Future Tense

Climate Change in The Hunger Games

How dystopian young-adult fiction is tackling the social consequences of global warming.

A still from The Hunger Games.
Jennifer Lawrence plays Katniss Everdeen in The Hunger Games movie

© 2011 Lionsgate. All rights reserved.

See all of Slate’s coverage of The Hunger Games here.

This week, the first film based on the blockbuster young-adult book trilogy The Hunger Games will open, crowning its stars heartthrobs and, likely, making Lionsgate, its studio, a mint.

Much discussion has focused on The Hunger Games as commentary on the popularity of reality television; actress Jennifer Lawrence, who stars as the temperamental heroine Katniss Everdeen, said as much in a recent interview. But barely mentioned in the film—if at all—is another, subtler lesson currently in vogue among young-adult fiction: the societal implications of climate change.

For those who have remained immune to The Hunger Games’ hype (and that’s just silly—read the books already!), Suzanne Collins’ story revolves around a cruel yearly pageant held in the country of Panem: One boy and one girl from each of 12 “districts” scattered through what used to be the United States are sent to battle to the death in a reality TV competition. Twenty-three will die; one will survive to live a life of luxury. We’re told that the games were instituted by the leaders of the Capitol, which governs Panem, to keep the district residents docile: The forced sacrifice of their children reminds them that they are allowed to live only so that they may provide the Capitol with goods and entertainment, panem et circenses.

In the first book of the trilogy, we witness the Reaping, the ceremony in which the boy and girl from each district are chosen in a brutal lottery. The mayor

tells the history of Panem, the country that rose up out of the ashes of a place that was once called North America. 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. The result was Panem, a shining Capitol ringed by thirteen districts, which brought peace and prosperity to its citizens.

Panem, then, is what happens to North America’s democracies in a post-climate-change world.

The Hunger Games is not the only young-adult book to describe environmental catastrophe as a pretext for authoritarian regimes or otherwise dystopic future. In Caragh O’Brien’s Birthmarked, a teenage midwife-in-training lives on the shores of Un-Lake Michigan, in a medieval-esque village just outside of, and ruled by, “the Enclave,” a walled community so evil, it steals babies. In Delirium, by Lauren Oliver, teenagers are strictly segregated by gender until they are lobotomized, cured of the disease of love; in a world where energy is prohibitively expensive and living standards are down, the “cure” is important in part because it help keeps birth rates artificially low. There’s very little accidental conception when lust is outlawed and the capacity to love surgically excised in one’s teens. Ship Breaker, Dark Life, Exodus, The Other Side of the Island, the Shadow Children books, The Blending Time, The Declaration—all are dystopic young-adult novels set in worlds transformed, to varying degrees, by climate change, resource scarcity, population growth, and other environmental disasters. In many cases, the climate change is mentioned only briefly, but it is always there in the background, explaining how the United States, the United Kingdom, and other free countries in which these stories are set could devolve into authoritarianism. 

In a period of quite dark young adult fiction, dystopic and postapocalyptic titles, in particular, are thriving. To some extent, the popularity can be attributed to the success of The Hunger Games; after the trilogy’s conclusion, Mockingjay, was released in 2010, fans began scouring bookstores for similar tales of authoritarianism on our own turf.

But whether it’s indicative of teens’ fears about global warming or merely mimicking a formula that worked so well for Collins,  there is something interesting about the way climate change is explored in popular YA fiction. In 2010, Laura Miller wrote about the surge of postapocalyptic and dystopian YA fiction for The New Yorker. She argued,

Dystopian fiction may be the only genre written for children that’s routinely less didactic than its adult counterpart. It’s not about persuading the reader to stop something terrible from happening—it’s about what’s happening, right this minute, in the stormy psyche of the adolescent reader.

I would dispute this. There is a strong didactic element, however subtle, in YA fiction about environmental catastrophe. During the Cold War, YA fiction occasionally explored the prospect of nuclear holocaust, such as in Robert C. O’Brien’s Z for Zachariah and Gloria D. Miklowitz’s After the Bomb. But those books were not typically calls to arms: Teenagers could do nothing about nuclear war, despite the occasional pipsqueak who tried to broker peace. The bombs were in the hands of the adults.

By contrast, young people today are constantly told that their good behavior can—must—make up for the environmental sins of their forefathers. The Hunger Games, Delirium, Birthmarked, and the rest of the genre are all about empowering teenagers, especially girls, to speak up and act against injustice. Their environmental-catastrophe subplots reinforce the dire warnings students receive daily: If you don’t take climate change and other environmental challenges seriously, society as we know it will collapse. The only solution may be life under an authoritarian regime that dictates who receives what resources—and also governs your thoughts, your actions, and your right to be in love. What could possibly be more terrifying to a teenage girl in the throes of infatuation?

Adults, too, are currently enthralled by postapocalyptic and dystopian tales; take The Walking Dead, for instance. But few popular novels or films for adults have explored climate change the way YA fiction has. (Disaster porn like The Day After Tomorrow doesn’t count.) Perhaps as children raised with environmental consciousness grow up, we’ll see more stories about the aftermath of environmental catastrophe. And then perhaps we’ll be as prepared for global warming as we are for zombie attacks.

This article arises from Future Tense, a collaboration among Arizona State University, the New America Foundation, and Slate. Future Tense explores the ways emerging technologies affect society, policy, and culture. To read more, visit the Future Tense home page. You can also follow us on Twitter.