Falling from the World: Earthseed, Black Geographies, and the Apocalyptic Now
To explore connections between spatial loss, memory, and using our ethnographic research to build new worlds, I returned to Octavia Butler’s Parable of the Sower, a 1993 science fiction novel set in the aftermath of devasting climate change and vast inequities in the US that have produced an unsustainable amount of violence. We first meet the novel’s protagonist, fifteen-year-old Lauren Olamina, in 2024. Though the world outside is crumbling, Olamina’s family and neighbors are relatively safe in a gated community, but they are resented by those outside the walls. Three years after we meet her, the community is attacked and Olamina’s family is killed. Not unlike many Black girls that we all know and love, she does what seems to be the only sensible thing: she gathers survivors and leads them through the chaotic world outside of the gated community that failed to protect them. The journey is not easy, as Olamina is a hyperempath who can feel the pain and emotions of others she encounters, sometimes causing her deep anguish. Despite this, she is clear-eyed about freedom. In this postapocalyptic world, Olamina leads Earthseed, a religion-turned-community destined to sustain human life.3
We know about Lauren Olamina’s movements, thoughts, experiences, and vision for building Earthseed because she documents them. Alternating between journal entries and passages from Earthseed: The Books of the Living, Olamina writes to us from the future. She shows us the future of this world: climate disaster that makes water scarce; multinational consolidation and corporate greed that leave whole communities to die; desperation, murder, and gang violence; constant threats to individual and communal safety. She also shows us what is required to build anew: the clearing, the gathering, the documenting, the visioning. In short, Butler’s Parable shows us now.
To conceive of how we too might build and live as Earthseed by adopting Lauren Olamina’s worldmaking practices into our research, I return to the two sites I began with—Mr. Jones’s store and the community garden. Guided by Olamina’s instructions in Earthseed, I stage a relationship between fieldnotes from my work in DC from 2012 to 2016 and speculative notes that imagine what could be possible if “that which will have had to happen” (i.e., writing fieldnotes for and toward possible futures) takes place. This is a conversation between Butler’s Olamina, me, and an ethnographer/archivist/Earthseeder in the future. It is one version of what is possible if the fieldnotes I collected were freely available, given over to the community and held in a library, public archive, or time capsule for the express purpose of building new worlds.4
In an essay for e-flux Architecture, sociologist Ruha Benjamin offers three fieldnote excerpts, each set two hundred years from the previous one—dated 1816, 2016, and 2216. Together, the fieldnotes think through the past, present, and future of the technological and aesthetic choices made at any given moment, bringing into sharp focus the violent and the “casually eugenic” processes bound up in narratives of progress and modernity. This methodological exercise, she writes, “is a way to fashion possible futures and probable pasts, enabling analysts to critically reflect on the present. In experimenting with the line between fact and fiction, we can begin to question the assumption of inevitability that surrounds technological development” while exploring the “relationality of innovation and containment—who and what is fixed in place, corralled and coerced, so others are free to fabricate the future?”5
Food is the connecting thread in Benjamin’s speculative fieldnotes: in 1816, the forced feeding of enslaved people; in 2016, the question of how to address food insecurity; in 2216, a world of famine in which some have been genetically modified to self-sustain and others presumably survive through malnutrition. At its core, the apocalyptic world that Benjamin writes does not look very different from the apocalyptic world of the now, though in the present we still have time (or at least hope) to refuse the preventable suffering and death that global capitalism produces. The question is and has been: but how?
While I am necessarily concerned with how we write different futures, the willingness, ability, and urgency to do so is firmly located in the now, and the “future” we’re writing toward is not so far out of the scope of possibilities as it may have felt thirty years ago when Octavia Butler published Parable of the Sower. Near the end of Listening to Images, historian Tina Campt poses these questions: “How do we live the future we want to see now when confronted with the statistical probability of premature black mortality? How do we create an alternative future by living both the future we want to see, while inhabiting its potential foreclosure at the same time?”6
This reimagining takes up Campt’s unanswered questions to think through methodological challenges and possibilities of how memory and ethnographic archives might intervene in the time of now.
Initiates and guides action—
Or it does nothing.7