The week before Swarthmore’s recent TEDx conference on “What Makes a Good Society,” another vision of society began promulgating around the country, in the form of the film The Hunger Games. On the off chance that you are unfamiliar with the plot, it is a story set in a dystopian future where a brutal, totalitarian government selects a young male and female from each of the twelve districts it controls to fight to the death on live television. It took just 17 days for the film to reach $300 million in domestic box office sales. And soon we will be treated to another highly anticipated dystopian film, the new remake of Total Recall.
Its seems our culture is fascinated with dystopian fiction. We have students read stories like The Giver, 1984, Fahrenheit 451, Lord of the Flies, and Brave New World. Films and novels like Atlas Shrugged, A Clockwork Orange, The Handmaid’s Tale, V for Vendetta, and The Children of Men enjoy much popularity. I think this interest is a good thing; I believe the genre offers an entertaining and compelling means of inspiring thoughtful reflection, discussion and debate on our society’s goals and the methods and changes we propose to achieve them. Hopefully, they can help us to be prudent and careful in our decision-making so that our “utopian dreams (do not) turn into police-state nightmares.”
But what is a dystopia? Etymologically, it comes from the Greek roots dys-, meaning “bad, difficult” and topos, meaning “place.” It is a bad place, typically characterized by the demoralization of the human spirit, widespread misery, malaise, and hopelessness – a place where people endure what we would consider to be superficial or unsatisfying lives stripped of meaning, a place where, as Thoreau would say, “the mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation,” or, perhaps, ignored desperation.
What if such places are not limited to the fiction enjoyed by bourgeois culture, or history, or modern authoritarian political regimes? What if the modern world is a dystopia for citizens around the globe? What if, for example, the unregulated financial speculation that profits hedge funds and investment banks while helping drive up food prices for the poor, malnourished, and food insecure, is an exhibit of the real hunger games – the version our society would not offer its money or attention to? Could it be possible that future generations might read about our present world order and consider this a bad place?
If you would, please imagine a ladder with steps numbered from zero at the bottom to 10 at the top. The top of the ladder represents the best possible life for you and the bottom of the ladder represents the worst possible life for you. On which step of the ladder would you say you feel you stand at this time? On which step do you think you will stand about five years from now? If you rated your current life a 7 or higher and your life in five years an 8 or higher, you are considered to be thriving. If you rated your current life a 4 or lower and your life in five years a 4 or lower, you are considered to be suffering. I passionately hope that you are in thriving category.
This assessment, the Cantril Self-Anchoring Striving Scale, represents an important component in people’s life satisfaction and overall subjective well-being, and every year Gallup polls people around the world for their responses. Unfortunately, what they find is that nearly three-fourths of the world’s population is not thriving. In fact, there are only 17 countries in the world in which majorities are thriving (the U.S., at 56 percent, ranks 13th). Not only are most people not thriving, approximately 13.6 percent, or almost one in every seven adults across the 146 countries polled, are actually suffering. Even in the United States, as many as 12.5 million people (approximately the population of Pennsylvania) are suffering.
How does the world look through their eyes? Are the fears and anxieties we experience in those few hours when immersed in dystopian fiction a daily reality for these people? Admittedly, it can sometimes be quite difficult to obtain accurate beliefs about the feelings of others (fictional or real) when we project ourselves into their environments, because we inevitably compare their conditions and experiences to our own biased expectations and proclivities. But these are self-reported feelings about peoples’ lives, and 950 million individual human beings are finding their existence on this planet to be a quite unsatisfying experience. Nearly one million people every year find it so unbearable that they prefer not to live than to live here, and take their own lives. And it does not matter if they blame themselves, specific elements of their environment, or the world as a whole, lives come into being within environments and these environments likely wield an enormous amount of influence on subjective well-being (possibly accounting for as much as 50-75 percent of the existing variance). Thus any environment that has such widespread dissatisfaction and despair, in my opinion, should be considered a dystopia, especially if it has the means to alleviate these problems.
I think many of us consider dystopias to be artifacts of history, or intriguing settings for fictional tales. But dystopia is here and now for a substantial portion of the world’s population. When the thriving wake up every morning, we enter their dreams, when those suffering wake up every morning they enter our nightmares. We rightly fear dystopias; much of our political discourse revolves around preventing them, and we imagine how we would try to right the course if we lived in such a world. But we do live in a place where hundreds of millions of people, people just like you and I, are haunted by despair. It is not a place to be prevented – it already exists, so it is not a question of what we would do then but what we should do now. A perfect world may be impossible, yet surely we have the knowledge and the ability to make a better world, a better place. But, do we have the needed empathy? When we do, maybe the real dystopias will finally attract as much attention as the fictional ones.