Five 'Hunger Games' Lessons for Surviving the Environmental Apocalypse
The drums are beating, counting down to the midnight premiere of The Hunger Games, director Gary Ross’s film based on Suzanne Collins's mega-bestselling trilogy. The anticipation of the film’s release is almost as heated as anything that happens in the fantasy series’s brutal combat arena. If you’re not already a fan (and perhaps even if you are), the excessive hoopla might be stomach turning -- but there are some good reasons that environmentalists should be rooting for a long discussion about this latest pop culture phenomenon.
The dystopian world of the film -- think of the darkest peak oil prognostications mixed with a horrifying, heady dose of "Survivor" -- is not just post-apocalyptic. It’s every environmentalist’s nightmare: depleted natural resources and manmade destruction have ravaged every aspect of our natural ecosystem and created a hardscrabble existence for most of the surviving population.
In this version of the future, the nation of Panem -- what’s left of the continent formerly known as North America -- is made up of an affiliation of mostly starving and destitute city-states, the 12 districts. These are controlled by the affluent, exploitive (and hence, well-fed) Capitol. A past rebellion against the Capitol’s rule ended with total destruction of a 13th district. Now, to keep the others in line, every year each district is required to randomly select two "tributes" -- one boy and one girl between the ages of 12 and 18 -- to fight in a Thunderdome-style arena. Only one tribute can survive. The arena is manmade, with its environment, weather, and wildlife all controlled by the government’s "game makers." The battle, of course, will be televised.
Katniss Everdeen, the story’s heroine, is the female representative from District 12, an impoverished coal-mining region. She volunteers for the games when her younger sister is chosen to represent the district. Her bravery and self-sacrifice make her an instant audience favorite, as does the apparent love story between her and Peeta, the male tribute from District 12. Peeta has carried a torch for Katniss since they were children, when he snuck the starving girl a couple of loaves of burnt bread from his father’s bakery.
It’s no coincidence that these contests are called the Hunger Games. Food insecurity is a major theme of the books. Peeta, although poor, has never known hunger, but Katniss has existed on a near-starvation diet her entire life. To sustain her family, she learned to hunt, fish, and forage. (These acts are illegal, by the way: all natural resources, however scant, belong to the state.) Because she has been navigating forbidden forest territory her whole life, the woodland setting of the games doesn’t intimidate her.
To survive the games, Katniss calls on skills as a forager, a hunter, an amateur naturalist, and an herbalist. And, perhaps just as inspirational for those in our modern world campaigning to stop climate change in the face of wealthy entrenched interests, Katniss’s defiance of the Capitol’s repressive regime is the spark that ignites a rebellion.
Want a primer on Katniss’s skills for post-apocalyptic survival and how you can acquire and put them to use in our world? Read on. (Warning: spoilers abound.)
Foraging is Fundamental
Before she is sent to the games, Katniss relies on an expansive knowledge of native animals and plants to feed herself and her family. She even trades the fruits of her foraging for other supplies. In the arena, Katniss does the same thing. A skilled archer, she hunts rabbits and wild birds called grooslings, catches and cooks fish, and finds potato-like tubers to give her the energy to fight. For a good look at real-world eating off the land, check out writer Langdon Cook’s Fat of the Land: Adventures of a 21st Century Forager. (Hopefully you’ll never need those skills to survive mortal combat.)
Katniss knows that food can come from unexpected sources, too. As a young girl, the sight of a single dandelion saved her life, when she remembered her father (killed in a coal mining explosion) foraging for the edible greens. The memory leads her to see the possible food sources all around her. In the arena, for example, she makes an early meal out of the inner bark of pine trees. Katniss eats hers raw, but apparently it stands up to cooking, too. And if you’re not quite ready to celebrate the premiere with a meal of pine bark and dandelions, you can always replicate the luxe food of the Capitol with these recipes from, yes, the fan-written Unofficial Hunger Games Cookbook.
Know Your Herbs
With traditional medical care scarce and expensive, Katniss's mother became an apothecary, a master herbalist. Katniss doesn’t consider herself much of a healer, but she does know how to identify and find the beneficial herbs that she has provided her mother with for years. Other characters rely on medicinal plants, too: during the games, Katniss’s life is saved after an attack by genetically engineered killer wasps when her sometime ally, 12-year-old Rue, makes a healing paste out of a wild herb. Online, the Herb Research Foundation has comprehensive and scientifically sound info on herbal remedies.
Water, Water Everywhere?
You’ll have to wait for the second movie in the planned series to see just what "not a drop to drink" really means to the twisted designers of the Hunger Games. But in the first book/film, the urgent need to find fresh water motivates Katniss from the very moment she enters the arena. She uses common sense deduction (where there are animals, there must be water; water can only flow downhill) to find a source and is careful to purify her stash before she drinks.
Concern over fresh water scarcity isn’t confined to the realm of fantasy. Population growth, pollution, and rising temperatures are pressuring our real-world water supply (see "Thirsty Nation," Spring 2011). We would do well to emulate Katniss’s treatment of potable water as a life-sustaining treasure.
"Somehow, It All Comes Back to Coal..."
Katniss says this in reference to life in her coal-mining region (the remains of our modern-day Appalachia) and the history she has been taught in school. But she comes to realize that, without the exploitation of District 12’s coal reserves, the affluent lifestyle of folks in the Capitol would come to a crashing halt. With 50 percent of our energy supply dependent on coal-fired power plants, the same is more or less true for us in the United States. The movie is a good reminder to us all to think about the steps we can take to wean ourselves off this limited, polluting fuel source.
Fight for the Future
Katniss’s and Peeta’s clever defiance of the Capitol’s power is the climax of The Hunger Games series. (I won’t give it away, but it does involve clever utilization of Katniss’s foraging savvy.) Activists are tapping into the passion created by books and movies like The Hunger Games to ignite young activists here in the real world.
The filmmakers have joined forces with the United Nations’ World Food Programme and Feeding America to raise awareness and money to fight hunger. Meanwhile, a group called Imagine Better, formed by fans of that other book-to-film juggernaut, Harry Potter, has teamed with Oxfam to raise young fans’ commitment to reducing hunger around the world.
Katniss would definitely approve.