Moving beyond existing economic and social frameworks to post-growth ways of living requires immense creativity. When we’re able to see the world from a radically different point of view than our own, we understand that our cultural rules are only one possible construct and it becomes possible to envision alternatives. Imagining the inner sanctum of a beehive in stunning detail, The Bees by Laline Paull offers readers the pleasure of doing just that.
The book follows Flora 717, a lowly sanitation worker bee, as she works her way up a highly rigid social order, which she discovers is on the verge of collapse. We see how the fictional bees deal with religion, gender, class, and control. This is a society where, in human terms, the mass of individuals is denied a fundamental right-only the queen may breed. Yet powerful love for the queen and fellow sisters keep worker bees loyal and devoted. Environmental degradation is an overarching theme. From the brief opening chapter in the human world, we learn that the orchard where the bees live is being sold for brownfield development. Human inventions like cell phone towers and pesticides frequently endanger and disrupt the bees’ foraging. More importantly, environmental disaster presents itself in the ever-harsher seasons and mysterious disease plaguing the hive. Like us, the bees are forced to grapple with the consequences of these changes on their contemporary way of life.
Though the society is authoritarian, the bees also display an admirable dedication to the collective. One striking example is the tight cluster they form to survive winter. I appreciate how the author features cooperative aspects of animal behavior, bucking the trend of focusing on individualism and ruthlessness in the natural world, which feeds into a false belief in economics that caring for one another is not in our nature. Flora also describes a collective consciousness known as the “hive mind” that instructs the bees at many key junctures. While this may have sinister interpretations about state power or groupthink, there is something appealing about the idea that if we pay attention, we can learn from the wisdom of past generations. Or, that a visceral and sensory “moral compass” can be a powerful guide.
In the end, the book straddles a line between powerful fable and dystopian young adult adventure. Its reliance on a typical precocious-youngster-who-no-one-expected-much-of-rises-to-the-challenge-and-saves-the-day storyline steered it closer to the latter than I would have liked. A non-traditional narrative focus on the collective of the hive would have felt truer, given what we know about real honeybees, and would have made this a more provocative piece from a post-growth standpoint. Furthermore, although the conflict really picks up in the second half of the book, the first half is marked by triumph after triumph for Flora with hardly any resistance. If this story is at all meant to reflect on struggles for equity, it seems misguided to highlight such effortless success of one gifted individual.
Overall, as a highly engrossing, imaginative piece of writing that models societal transformation in the face of environmental destruction, I recommend The Bees.
Originally published in September 2014. To Find out more about the Post Growth Institute, visit our website.