Environmentalism in Dystopias

By Neha, Grade 9

One of the biggest threats concerning today’s world is our environment. As humans, we have had a long history of destroying nature, and we are currently in a race against time to reverse the effects of climate change that have been building up over the years. There are many people leading the fight against climate change, but people fight against these issues in unlikely ways as well as standard ones. Of course there are scientists and researchers looking into how to heal the environment, but there are many more ways that people have been spreading the spirit of environmentalism as well. Some examples are the TED talks we see about it, activists, agricultural shifts, awareness through art, and more. And one way to raise awareness, a very powerful way, is through books and literature. 

A lot of the time, dystopian authors choose to base their worldbuilding off of Earth’s current state. There are a plethora of ways that we can see clear reflections of our world and our societies, such as through the lenses of politics, geography, social norms, education, power structures, and so much more. But what I want to focus on right now is the reflections dystopias provide of our current environmental status. And since dystopias are generally set in the far future, they tend to show the aftermath and the consequences of whatever issue they reflect- for example, issues such as climate change. 

An example of a dystopia that subtly addresses such environmental issues is the Maze Runner, by James Dashner. This trilogy is primarily about a group of boys who begin the series in a maze, which they escape at the end of Book one. In the second and third books, they’re exposed to the real world outside of the maze, which has been ravaged by a deadly and contagious disease, which is known as the Flare. They are forced to navigate the Flare as well as try to stop the evil organization, WICKED, who has mysterious plans for the group of boys. Just looking at a broad overview of the plot, it doesn’t really seem like there’s anything to do with the environment at all, but that’s only because you have to look a little deeper to see the subtext. The first way that this story is reflective of reality is through the devastating disease, the Flare. The original source of the Flare was a solar flare that left the Earth battered. A solar flare is an intense burst of radiation that’s associated with sunspots, and they can be very damaging. This book could be showing us, through the form of fiction, what the consequences of these solar flares could be for human life. Furthermore, radiation is a very real problem these days. One of the main functions of our atmosphere is keeping solar radiation from reaching the Earth. Since our atmosphere is suffering right now, with patches of the ozone layer disappearing, it is a lot easier for solar radiation to make its way through the atmosphere and affect our lives. Radiation is extremely damaging to the health of most living things, and can lead to degradation of our DNA, increased sunburn and risk of skin cancer, damage to our crops and agriculture, and more. By specifically making the cause of such a devastating disease solar flares, James Dashner could have been trying to raise awareness about the importance of our atmosphere and the degradation that it currently faces. 

The Maze Runner

Another example regarding the Maze Runner trilogy is the maze itself, where the characters find themselves trying to escape during the first book. The group of teens lives in a forestry-type environment at first, in a spot called the Glade. The Glade lies in the middle of a giant forested maze, and most of the Gladers stay there. But daily, the Gladers send a few designated runners out into the maze to try to crack the code and escape the Glade. The organization that is responsible for putting the Gladers in the maze is called WICKED, but the characters don’t know that they’re part of an experiment. Looking at the way that WICKED manipulated the environment to suit the needs of their experiments on the Gladers, it could definitely be reflective of many practices that are used today. Humans manipulate the environment to better suit our needs all the time, through deforestation, monoculture farming, pesticides, GMO’s, etc. Dashner might have been making a commentary about these such manipulated environments by portraying WICKED in a negative light throughout the rest of the series.

Another example of a dystopian series that subtly raises awareness about environmental issues is the Hunger Games series, by Suzanne Collins. The Hunger Games is set in Panem, which is resemblant of North America, but years in the future. The idea is that there is a Capitol city, a place in which everyone is wealthy and beautiful and happy. The Capitol is surrounded by districts that supply them with everything they need and want. Most of these districts live in extreme poverty, with not even the bare necessities. The Capitol holds a yearly competition, in which they take two tributes from each of twelve districts and force them to fight to the death. The winning tribute becomes widely celebrated and known around all twelve of the districts, as well as the Capitol, and vast sums of money are spent on them to construct them a luxurious house for them and their family. Every year, for the Hunger Games, a new arena is created- a closed off space with surprises and dangers that the tributes have to survive in for as long as they can. These arenas have historically included aspects of nature, such as oceans, forests, and rivers. Much like how James Dashner pointed out human desire to control nature through the Maze Runner, Suzanne Collins may have been doing a similar thing by showing the Capitol’s desire to control nature through their construction of the arenas. By manipulating nature for the need to entertain the Capitol residents, the Capitol and WICKED are relatively similar. 

The Hunger Games

We can also see that resource scarcity and competition are addressed through the Hunger Games. Panem isn’t a big region- it consists of one capital city and twelve districts- but still, there is not enough to go around. Since all the resources flow from the districts to the Capitol, the people who live in the districts are left hungry, ragged, sick, and poor. This imagery could be addressing the gap between developed and developing nations, and the ways in which some countries are able to control others for resources based on the threat of being stronger. This resource competition ties into the environment because people in the districts will then have to resort to less sustainable methods of surviving, since their needs are seen as less important than the Capitol’s wants. 

So when we look over the impact that dystopias have on the way we see the world, we can see that it’s actually greater than we thought. When we read a dystopia, we are not just reading a fictional story, but we are also reading the author’s warnings about the future and their stance on issues in the world.