on the backs of wage earners. In 1979, the federal minimum hourly wage was $2.90, and in 2017 it is $7.25. This represents a 150% increase. The average housing percentage increase since 1979 is 266%. If the federal minimum wage had kept up with inflation, it would be $21.72. This should be the pay rate for our most inexperienced and youngest workers! 

A recent report by the National Low Income Housing Coalition, determined that there is not one state where a minimum wage earner can afford a 2-bedroom apartment. The average wage needed for a 1-bedroom apartment is $17.90 an hour. In the cheapest housing state of the U.S., Arkansas, workers need to earn at least $13.84 an hour to afford a 1-bedroom apartment and the minimum wage is $8.50. This gap between income and housing costs, which results in many paying over half of their income for shelter, makes it impossible to afford the other costs of living such as food, gas, insurance, and medical care. Many people live in poverty and/or work upwards of 70 hours a week to merely survive. 43 million Americans are living in poverty. But what about the people who don’t fall under the “poverty line?” Are they free? Well, 51 million Americans live just above the poverty line. Recent studies put a third of American citizens living at or near poverty–that’s about 108 million people! 

This is what near poverty looks like:

Not having enough money for retirement.

Not being able to pay medical costs in the event of illness.

Not being able to pay medical costs for normal health care.

Not having enough to pay the monthly bills.

Not being able to pay for rent, mortgage, or other housing costs.

Not being able to make minimum payments on credit cards.

The concept that working for wages is like chattel slavery has been around since at least the 18th century. The “master” may be need. If you don’t work you will die of hunger, lose your shelter, be unable to get needed medical services, etc. Fredrick Douglas spoke famously about the slavery of wages as being an unequal power structure between the ownership/capitalist class and the non-ownership/laborer class. In an analysis of the modern conditions of work, investigative reporter Robert Kuttner said: “a relatively small elite demands and gets empowerment, self-actualization, autonomy, and other work satisfaction that partially compensate for long hours” while “epidemiological data confirm that lower-paid, lower-status workers are more likely to experience the most clinically damaging forms of stress, in part because they have less control over their work.”

Then the farm was sold to a big agribusiness conglomerate, and the workers fell into new hands. Wages were paid, but in company scrip, not in cash. Rent was charged for the workers’ shacks. Workers had to pay for food, for clothing–new or used–for everything they needed, and, of course they could only spend their company notes at the company store. Wages–surprise!–were never quite enough to pay the bills. According to new laws that might or might not exist, people were not permitted to leave an employer to whom they owed money. They were obligated to work off the debt either as quasi-indentured people or as convicts. That is, if they refused to work, they could be arrested, jailed, and in the end, handed over to their employers.

The Journals of Lauren Oya Olamina, Parable of the Sower

Slavery: a condition compared to that of a slave in respect of exhausting labor or restricted freedom.

There is a growing and critical opioid epidemic.

In the Parables, Butler describes two new drugs impacting society, Paracetco and Pyro. Likely inspired by the drug epidemic of the 1980s, Butler focuses on how these highly addictive fictional drugs cause irreparable damage to both individuals and the society at large. Olamina is herself the daughter of one such addict, a career-obsessed pregnant mother who uses the prescription drug, Paracetco, to enhance her mental clarity and productivity. Years later, scientists discover that it harms the offspring of users, leaving a generation of brain damaged children with no fault, nor recourse.

I can’t do a thing about my hyperempathy, no matter what Dad thinks or wants or wishes. I feel what I see others feeling or what I believe they feel. Hyperempathy is what the doctors call an “organic delusional syndrome.” Big shit. It hurts, that’s all I know. Thanks to Paracetco, the small pill, the Einstein powder, the particular drug my mother chose to abuse before my birth killed her. I’m crazy. 

The Journals of Lauren Oya Olamina, Parable of the Sower

The drug, Pyro, causes users to become entranced by fire to the detriment even of themselves. Pyro addicts burned Olamina out of her original home and are an ever present danger along the road.

Addicts are running wild, setting fires in areas that the earthquake didn’t damage. Bands of the street poor precede or follow them, grabbing whatever they can from stores and from the walled enclaves of the rich and what’s left of the middle class.

The Journals of Lauren Oya Olamina, Parable of the Sower

Today, more than 2 million people are addicted to opioids. Opioids include both prescribed painkillers like morphine, oxycodone, or hydrocodone as well as illegal drugs like heroin or illicitly made fentanyl. People are dying in record numbers. In 2016, 42,000 people in the U.S. died from an opioid overdose, over a 100 people each day! Opioids are highly addictive and have a fast rate of increasing tolerance, which results in the levels that kill. Many people become addicted to opioids after use for legitimate pain control purposes. Most opioid addiction has developed by over-prescription of the dangerous drugs, and overdoses are most often accidental. The U.S. Surgeon General published a recommendation in April 2018, that Americans using opioids carry the overdose-reversing drug, naxoline. Detoxing from opioids can also be dangerous and requires specialized supervision as well as alternative pain management for those with chronic pain. 

There are far-reaching effects of this crisis. There are large numbers of children being placed in foster care as substance abuse makes parents incapable of caring for their children, or opioid overdose creates orphans. In addition, the number of children born with opioid withdrawal has quadrupled in the last 15 years! There are indications that opioid addiction is decreasing men’s availability to work. As prescriptions are being curtailed in an effort to manage this crisis, the U.S. rising demand for access to opioids has increased drug manufacture and escalating violence in Mexico. A larger proportion of victims of this crisis, are uneducated, middle-aged white people in lower class neighborhoods, who experience high stress and desperation in their lives.

More to Learn From Futurist Octavia Butler

Octavia Butler died at the very young age of 58, of a traumatic fall speculated to have been caused by a stroke. She had plans to write four more books for the Parables series: Parable of the Trickster, Parable of the Teacher, Parable of Chaos, and Parable of Clay. Struggling to get the first of these sequels written, and finding the research and writing overwhelming and depressing, she turned to writing something lighter. The science fiction vampire book, Fledglings (2005) was her last book.

I mourn the early death of such a visionary writer, and wish that I had encountered her work earlier in my own science fiction fandom. But I also imagine that the current Trump administration and its effects on our society, as well as the ongoing challenges described above, would have disturbed her greatly. Butler tended to write a brand of speculative fiction that was not escapist, but rather what N. K. Jemison describes as “true futurism.” She did not hide from the injustices she knew first hand as an African American woman growing up in the 20th century. She delivered fiction that raised awareness  of the complexities and difficulties of being human. She also offered great insight and wisdom regarding compassion and constructive vision for future human communities through the Parables.

In my next post, I will expound on the religion of Earthseed, and how we can look to the Parables for wisdom and insight in creating communities worthy of Butler’s vision.

Resources for this Article and Further Links to Study

Octavia E. Butler – Wikipedia

NPR Episode on Jared Diamond’s The Rise and Fall of Civilizations with excerpt

A Portrait of America’s Middle Class

11 Facts About Droughts

California drought

Dakota Access Pipe Line Resistance

5 Oil Spills in 2017

Trump’s Trade Policies Threaten Millions of Jobs

G-20 Meeting

National Geographic Article of Trump’s Impact on the Environment

Charlottesville Timeline

OHCHR Condemnation of Racism in U.S.

National Low Income Housing Coalition Data

KQED Graphic: What Does it Mean to Live in Poverty?

Poverty: The Reality for People over 50

Mass Incarceration American Academy of Arts & Sciences

The Effects of the Opioid Crisis

Image Sources

Image 1: © Stephen A. Maglott

Image 2: © Can Stock Photo / PhotoEuphoria

Image 3: Nia Wilson, Not Without Black Women

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Doren Damico

Doren is a salsa dancing philosopher poet, slinky sculptor, and fan of science fiction.