Amid a lawless world thrust into environmental and socio-economic collapse, Lauren Olamina, a Black teenager and the daughter of a Baptist preacher, tells her story through a series of dated journal entries compiled into a text titled Earthseed: The Books of the Living. As conditions inside and outside her precariously insulated community begin to worsen, Lauren is determined to shape a better future. She also suffers from hyperempathy syndrome, a condition that allows her to feel the pleasure and pain of others. As she begins to develop the foundational tenets of Earthseed — a religion rooted in the concept that God is Change — and prepares herself for the inevitable departure from her walled enclave, she’s met with resistance from members of her family, friends, and neighbors who refuse to heed her warnings of an impending and potentially violent breach. A prevailing sense of denial, egotism, indolence, and nostalgic longing among the community sets an ominous tone. Lauren struggles in getting them to accept reality and, as numerous thefts and violent incursions drive Lauren to consciously draft a plan of escape, the sense of foreboding crescendos toward the story’s inciting incident.

When drug-addled pyromaniacs burn the neighborhood to the ground, killing and raping along the way, it not only forces Lauren’s escape but also affords her the opportunity to spread the gospel of Earthseed and gather a flock of congregants. The midway point of the novel marks the beginning of Lauren’s trek northward in search of a safe haven with neighbors Harry Balter and Zahra Moss. By fearlessly adapting to rapidly changing situations, she, Harry, and Zahra manage to survive the deadly perils of their journey, though Lauren remains trepidatious in talking about Earthseed even while the trio unknowingly live out its God-Is-Change principles. When she musters up the courage to reveal a few verses of Earthseed scripture to Harry, it marks a turning point for her. She begins to develop a comfortability in openly sharing her observation-based beliefs with others. As the trio travel toward California and bring a motley group of individuals into their traveling group, it lends Lauren a platform to effectively market-test Earthseed to a diverse audience. At the beach, the in-depth exchange Lauren has with Travis Douglas about the nature of her belief system really puts Lauren in her element. She’s able to intelligently defend Earthseed’s tenets and count Travis as her first convert. Soon after, she counts Zahra as her second convert.

The fact that both Travis and Zahra are attracted to different aspects of Earthseed presents a moral victory for Lauren. Diversity, be it specific to race or opinion, is to be embraced. Lauren seems acutely aware that diversity in nature and among populations that are adapted to a wide variety of conditions and viewpoints are more likely to survive and thrive. It leads to greater stability and, as the group heads northward, more individuals, some with the same hyperempathy syndrome as Lauren, buy in to Earthseed’s dogma. But the most glaring holdout, Taylor Bankole, proves frustrating for Lauren. Through the course of their travels, Bankole has become Lauren’s right-hand man, confidante, and lover, but hasn’t been convinced on the ideas of Earthseed. Lauren encounters a personal crisis when Bankole implores her to go with him alone to his property in Northern California. Doing so would mean abandoning the followers Lauren has amassed during their journey. The crisis is averted when she’s able to convince Bankole to establish the first Earthseed community on his property. But the larger question of whether or not the rest of the group will agree to join them, to in fact create an Earthseed community, remains. After two of the most harrowing episodes in the book — the attempted kidnapping of nine-year-old Tori Solis which results in Jill Gilchrist’s sacrificial death, and the apocalyptic firestorm that nearly engulfs Lauren and her band of followers — the story reaches its climax.

Lauren makes her case to the group on the advantages and benefits of building the Earthseed community on Bankole’s land. The future of Earthseed hangs in the balance as the group contemplates joining her cause and becoming Earthseed’s first acolytes. After some debate, every member of the entourage agrees, for various reasons, to establish the Earthseed community on the property. In a highly symbolic ceremony, the group take a moment to remember the friends and family members they’ve lost before quoting Bible and Earthseed verses and burying their dead. Oak trees are planted from acorns immediately afterwards in a ritual signifying rebirth and starting anew. The group names their new home “Acorn,” after the nut that contains the seed of an oak tree. For Lauren, having Earthseed take root among a loyal band of followers on good land presents the culmination of everything she has been working to establish since she was 15. The novel ends with the Parable of the Sower from the King James version of the Bible whose final verse stresses the importance of sowing seeds on “good ground.”