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Octavia Butler wasn’t setting out to prophesy when she wrote Parable of the Talents and its prequel, Parable of the Sower. She was trying to warn us of what the future could look like if we don’t take drastic efforts to mitigate the worst effects of climate change.
But today, it’s hard not to get chills reading this supposed work of fiction. Parable of the Talents depicts a president who campaigned on the slogan “Make America great again,” and it shows the ocean reclaiming America’s coastal cities. There are even concentration camps set up where children are separated from their parents and put up for adoption. Sound familiar?
Thankfully, not everything in this book has become a reality yet, but based off what Butler has accurately predicted so far, I think it’s wise to heed her warning. Her book has a lot to teach us, from how to resist violent and oppressive forces, to how to adapt to a changing world, to how to show compassion towards others through hard times. By taking these lessons with us, we can work to save our planet and become more resilient at the same time.
Summary of environmental themes in “Parable of the Talents”
Parable of the Talents is an expansive novel, covering a variety of different themes. But for the sake of this article, I’ll focus on the themes that I believe are the most relevant to the climate crisis.
- Chaos: Two of the main characters, Lauren and Marc, both agree that the universe is chaotic, but they choose to respond to this fact in very different ways. Marc believes chaos is not the natural or intended state of the universe but the consequence of sin. According to Marc’s worldview, belief and faith in God are the only ways we can hope to put chaos in order. Lauren sees chaos more as a neutral, objective phenomenon. To Lauren, the universe being chaotic is no more punishment for moral failure than the sky being blue. Lauren might say, “Chaos is all around us and there’s nothing we can do to change that, so the best use of our time is learning how to adapt to it.”
Also read: Parable of the Sower and Climate Change
- The importance of purpose: Lauren recognizes that without purpose, humanity tears itself apart. Especially in the face of what seems to be certain extinction, people need meaning in their lives to go on and work together. When people feel that their lives are meaningless, they give up and succumb to death or violence.
- How we construct meaning: This book offers four different perspectives on how humanity can create meaning for itself in relation to climate change. Lauren thinks humans should explore outer space and colonize other worlds to preserve our species. Marc believes people should have faith in a higher power like God to give order to the chaos of our lives. Bankhole advocates for taking care of the sick and injured to restore the earth. Larkin (or Asha) seems to suggest that stories can give meaning to our lives so that we can rebuild or change the world.
- Remaking the world: Near the end of the book, Lauren tells Len that history repeats itself in destructive cycles. These cycles don’t only kill untold numbers of people, they also have a devastating effect on our natural environment. And of course, we are part of the natural environment. Lauren proposes that the only way to live in harmony with nature is to recognize these cycles and break them, once and for all. To do this, we must rebuild society from the ground-up. This is lengthy, difficult work that will take hundreds—maybe even thousands—of years to finish. This work may never be done, but in order to survive, humans must attempt it.
Analysis of environmental themes in “Parable of the Talents”
It’s hard to identify pure so-called environmental themes in Parable of the Talents because Octavia Butler addresses climate change as an intersectional issue. But that doesn’t mean Butler shies away from getting at the heart of the crisis. Rather, I would argue that Octavia Butler’s message is all the more effective for taking a subversive approach.
This may seem like an odd comparison, but I liken the way Octavia Butler talks about climate change to the way scholar and theologian Walter Brueggemann thinks the Old Testament prophets talked about the big issues of their time. Or rather, the ways they didn’t talk about the big issues of their time.
In what might be his best-known work, The Prophetic Imagination, Brueggemann argues that prophets “…nurture, nourish, and evoke a consciousness and perception alternative to the consciousness and perception of the dominant culture around us.” Brueggemann says prophets achieve this through poetic language, or through what he calls elusive language.
I don’t mean to say that Octavia Butler was a prophet sent by the God of the Bible—she identified as an atheist from the age of 12. However, she did think religion has a role to play in life and that it can be used as a tool for good. Her decision to make the character Lauren Olamina the founder of a religion called Earthseed is a prime example of this belief.
Lauren communicates the tenets of her faith through poetry. These poems express a number of different ideas, but the main idea Lauren always comes back to is “God is change.” On the surface, Lauren writes about how we should respond to chaos, why we need purpose, how we should shape our meaning as a species, and how we can remake the world, but deep down, she’s really writing about how humans should adapt to Earth’s changing climate.
Similarly, Walter Brueggemann often points to the way Martin Luther King, Jr. used poetic language—especially in his “I Have a Dream” speech—to talk about civil rights. In an interview with Krista Tippet on the On Being podcast, Brueggemann said:
“I think at his best [Martin Luther King, Jr.] was a biblical poet. If you just think of ‘I Have a Dream,’ it just kind of soared away. He wasn’t really talking about enacting a civil rights bill, except that he was. But it was language that was out beyond the quarrels that we do.”
In this way, we might also think of Lauren Olamina as a prophet of sorts. We might even think of Octavia Butler herself as a prophet, given that she actually penned the words Lauren wrote in her journals. Parable of the Talents may not talk about climate change in the explicit terms of sea level rise, food insecurity, and ocean acidification that we’re used to hearing on the news, but it does talk about climate change by providing alternatives to the dominant culture’s perception and consciousness of our relationship with nature.
Discover more stories that can teach us about responding to climate change
This article concludes our two-part series on Parable of the Sower and Parable of the Talents by Octavia Butler, but there are many more stories about climate change to explore. Subscribe to our podcast on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or wherever you get podcasts to get notified when we release a new episode every month.
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