After months of dragging my feet, I finally picked up a copy of The Hunger Games and, just as I was warned, didn’t put it down until I was finished. It isn’t something I’d normally read (the sugar-rush equivalent of literary digestion, as it were) and it took a direct order from my book club to get me to even crack the cover. To be totally honest with you, I started it about 24 hours before the book club meeting was scheduled. Yes, I was that excited about it.
I finished four hours later. Sugar though it was… I ate it up. And as with almost anything I do, I immediately connected it with my work in the world of food. My book club was not so thrilled about this seemingly maniacal outburst of mine… but you are, aren’t you?
In the book, North America is Panem. There are twelve districts that live in various states of poverty and injustice, all of which serve the Capitol. The difference between districts and their shared Capitol is what caught my interest; it’s extreme, it’s unfair, it’s almost ludicrous… and yet, it’s so very similar to the world we are living in.
The people inhabiting the twelve districts are slaves to their industry. They receive enough training, food, freedom and compensation to produce a single product, but beyond that the Capitol provides them with nothing. One district makes clothing, one finery, one gadgetry, one produce, one fuel etc. All of these products lavish the Capitol, and only the bare essentials are given back to the districts.
I should probably note that there is a huge population margin between the elite Capitol and all of the surrounding districts. But you probably knew that. How? Well… I’ll get to that in a moment.
The main character travels from District 12 to the Capitol and is immediately appalled by those who live there. At one point, she asks herself how these people spend their time if they don’t have to worry about feeding themselves. She watches as choice meats, fruits and delicacies appear whenever somebody expresses a need for them, and can’t help but compare this to the life she’s known; where you can work twelve hours and still not make enough money to buy food for yourself.
This is the moment in the story where I became hooked. I realized that the author was pointing a giant, menacing finger right at the reader. “Are you from District 12,” it seems to ask, “or the Capitol?”
If you are American, you are from the Capitol… and you are almost certainly the bad guy.
How often have you traced back the materials that make up your clothing on any given day to their agricultural sources, the textile factories, the clothing manufacturers, the distributors and the retailers? You probably haven’t, because you don’t have to.
Do you know where the produce in your salad is from? If the beef in your dinner is sourced from well-treated cattle on a sustainable farm? If the workers that pick through fields and clean up after livestock so that you can order a box of carry-out are well paid or fairly represented? You probably don’t, because you don’t have to.
Nor do you likely consider where your phone was built, or who loads your newspaper into trucks, or how many people went home with arms full of fiberglass splinters from making an accessory on your airplane. Why? You don’t have to.
But somewhere far away from your push-button luxury lifestyle, somebody is thinking about all of these things. Someone’s kid is enraged at the injustice. Someone’s house never seems to have enough food in it. This happens because people like us; wealthy, content and apathetic, no longer have to worry our heads over the details, even when those details are people. We just type in our credit card number, swipe our metro passes, drop off our dry-cleaning, call in lunch, or pour a glass of water. No extra thought required.
In short, we are the Capitol. We are the greedy few who manipulate those we exclude so that we are preposterously comfortable. And we recognize the landscape of the book because, in more ways than one, we’re living right on top of it. And rather than make ourselves uncomfortable with guilt and empathy, we put on our gilded blinders and talk instead about the book’s exhausted love-triangle, or the casting for the upcoming film adaptation.
And that’s mighty stupid of us. I haven’t read the second and third books in the series, but I have a hunch that things don’t turn out too well for the spoiled and disinterested characters refusing to consider the lives of their true benefactors.
Then again, had the fictional Capitol fought to balance incomes, distribute energy and information wealth, consume less and provide more… The Hunger Games would have been a very different sort of story. Instead, they dyed their hair, bought clothes, watched TV, pushed buttons… and waited for an uprising.