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Barren land by Amr Tahtawi CC BY-NC 2.0
Literature and Political Theology

Ecowomanist Parables: Ecowomanist Ethics and Praxis in Octavia Butler’s Parable of the Sower

In an era of systemic collapse, we need radical ecowomanist theory for survival and liberation.

Octavia Butler’s unfinished Parable trilogy, published between 1993 and 1998, has proven to be a premonition of the contemporary era’s emerging political, economic, environmental, and social issues.  These novels, set between 2024 and 2090, depict present and impending upheavals in our ecological landscape, economic system, and political conditions (Parable of the Talents even features a president who urges voters to “make America great again”). In Parables, Lauren Olamina, a young, Black, middle-class, disabled woman, comes of age while navigating social and ecological collapse and leading a community in surviving and resisting atmospheric violence. Butler gives a parable of ecowomanist thinking and practice through Olamina’s establishment of the Earthseed religion, reflecting and advancing a womanist tradition of grounded and spiritual wellness, critique of hierarchical systems, and radical imagination of collective liberation. In developing Earthseed as a creed and community, Olamina develops and displays agency, strength, and love as foundational community principles, she advocates for an expansive and interdisciplinary approach to moral-religious epistemology, and she demands a practical, needs-based orientation in her strategy of interdependent liberation. Placing the Parables within a tradition of womanist scholarship enables us to view these novels as a critique of contemporary and future structures of inequality, as well as a radical imagining of our capacity for robust resistance.

Womanism, first coined by novelist Alice Walker in 1983, is an elaboration and advancement of mainstream feminism, broadening the scope to include representations, ideological frames, and political interests of girls and women of color. Womanists “appreciate and prefer women’s culture,” without advocating for gender separatism; womanists value the willful, courageous, interrogative, agentic behavior often decried in girls of women of color; they embrace an embodied, emotional, and sensual experience of life and use it to promote “survival and wholeness” for the entire community (Walker 1983). The foundation of womanism’s theoretical, political, and practical expression is love; a womanist “loves love and food, and roundness. Loves struggle, Loves the Folk. Loves herself,” elevating embodied emotion as central to theory and praxis.

Womanist theory and writing are part of a legacy of critical scholarship that breaks from traditional academic formations, interests, and objectives. As an intersectional feminist framework, womanism embraces grassroots, margin-to-center perspectives to validate the lived experience of marginalized women. Thus, it reclaims epistemological authority from elite institutions by recognizing folk lessons from songs, saying, and stories as theorizing of equal rigor and value to that which emerges from formal academia. In emerging from non-institutional spaces (the neighborhoods, kitchens, and gardens of everyday life) womanism fiercely critiques the mundane, yet existential concerns of our livelihood: Are our resources adequate? How cohesive are our communities? Are our most marginalized populations free? Due to racial, class, and gender discrimination, many womanist intellectuals were, and remain, excluded from traditional academic institutions; consequently, many canonical womanist texts have been authored by Black women in the form of novels, poetry collections, and memoirs. While all of Butler’s works can be read as feminist texts, the Parables are distinctly womanist. Butler herself described her intention in writing them as to “consider a possible future unaffected by parapsychological abilities such as telepathy or telekinesis, unaffected by alien intervention, unaffected by magic. It is to look at where we are now, what we are doing now, and to consider where some of our current behaviors and attended problems might take us” (Butler 2000; 337). While her novels often deal in the realm of magic and supernatural influence, the Parables are firmly rooted in the quotidian, yet deeply consequential cultural, economic, and structural contexts of the United States.

Ecowomanism integrates the tenets and lessons from ecofeminism (showing how women and queer folks are conceptually and empirically marginalized and harmed within patriarchal views of nature), with environmental justice (illuminating the link between the oppression and exploitation of racial minorities and the environment). It also advances a womanist tradition of minority-centered women’s activism, which recognizes gender, race, and class as equal, intersecting axes from which scholars may critique inequality and develop radical imagination. Ecowomanism emerges from the use of, theorization about, and political organization centered on nature and the environment, and has its diverse applications as the deliberate cultivation of heritage skills, a critical theory through which to view inequality dynamics, and an ethical praxis toward liberation. The greatest contribution to the advancement of ecowomanism has been made by womanist theologians who integrate and environmental framework into broader critiques of western Christian teachings. Theological ecowomanism rejects the categorical, hierarchical dualism that has historically aided institutional oppression. This involves refusing hegemonic dualisms (between deity/humankind, humankind/nature, spiritual/material, sacred/mundane, or holy/profane), but it also requires repudiating social-cultural hierarchical categorization systems, such as racist-sexist frameworks that reduced Black women’s bodies to the status of chattel then justifying dominance and exploitation of human and non-human animals. Instead, ecowomanism advances a framework that recognizes Black women’s bodies, knowledge, and practices as sacred and meaningful (Riley 1995).

Second, theological ecowomanism embraces interdisciplinarity and interreligiosity in their ideas of, and struggles against, environmental injustice, incorporating earth-honoring spiritual concepts and heritage practices from indigenous African, American, and Asian communities into theological and activist pursuits (Bettancourt 2016). It recognizes and celebrates the multigenerational wisdom, skills, and embodied knowledge of communities that have lived in harmony with nature and prioritized collective wellness over individual profit through lessons in foraging, gardening, hunting, constructing, and healing. Returning to land-based traditions disrupts capitalist exploitation and provides agency and independence to groups without economic power.

Finally, theological ecowomanism guides activist resistance centered on the “wholesome” liberation of individuals, communities, and societies. If bodies (especially Black, disabled, and homeless bodies) are sacred, then resistance to oppression and efforts toward paradise must entail embracing an ethic of horizonal affinity, coalitional solidarity, and mutual communal care for human and non-human others.

The Parables show how ecowomanism may be used to analyze and criticize social and environmental inequalities, develop alternative frameworks for operating in the world, and implement liberatory resistance strategies. Lauren Olamina embodies many tenets of womanism: she is determined, curious, deeply embodied (due to her hyperempathy, a disabling genetic neuro-somatic condition in which sufferers feel the pain or pleasure of others without direct physical stimuli), and singularly dedicated to the liberation of everyone in her community. Despite the fact that her age, race, and gender constrained much of her agency and social authority within the confines of Robledo, in leading Earthseed she displays capability, intuition, and resilience, earning. While Earthseed is concerned with change, it also respects human activity as a meaningful force in the universe. While change is unavoidable, humans may shape, direct, and adapt to it individually and collectively. This “Shape God” precept, which holds that human agency can influence the speed, shape, or direction of change, is exactly the kind of outrageous, audacious, and willful stance that womanism admires, and it supplies Olamina the strength to face the hardships of cultivating the first Earthseed community.

Olamina began her ecowomanist journey by learning everything she could about her local natural world, including techniques like seed saving, harvesting and foraging crops, indigenous herbalism, and natural and manufactured defense. She observes and critiques her neighbors before turning her inquisitive eye to Christianity. At her baptism, she ponders the nature of God, whether he is only a concept used by adults to scare children, if he can be found in natural disasters or balanced ecosystems, or more horrifyingly, if he commands the anguish and suffering of the poor. Olamina claims that she did not invent Earthseed, but rather “discovered” it while studying and analyzing the natural world; she finds God in the inexorable process of change, rather than in an anthropomorphic entity who interferes with individual lives.

This shift from God-as-man to God-as-idea not only liberates Earthseed from the hegemonic models of western religions, which are riddled with racism and heterosexism, but also contributes to the disruption of dualist categorical frameworks that reinforce oppressive hierarchies. It directs Olamina to a horizontal, integrated epistemology of holiness, mundanity, spirituality, and nature. Alice Walker employed this concept in a scene from her masterpiece, The Color Purple. As Celie Johnson and Shug Avery argue the existence, appearance, and significance of God, Shug recounts her personal freedom from hegemonic Western theology.

“Trees were my first step from the old white man [as God]. Then there’s air. Then there were birds. Then there were others. But one day, while sitting quietly, I had the sensation of being a part of everything, rather than being separate from it. I knew if I chopped down a tree, my arm would bleed” (Walker, 1985).  Similarly, Earthseed suggests,

“Create no images of God.

Accept the images

That God has provided.

They are everywhere…

God is Change—

Seed to Tree,

Tree to forest;

Rain to river,

River to sea:

Grubs to bees,

Bees to swarm…

The universe is God’s self-portrait.”

This ecowomanist revelation of a non-humanoid deity goes beyond simply decentering a white-male God. By embracing their location in and alongside nature, rather distinct from it, Avery and Olamina open to the simultaneity of natures (?) of holiness and mundanity, and as “part of everything,” they recognize how violence, extraction, and oppression against nature is mirrored in their own bodies. The primary doctrine of Earthseed, of fluidity, instability, and change, allows for an expansive view of sacredness and value.

Olamina’s hyperempathy pushes her to build ecowomanist ethics of interbeing and community love.  Her “sharing” necessitates a direct confrontation with the consequences of individual and systemic violence on human and non-human beings. As Olamina and her group journey north along chaotic highways packed with desperate refugees, her neuro-somatic agony acts as a conduit through which she develops an embodied empathy with strangers, and a theological virtue code centered on reciprocal compassion and collaborative care work. Indeed, Olamina’s disability inspires an Earthseed care ethic, that “kindness eases change” and “love quiets fear.”  She learns that interdependency is not limited to humans as she shoots a dog attacking their camp and feels excruciating anguish. This “sharing” episode reveals how harm and exploitation against non-human entities directly impacts human life; universal care, tenderness, and love are essential in a violent and oppressive world.  Finally, empathy inspires a communal care ethic characterized by the democratic distribution of resources, labor, and responsibility. Love (even love of their own life) drives the Earthseed’s demand for communal responsibility, defense, and aspiration toward their ultimate goal of sending humans into space. The Earthseed priority of caring for people’s earthy bodies, rather than their souls, is one of the reasons it is so enticing to newcomers. Olamina admits that some members, especially those with young children, join Earthseed for resources and protection rather than religion. While many begin as skeptical, none are coerced into formal “belief;” in fact, interrogation, skepticism, and debate are nurtured as a virtuous quality. Earthseed prioritizes the community’s physical needs (food, water, shelter, and safety) to ensure that people’s well-being can be addressed in loving collaboration with the land.

The Parables offer us a vision of ecowomanist activist praxis in the midst of societal collapse. Olamina integrates the practical, land-based principles of pre-colonial communities with the ethical teachings of Christianity, Buddhism, Sufism, and existentialism to form a unified framework for immediate and future survival.  Earthseed offers a womanist resistance to an increasingly oppressive theocratic regime, and Olamina herself exemplifies womanist values through her leadership, resilience, wisdom, and tenderness. She uses her social positionality, as a Black, disabled woman, to critique mainstream social frameworks, to innovate an alternative frame that speaks to the natural and social patterns she observes, and to probe broad epistemological issues of difference, interconnectedness, and the role of love and caring in radical resistance. These forces all work together to ensure that the Earthseed community survives when they are captured and enslaved, and thrives when they are free. Earthseed’s ecowomanist attributes enable the community to endure this trial and, in the end, fulfill Olamina’s prophecy of propelling humanity into the celestial cosmos.


Betancourt, Sofia. 2016. Between Dishwater and the River: Toward an Ecowomanist Methodology. Worldviews. 20: 64-75.

Harris, Melanie L. “Ecowomanism: An Introduction.” Worldviews 20, no. 1 (2016): 5–14.

Riley, Shamara Shantu. 1995. “Ecology is a Sistah’s Issue Too: The Politics of Emergent Afrocentric Womanism” in Readings in Ecology and Feminist Theology, ed. MacKinnon, Mary Heather, and Moni McIntyre. Kansas City: Sheed and Ward. 

Walker, Alice. 1982. The Color Purple. [Place of publication not identified]: Pocket Books.

In Search of Our Mothers’ Gardens : Womanist Prose. 1983. 1st ed. San Diego: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich.

Walker, Alice. 1997. “The Only Reason You Want to Go to Heaven is That You Have Been Driven Out of Your Mind”, adapted from a speech given at Auburn Theological Seminary, April 25, 1995.

The Fierce Urgency of Butler’s Future is NOW!    

As literary works of speculative fiction, Octavia Butler’s Parable of the Sower (1993) and Parable of the Talents (1998) thrust us into an all-too-near future, offering a haunting perspective on what our world could entail by the year 2035. In 2024, however, Butler’s Parables are no longer mere imaginative forays into the future.

Political Theologians: Lauren Olamina and Ramakrishna Paramahansa

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It First Must Burn: Expanding the Spiritual Lens of Change in Parable of Sower’s Earthseed

Reconsider the concept of change in your spiritual journey.

Ecowomanist Parables: Ecowomanist Ethics and Praxis in Octavia Butler’s Parable of the Sower

In an era of systemic collapse, we need radical ecowomanist theory for survival and liberation.

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