Ontological Enchantment


{NB: This essay originally appeared in the Peace Chronicle among a collection of other writings on the theme of “re-enchantment” earlier this year — you should definitely check out the great array of material in the whole issue (PDF posted by the Peace & Justice Studies Association, which you should join!)}

Rekindling Rootedness in a Ravaged World

If you haven’t read Octavia Butler’s prophetic 1993 novel Parable of the Sower yet or in a while, you might want to dial up a copy to help make sense of the moment in which we find ourselves, and perhaps to rekindle a sense of grounded hope in the face of mounting cataclysm. Being engaged participants in this world, it is easy to become overwhelmed by the relentless and escalating sense of crisis and injustice all around us—making it critically important for our work and wellbeing alike to remember that we aren’t alone in the struggle and that we’re in the flow of history. Without broaching spoilers here, the arc of Butler’s visionary story can provide a template for remaining empathetic in troubling times.

The book begins in 2024 and follows the journey of Lauren Olamina, a young African-American woman living in a small community in Southern California. Lauren has a condition dubbed “hyperempathy” in which she feels (and sometimes physically manifests) what others nearby are feeling—mostly pain. Outside of her enclave, the world is spiraling out of control, plagued by violence and poverty and social decay in a manner that is a credible extrapolation of the world today. As the façade of security crumbles around her, Lauren develops a philosophy known as Earthseed and embarks on a perilous journey with a band of travelers to find a place where they can plant seeds for a better world in the midst of despair.

This is all within the book jacket blurb, so I’m not really giving anything away! What I’d like to offer, instead, is a glimpse of Earthseed and how it connects with a range of other contemporary perspectives on coping with the existential threats of climate change, environmental degradation, militarism and militarization, profound inequality, and structural violence infused throughout sociopolitical systems. The epistemology of diagnosing these issues is one thing; ontologically acting despite them is another.

In Butler’s vision, these forces have converged in tangible ways, being interconnected manifestations of common root causes that have served to separate us from one another and collectively from the living world. The conversion of common resources to private hands, the theft of lands and exploitation of labor en masse, the folly of building fortress societies and pursuing security as a zero-sum proposition, the individualization of hardships and harms, a prevailing ethos of powerlessness grounded in complacency and complicity, propaganda promulgated by official entities—all of these are contemplated by the book in ways that suggest how they are part of a larger unraveling of connection.

In the face of this, Earthseed is a nascent philosophy of change, adaptation, open-endedness, and hope. It isn’t a palliative or pie-in-the-sky exercise, however; as Olamina/Butler writes, “There is no end to what a living world will demand of you.” Earthseed begins with the humility of acknowledging “that it knows nothing” and cautions that we must “embrace diversity or be destroyed.” The locus of change is cast as eternal and fundamental in the book, with the foundational mantra that “God is change,” but the onus of action is on us: “We must find the rest of what we need within ourselves, in one another.” In this light, Earthseed is an active faith, issuing a call to cultivate equal parts helpfulness and hopefulness.

In a tangible sense, the development of societies based on these ideals has a familiar ring to it from the annals of intentional communities and other experiments in collective, connected living (indeed, there’s even an inspiring actual Earthseed Land Collective in North Carolina): arable land to grow food, a stable water supply, renewable sources of energy, an educational mission, an ethic of care, sharing the work and the fruits of those efforts, a sense of purpose and commitment, a place of sanctuary that engages with (but doesn’t necessarily try to “fix”) the world, a space for collective imagining that is built on “good ground” (from the eponymous biblical parable) so that our mutual roots may reach to the stars.

There’s more to say about all of this, of course, but you should (re)read the book (as well as its 1999 sequel, Parable of the Talents). The overarching insistence on simultaneously getting back to ground and looking up in wonder reminds me of sentiments expressed in some of the chapters in the edited volume All We Can Save (subtitled “Truth, Courage, and Solutions for the Climate Crisis”). In an essay entitled “Loving in a Vanishing World,” Emily N. Johnston divulges being “entranced by the beauty of this world” despite the ravages of decades of extractivism and mass consumer culture. This moment presents to us “an astonishingly beautiful gift,” Johnston writes, namely the opportunity to be part of the process needed for life to survive, revealing “the seed of life and possibility that we share with all of Earth’s life.” The call is to love this “vanishing world,” to “rejoin the web of life,” and ultimately (and urgently) to “get to the beautiful work of making space for a decent future” in a time when “our last best chance is now.”

Likewise, in her essay “Home Is Always Worth It,” Mary Annaïse Heglar critiques the penchant within the climate movement for sometimes lapsing into either doomerism or an insistence on “hope everlasting” that feels unrealistic. “We don’t have to be Pollyanna-ish or fatalistic,” Heglar opines, but instead can embrace the “messy, imperfect, contradictory, broken” qualities of ourselves and the world, facing our struggles with a sense of courage that “leads to action” and that lays a foundation for active hope. This perspective urges us to pick up what we can and “make a world out of it” without knowing the ending. This sense of ambiguity, or at least of unfinished business, is an important component of change being taken seriously as an ongoing concept; indeed, many social movements recognize that the work is never done, that the struggle continues, and that the arc of justice is very long. We can help be architects of a new world—or better yet, cultivators of new ground—by having empathy for ourselves in the process.

Numerous details about the who and where and how of all of this need to be explicated, but the starting point (as the characters in Butler’s novel discerned) is to take those first tenuous steps of possibility in the face of ostensible unraveling. It is believing in something, coupled with capacities to make it become viable, that keeps the vision from becoming unattainable and detached, and that allows it to infuse the hard work of reengagement, remediation, and rebuilding that lies ahead if we are to have a future together. As the activist adage goes: “They tried to bury us, but they didn’t know we were seeds.” The world may seem as if it is burying us under the weight of catastrophes in every direction and at all scales, yet it remains incumbent upon us to gather and sow the seeds of change from these crises. May our enchantment with the world spur us collectively toward taking root and flourishing into the future.

NOTE: The news of the day depicts a world that seemingly conspires to make it almost impossible to maintain a plausible sense of hope and possibility. Still, empirical evidence aside, stories can help us work through the process of making a future where none seems possible. I’ve been hearing this refrain from a lot of directions lately, in conversations and spaces of change and ancient practices, surfacing a type of resilience that is grounded in conscious, caring cultivation. But even typing that feels off the mark: it’s become clear that the path is made by walking it, not just hoping or visioning or writing about it. So just do it (note to self)!