As a Hunger Games fan, I braved the crowds to catch the movie this past weekend along with another $155 million worth of fans – though I wasn’t crazy enough to go to one of those midnight showings. CSW first became interested in the series because Suzanne Collins makes a brief but pointed reference to climate change in the beginning of the novel.
If you didn’t already know, the Hunger Games trilogy depicts a dystopian future. The mostly impoverished country of Panem, “a place once known as North America,” is ruled by an excessively wealthy Capitol city that keeps its twelve outlying districts under control by forcing each to offer one male and one female child (ages 12-18) to participate in the Hunger Games, a fight to the death on live television.
During the hype leading up to the movie premiere, the climate blogosphere pointed out the book’s probable reference to climate change as an explanation for North America’s demise. The mayor of District 12 describes the history of Panem: “He lists the disasters, the droughts, the storms, the fires, the encroaching seas that swallowed up so much of the land, the brutal war for what little sustenance remained.”
Sounds a lot like climate change to me. Joe Romm’s post at Climate Progress and Brad Johnson’s post at Think Progress Green also point to this allusion. Perhaps many people will see the premise that climate change has caused an apocalypse as a bit ridiculous. But it’s significant that climate change has worked its way into our nation’s consciousness to the extent that this passing reference serves as the foundation for accounting for a society’s collapse.
In any case, this reference is the only allusion to climate change that I can find; it’s just not a main feature of the book. Still, The Hunger Games depicts many of today’s real world problems; it exaggerates them, to be sure, but much of the value of this novel lies in making us recognize that many of the features of this awful, oppressive fictional society can be found in our society today.
One significant parallel between this fictitious North America and ours is the presence of oppression – though it’s intensified in the novel. It describes a society with a huge, harrowing gap between the majority of the country and the citizens of the Capitol city – wealthy, decorated people with access to the latest technologies and who live in Romanesque excess. The games themselves are reminiscent of gladiator tournaments, and later in the series the author describes a feast at which the Capitol citizens force themselves to vomit so they can stuff in more food. These excesses are supported by the enslavement of traitors and criminals.
Compare this to the protagonist and heroine Katniss Everdeen’s description of her home, District 12, which is responsible for mining coal. Her house, little more than a shack, sits among those of the other mining families. These are “men and women with hunched shoulders, swollen knuckles, many who have long since stopped trying to scrub the coal dust from under their broken nails, the lines of their sunken faces.”
The extent to which Collins sets the rich apart from the poor majority of Panem is thankfully beyond what we see now in US society, but also part of what makes the novel so compelling. Still, the oppressive relationship between the elite citizens of the Capitol and the rest of the country could easily be viewed as a post-apocalyptic version of our own 99% vs. 1% conception.
A few scenes in the movie hit on this relationship quite nicely: In one, the President of Panem explains that the districts must be oppressed in order to keep control over their natural resources. In an earlier scene, District 12 residents show their contempt for the Capitol elite by refusing to applaud when Katniss volunteers for the Games.
We can draw some more specific parallels between the political dynamics of resource extraction in Panem and in the US. District 12 bears the costs, but sees few of the benefits of coal mining. Katniss’s father died along with many other workers in a mine explosion. Coal dust covers the entire town. The technologies that presumably run on this coal (a train that averages 250 mph, food appearing at the touch of a button, costumes that light up with synthetic fire) don’t exist in District 12. Katniss is “lucky to get two or three hours of electricity in the evenings.”
Though mining deaths have declined greatly since the late 1800s, there are still many health impacts associated with fossil fuel extraction. Mountaintop removal mining in West Virginia and oil extraction in the Gulf have produced serious health consequences for the surrounding communities: studies show higher rates of birth defects in mountaintop removal mining areas, and the health impacts associated with the Deepwater Horizon oil spill as well as the dispersant COREXIT are still being documented.
Relevant here is a June 2011 Congressional hearing on EPA’s attempts at coal industry regulation, where Rep. Dennis Kucinich (D-Ohio) highlighted the need for proper regulation of the coal industry in spite of potential decreases in utility profits. He commented accurately that “people [in mining communities] are subsidizing the profits of the utilities with the public health.” The Hunger Games doesn’t mention any adverse health impacts (besides dangerous mining accidents), but this idea that Katniss has been made to pay the high cost of extraction in the form of her father’s death for the benefit of an elite group is hardly a fictional concept.
Another one of the book’s main themes is hunger. Katniss risks trips into the surrounding woods (punishable by death) to hunt for game to keep her family from starvation. She explains, “Starvation’s not an uncommon fate in District 12. Who hasn’t seen the victims…straggling through the streets. And one day, you come upon them sitting motionless against a wall…and the Peacekeepers are called in to retrieve the body.”
The majority of North American readers have fortunately never experienced the type of starvation Katniss has experienced, but it brings to mind the grim truth that hunger is a real world problem. The United Nations World Food Program estimates that 925 million people around the globe are undernourished, and cites hunger and malnutrition as the number one risks to human health.
In the Capitol, food appears at the touch of a button. When a chicken and orange dish is summoned in such a manner, Katniss tries to imagine how she would hunt, gather, and trade to create the meal at home in District 12: “Chickens are too expensive but I could make do with wild turkey. I’d need to shoot a second turkey to trade for an orange. Goat’s milk would have to substitute for cream. We could grow peas in the garden. I’d have to get wild onions from the woods…Fancy rolls would mean another trade with the baker, perhaps for two or three squirrels. Days of hunting and gathering for this one meal and it would be a poor substitution for the Capitol version.” Her stylist, a Capitol native, watches her consider the food and comments, “how despicable we must seem to you.”
Our own grocery store model of obtaining food is a far cry from this scenario, but it presents analogous issues. As a North American reader I was reminded of how lucky I am to have easy access to food – but also how detached I am from the process by which it is grown, harvested and shipped to my local Giant supermarket. Not to mention the adverse impacts our agricultural system has on the environment, or the horrific treatment livestock receive in feedlots and warehouses before they land on my plate.
Should I feel as despicable as a Capitol resident? Maybe not. I’m not enslaving any enemies of the state or watching live bloodbaths. After all, the series is fictional. It’s primarily a story of adventure, love, and vindication for the suffering under the lead of a strong and compelling heroine. And unlike some of the teenage drivel out there, The Hunger Games novels are a great read because they invite intelligent conversation about real-world problems. Including about where global climate disruption combined with the 1%-99% divide might ultimately lead us.