One of the pleasures of watching dystopian movies or novels as an American is the thought, “That won’t happen here. This is America.” As we page through 1984 or Fahrenheit 451, we revel in the superiority of our three-branch democratic system with its checks and balances against power.
But that wasn’t the thought I had as I watched the third installment of the Hunger Games, Mockinjay: Part One. The revelation struck me during an early scene in the movie, when Katniss takes in the rubbled remains of her former home, District 12. Her foot crunches on something, and she looks down with horror at a human skull beneath her foot.
Where else had I heard about that same thing? Ah yes, my interview with Sara Ziff, a model and advocate for slow fashion, who stumbled across human remains when she visited the site of the Rana Plaza collapse in Bangladesh. For whatever reason–lack of funds, lack of time, lack of will–nobody had gotten around to cleaning up the bones interspersed with concrete and rebar almost a year after the collapse.
After that eery parallel attached itself in my mind, I couldn’t get away from what I was seeing: The Capital = us. The districts = all the developing countries from which we extract resources and tributes.
The Dystopia Is Now
I am definitely not the first one to draw parallels between the Hunger Games and the environment–Tori Bosch in Slate makes the compelling argument that Panem is North America post-Climate Change disaster. But her thesis still puts Dystopia at some yet unrealized future that could be averted with a little self awareness.
But I would argue that dystopian future is already here. It’s now. It’s the global economy.
In The Hunger Games, we are shown a shining Capital, where wealthy people dressed in fantastically stupid fashions gather and feast while the starving, demoralized masses far out in the districts supply them with coal, wood, food, luxury goods, and other items for their consumption. Propaganda and culture (a.k.a. “opiate of the masses”) is manufactured and disseminated to Capital and district citizens.
The implication is that the people of the Capital are self-involved and greedy beyond measure to subject their fellow citizens to such barbaric conditions while they cavort among themselves. But I have sympathy for those Capital citizens, because I know all too well how easy it is to turn away from suffering and go back to the party.
A couple weeks ago, I read about the tiny island of Bangka, which sits on top of rich deposits of tin. Because tin is a necessary component of electronics, its residents are chopping down the rainforest, digging open pits, dredging the sea bed, razing their own homes, and even dying so that they can get their hands on valuable tin. It’s probably in your laptop and smartphone right now. I’ve seen pictures of this island, which looks like a tropical version of District 12, the mining district.
In India, impoverished farmers fail to wear protective gear as they walk up and down the rows of cotton, spraying pesticides. This cotton is then sent to China, Turkey, Vietnam, Bangladesh, and Indonesia, whose impoverished workers then turn it into textiles for us to buy. These garment workers are subjected to inhumane and dangerous conditions, are sexually harassed and exploited, and are paid as little as $68 a month for their work–all so Americans and Europeans can buy ourselves a cheap, sparkly dress for the club that we will throw away next week.
We also demand cocaine from Central America, snorting up the white stuff at afterparties while 43 Mexican schoolchildren are kidnapped and murdered by drug cartels, cartels that were created and fueled by our consumption of cocaina. Sure, we didn’t watch them fight to the death on TV, but this is so much more efficient.
I could write all this off as racism or nationalism. After all, part of the shock of Hunger Games comes from the fact that Katniss and Peeta are Americans! Just like us! How could we do this to our own countrymen?!
But we are. The ruin that Katniss and Gale sit in by a mountain stream looks exactly like an area near my alma mater in western Virginia, but it could be anywhere in Appalachia. And Appalachia is where whole mountaintops are blasted off in search of coal, and lax regulations mean that chemical company leak toxic chemicals into the water with impunity.
My gosh, we don’t even need a totalitarian government. All we need is a blind faith in the invisible hand of capitalism and a healthy appetite for stuff, and we can call the world our Panem.
Do You Live in the Capital?
The Hunger Games makes evil look black and white. In the world of Panem, you’re either in the Capital, gleefully watching teenagers tear each other to pieces while you feast on roast pig, or you’re out toiling in a mine.
But that’s why it’s a YA novel.
Real life is not divided so neatly into the oppressor and oppressed. Greed and corruption comes on gradually. We come to fork after fork in the road, some large, some small. There are large forks like, “Do I take the higher paying but soulless job, or the low-paying but impactful job?” And there are small forks like, “Do I buy an organic or conventional apple?” Eventually, after so many forks, we find ourselves wondering how we got to this place, earning $65,000 a year and not being able to spare anything for charity, fistfuls of clothes made in Bangladesh and hardly able to look at the gruesome pictures of workers in the rubble, putting gas in our truck while we mourn soldiers killed in Iraq and decry the oil sludge washing up on Louisiana’s shores. We haven’t done anything wrong exactly, and yet we know we are part of a system that extracts resources and lives in service of our lifestyle.
You can defect. But it’s both easier and harder than it is in Panem. Easier, because you won’t be shot running for the exit. Harder, because the path is not clear and it is a struggle that lasts a lifetime. You will have to make the choice over, and over, and over again to leave the Capital. You make that choice when you choose non-toxic beauty products, Fair Trade coffee, organic produce, humanely-raised animals or no animals at all, recycled or used electronics, and ethically made clothing. You make that choice when you choose where to vacation, and how to get there. You make that choice when you calculate how much you can afford to give to charity and who to give it to. You make that choice when you write your representative and advocate for cleaner air, fewer highways, more public transportation, more wind farms, the closure of factory farms, and so forth.
You will make mistakes, you will lose steam. You’ll read an investigative report and realize there’s yet something else you’ve been doing wrong this entire time. It takes focus and energy to remind yourself that the choices you make in a supermarket or department store in NYC affects hundreds of people all over the world.
But that’s what courage looks like today. It’s not shooting a flaming arrow into the enemy. It’s being brave enough to live your life according to your own moral compass, instead of listening to the propaganda disseminated by corporations that sell us stuff. And it’s having the foresight to realize that when it comes to climate change, if we burn our ‘districts,’ we will burn with them.
If you are inspired by the Hunger Games (and you should be, it’s a great movie), be inspired to live your life a little bit better every day. Who knows, perhaps you can help the conscious consumer movement “catch fire.”