That Sustainability Question

A few weeks ago, Kayla voiced her concern about sustainability in Clay’s Ark. She was concerned there would not be enough food on earth when appetites became insatiable as a result of the disease. At first I believed that Clayarks would have little to no problem acquiring sufficient food, considering that earth is capable of producing more food than necessary and that a large portion of the population would be killed by the disease. However, my post became a lot more complicated when Dr. McCoy informed me that California will run out of water in one year. Because the issue of sustainability and sharing resources between coexisting peoples is such a large part of Butler’s novels, I think it is important to discuss real life crises of sustainability, namely, world hunger and the California water crisis, within the context of Butler’s work.

According to the “2015 World Hunger and Poverty Facts and Statistics,” produced by the World Hunger Education Service, at the time Octavia Butler wrote the Patternist series the world produced enough food so that every person on earth could eat 2,220 calories a day, and many developed nations were producing upwards of 2,640 calories per person. What’s more, the world currently “produces more than 1 ½ times enough food to feed everyone on the planet,” or enough to feed 10 billion people. Although this statistic sounds promising, a large portion of crops are produced for “biofuels and confined animal feedlots rather than food for the 1 billion hungry.” I first saw this as promising for sustainability in Clay’s Ark, but I failed to consider the impact of capitalism on world hunger. A huge market for food obviously exists, but the problem is that most people in developing countries—people who often live on less than two dollars a day—can’t afford to buy food. Thus, Butler’s vision of the future and the accompanying question of sustainability, are not very different from our reality; my answer to Kayla’s question is that there would certainly be enough food for the population (current food yields, as well as the decrease in population and the accompanying farmland that would open up would allow for production of enough food, regardless of increased appetite), yet, it would only be available to those citizens who could afford it.

This issue is important to our discussion of Butler’s work especially in the context of Locke’s Second Treatise—both Butler’s fiction and Locke’s essay ask questions about what human beings are entitled to, and although Locke’s idea of “tacit consent” should not be a foundation of any society, I refuse to argue that he is wrong when he claims, “every man should have as much [food] as he could make use of…since there is land enough in the world to suffice double the inhabitants.” Similarly, I think one of the biggest questions Butler asks in the Patternist series is how people can coexist and share resources: the series starts with a clear divide between oppressed and oppressor, but after a widespread microbial infection puts many of the oppressed in a position to compete with their former oppressors, it becomes clear that the only way to ensure the prosperity of both species is by coming to peace with each other and negotiating how they will share the earth.

Sharing the earth—for both the sake of humanity and for the sake of our planet—is even more important now than ever due to the California water shortage, and our reading of “Bloodchild” could not have come at a more opportune time when discussing the water crisis. In Butler’s afterword to “Bloodchild,” she discusses the concept of paying the rent, or making sacrifices and accommodations in order to have a safe place to live. Discussing livable environments Butler writes, “sooner or later, humans [will] have to make accommodations with their um…their hosts,” and twenty years later, it’s time to take her advice.

According to James Famiglietti, a water scientist for NASA, 2014 has been the driest year in California since 1895, and not only has water storage in California “been in steady decline since at least 2002,” but California currently “has only about one year of water supply left in its reservoirs, and [the] strategic backup supply, groundwater, is rapidly disappearing.” In response to Famiglietti’s research, officials tried to argue that the situation is not as dire as it appears, claiming “reservoirs will be replenished by additional snow and rainfall,” and that the state has groundwater to provide California with water for decades. These dismissive remarks serve to derail the conversation and shift focus away from the question of sustainability by creating half-truths about groundwater. While it may be true that decades of ground water exist, state officials omitted that certain areas of California are sinking by six or more inches a year, and in areas where the most groundwater is being removed, the ground is 28 feet lower than in the mid-20th century. The largest problem with using groundwater is that when the ground sinks, the soil becomes compacted, and this combination of sinking and compacting reduces “pore spaces between clay particles, leaving less room for groundwater.” Instead of focusing on the issue that the ground can no longer hold as much water, officials use groundwater stores as a method for downplaying California’s water crisis.

Officials also withhold just how devastating this water crisis could be to food production in the US. “The C-Free Diet,” an article discussing what it would be like for Americans if we didn’t have California’s food production, argues that “California produces a sizable majority of many American fruits, vegetables, and nuts: 99 percent of artichokes, 99 percent of walnuts, 97 percent of kiwis, 97 percent of plums, 95 percent of celery, 95 percent of garlic, 89 percent of cauliflower, 71 percent of spinach, and 69 percent of carrots (and the list goes on and on).” Furthermore, the article claims that California soil is richer than anywhere else in the United States—yielding up to 50% more lemons and 60% more spinach than other farmlands. If farming in California became hampered by the water crisis, food would become much more expensive, and it is likely that the number of hungry people in the world—currently 805 million—would drastically increase.

Newspaper headlines like, “No, California won’t run out of water in a year,” not only intentionally remove desperately needed attention from the water crisis, but also consider the water crisis to be an isolated event. Octavia Butler has been warning us about crises compiling up for decades until it is too late for us to fix our problems. In an interview with Charles Brown, Butler lamented that people view issues like global warming, crumbling sea lines, and transcontinental diseases as not interrelated; according to Butler, “most of us refuse to recognize these as symptoms of a single problem. It’s not just about things getting warm. If you’re forced to change what you grow and where you grow it, and maybe food prices are going up, and we’ve got tropical diseases coming North, sea level rise…we’re going to have to endure these effects.” And even if we consider all of these issues as interconnected, letting them go any longer without making serious changes to the way we live will only exacerbate the issue of how human beings will share the earth without conflict.






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