At the beginning of the novel, Lauren, her family and the other families within the walled neighborhood live as virtual prisoners. If they do venture outside, they must go armed. They are under constant siege from the thieves and drug addicts who roam the streets outside. These desperate people frequently break into the neighborhood and steal, burn and scavenge whatever they can.
There are no prospects for the young people within the wall. No jobs are available, and their lives will slowly get worse; they will get poorer and poorer. All seventeen-year-old Bianca Montoya can expect when she marries, for example, is to live in half a garage. The federal government is powerless to improve the situation.
The only alternative for many is to move to the company town of Olivar. But the people who choose this option value security over freedom, since the company will control every aspect of their lives. Not surprisingly, Lauren refuses to even consider going to Olivar.
Instead, she chooses to take her destiny into her own hands and walk north to freedom, even though she knows it will be a dangerous journey and she has no clear idea of her destination. Many of the people who join her are escaping some form of virtual slavery. Zahra Moss was kept under the thumb of her husband; Jill and Allie Gilchrist were enslaved to their father who forced them into prostitution; and Emery Solis was in debt slavery to her employer. When Lauren and her group reach Bankole's property they are free to decide for themselves whether they want to stay there. Although they still face a difficult task in trying to survive, they have freed themselves from external oppression.
When Lauren is only fifteen, she already knows that her community is doomed. She also knows that no one is facing up to the fact. This leads her to conclude that she must take matters into her own hands. No external authority will help her, since the police are corrupt and the rule of law has broken down. So she takes it upon herself to read everything she can about how to survive when the time comes to leave Robledo-how to use guns, how to handle medical emergencies, how to live off the land. She also puts together an emergency pack so she will be well prepared if she has to leave in a hurry. Once she is on the road she and her group survive by being vigilant and using their resources wisely. At this stage it is a matter of the survival of the fittest. When they reach the land where they will create the first Earthseed community, they still need to be self-reliant. There are no jobs available in the area, so they must start virtually from scratch and support themselves by what they can grow and sell. Self-reliance thus becomes a basic tenet of the Earthseed religion. According to Earthseed, it would be foolish for people to sit around waiting for God to help them. They must take the initiative themselves and shape their own destiny based on their own efforts.
The novel shows the collapse of community and the gradual rebuilding of a new one. In Robledo in 2024, social order has virtually broken down. The only places where a sense of community still exists are within the walled areas, where middle-class people try to maintain a semblance of normal life. Although they do not especially like one another, they do feel responsible for defending their neighborhood. They set up neighborhood watches, for example, and when Lauren's father goes missing, all the adults join together to search for him. But this community is a doomed one, and when it is finally overrun, there is nothing left but chaos and anarchy. In this anarchic world, Lauren and her small but growing group must learn to survive, in the short-term, by being ruthless, but they must also learn to forge a sense of community and common purpose amongst themselves. They must learn the ties of affection and loyalty that bind people together and enable human communities to be built. This happens slowly but unmistakably. An important incident happens after Jill Gilchrist is killed. Lauren embraces Jill's sister, Allie, who up to then she has not especially liked, and comforts her. The whole group waits silently. No one says anything, but there is a wordless message: "In spite of your loss and pain, you aren't alone. You still have people who care about you and want you to be all right. You still have family" (ch. 24). This is a landmark on the way to the establishment of the genuine community of Earthseed-a group of people who are committed to one another and who share common values.
The novel is a coming-of-age story that covers three years in Lauren's life. She is fifteen years old when it begins and eighteen when it ends. She grows from being a young teenager who is dependent on her family to an independent, forceful woman who can lead others. During this period she does what many teenagers do at some point. She challenges her father's belief system and his authority. Her father is a Baptist minister, but Lauren is quite sure this is not the religion for her. She rejects it entirely and creates her own religion instead. Forced by circumstances to mature very quickly, she forges her own system of values and tests them in the harsh world of California in the 2020s. Lauren's successful coming-of-age is contrasted with the failure of her younger brother Keith. Like Lauren, Keith challenges his father, and like Lauren he strikes out on his own. He wants to be independent. But lacking Lauren's foresight and wisdom he chooses a destructive path which ends in his death.