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We are the Capitol

January 12, 2015

"May the odds be ever in your favor!"

Character Effie Trinket's encouragement to the tributes of Panem is of the most recognizable lines from the film and novel The Hunger Games. The backdrop of the dystopian story is a nation in the distant future in which the highly developed province of the Capitol controls twelve smaller, poorer, and more restricted districts. The Capitol, the founder and host of the annual Hunger Games, consists of elaborately decorated people in unnecessarily high-tech buildings and over-the-top fashion, topped off by overflowing cornucopias of exotic food and medicines that work like magic while the lesser districts' people suffer from hunger and oppression. The way the story is told, the contrast in lifestyles and living conditions between the poor districts and the Capitol is unbelievable -- something we wouldn't think would ever exist in reality.

And yet, as I looked at all the shiny new gadgets shown off in last week's Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, I couldn't help but feel a little bit like we're living in Capitol. We have watches that understand our speech, cars that drive themselves, and -- heaven forbid -- Bluetooth-connected vibrating undergarments* in the name of convenience and innovation, and as Hank Green so eloquently pointed out, I, and probably many of you, are substantially wealthy, living in one of the wealthiest nations in the world, in the wealthiest time in human history. For many of us living in this privileged environment, we take most things for granted. We assume it's only natural that we don't live in fear of running out of drinking water tomorrow; that we don't live with the fact that at any time, anyone can storm into our homes and kidnap our family members; that we aren't forced to choose between the rights to education and the risk of death. But around the world, these are still realities that many people face. Compared to the rest of the world, the United States and other developed nations consume ostentatious amounts of food and energy, and throw much of it away**, all without thinking twice about the whole thing.

The relationship between the poor, developing worlds and the wealthier nations is starkly reminiscent of the Capitol's status over the districts in the Hunger Games.

But the contrast between what most of us take for granted and what many people in the world still endure was most evident when I looked back at Haiti after the Cholera outbreak that struck the already poverty-stricken nation that barely survived an earthquake months before. Even after the much-needed help from international organizations and President Obama's pledge that "[the people of Haiti] will not be forsaken. [They] will not be forgotten", Haiti still struggles as one of the poorest societies in the world. Today, January 12th, marks five years after Haiti's earthquake disaster. And while some parts of our world continue to embrace the cutting-edge technology and privileged lifestyles increasingly reminiscent of Wall-E, others cannot be any more separated from the way of living and standards of life that we are used to.

I think it's both strange and frightening at the same time that we can live in almost complete ignorance of these deeply conflicting living conditions that exist around us. As separated as these societies are from our daily lives, they're still just as real, and just as relevant. As I briefly touched on last week, resolving complex conflicts and issues begins with understanding and relating to people who may not necessarily share the same views or lifestyles as we do. And if all we do against those problems is merely acknowledge their presence and throw money at the monotonous monster that is poverty without first attempting to truly relate to the people who we are normally distanced from, I don't think we can address the greater and more fundamental issue at hand. Part of the reason why the Capitol was unsustainable in The Hunger Games was the fact that the realities of the Capitol was grossly distanced from the state of things in the districts. As much as the media separates the world of high-tech and pop culture from the stories of Haitian poverty, the recent terrorist attacks in Europe, and airline mishaps, the fact of the matter is that all of these things exist in the same reality, and that can't be ignored. The world of new iPhones and 120-inch TVs aren't completely separate from the world of people who choose daily between the opportunity to learn and the risk of rape. And I think these gaps in wealth and living standards can't be fully resolved until we learn to completely accept these less-apparent sides of the world as equally relevant to our lives.

But the situation is not all bleak. In the past century, the wealth gap between the richest and the poorest nations and people in the world have decreased, and the same positive statistics apply for gaps in earnings in different countries, gaps in technology and access to the Internet, prices of critical medicines, and the discrepancies in the general standards of living. The world is neither a utopia nor a dystopia. Earth is never going to be a collection of poor districts colonized under a single wealthy power, nor is it going to be a completely peaceful coalition of equally wealthy countries. But while we're stuck in the in-between zone, it's always good to have a goal in the positive direction. We are the Capitol. But that doesn't mean we're bound to their destiny. And our efforts towards a more equal world should start with our better understanding of the world outside our daily limits.


* I'll let this one speak for itself.

** If the entire world consumed as much resources as the United States, the world would barely sustain 2 to 3 billion people. The only reason we have 7 billion (and counting) people is because the less privileged are balancing our consumption out by, well, not consuming resources as much. Case in point: if the world's people only consumed as much as Bangladesh, we would theoretically only need a third of the Earth for the same number of people on Earth right now.