The Hunger Games

The plot of The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins is driven by coal. The main characters in the series, Katniss, Peeta, and Gale, all live in District 12, which was formerly known as Appalachia: “Even hundreds of years ago, they mined coal here. Which is why our miners have to dig so deep” (42).  In this post-apocalyptic world, District 12 provides all of the coal for a country called, Panem, which is ruled by “the Capitol.” District 12 is one of the poorest districts in Panem, and is divided into two social classes, the coal miners of the Seam and the merchant class that sells to them, a clear example of exaggerated inequalities and convenient racism. The worlds of both classes revolve so entirely around coal, that the curriculum in District 12 schools is entirely based on it:

Somehow it all comes back to coal at school. Besides basic reading and math most of our instruction is coal-related. Except for the weekly lecture on the history of Panem. It’s mostly a lot of blather about what we owe the Capitol. I know there must be more than they’re telling us, an actual account of what happened during the rebellion. But I don’t spend much time thinking about it. Whatever the truth is, I don’t see how it will help me get food on the table. (41-42)

The descriptions of the coal miners in District 12 are quite similar to the ones in King Coal: “Men and women with hunched shoulders, swollen knuckles, many who have long since stopped trying to scrub the coal dust out of their broken nails, the lines of their sunken faces” (4). Not only is it uncomfortable work, coal mining appears to have returned to being just as dangerous as it was during Sinclair’s time:

Then there are the mine accidents…A family once brought in an unconscious young man pleading with my mother to help him. The district doctor who’s responsible for treating the miners had written him off, told the family to take him home to die. But they wouldn’t accept this. He lay on our kitchen table, senseless to the world. I got a glimpse of the wound on his thigh, gaping, charred flesh, burned clear down to the bone, before I ran from the house. I went to the woods and hunted the entire day, haunted by the gruesome leg, memories of my father’s death. (178-179).

As she references in this passage, Katniss’s father died in a mine explosion, leaving her to be the provider for her family. Without Katniss’s help her family would starve:

Starvation’s not an uncommon fate in District 12. Who hasn’t seen the victims? Older people who can’t work. Children from a family with too many to feed. Those injured in the mines. Straggling through the streets. And one day, you come upon them sitting motionless against a wall or lying in the Meadow, you hear the wails from a house, and the Peacekeepers are called in to retrieve the body. Starvation is never the cause of death officially. It’s always the flu, or exposure, or pneumonia. But that fools no one. (28).

Katniss had to sign up for the “tesserae” at an early age. Beneficiaries of the tesserae receive a year’s supply of grain and oil in exchange for their submitting their name into the Hunger Games lottery additional times. The Hunger Games is a battle royale between young adult representatives of each district. The Capital hosts it every year as punishment for the rebellion of the districts many years earlier. Naturally, Katniss and Peeta win the famous lottery and are sent to kill each other and kids from other districts in the Hunger Games arena. With some clever survival techniques and a political romance, both Katniss and Peeta make it out alive, but it seems that they might have accidentally inspired a revolution in the process.

In Catching Fire this revolution plays out. The Capital cracks down on each of the districts, especially District 12. They close the mines, introduce more capital punishment, try to starve the citizens and eventually send Katniss and Peeta back into the Hunger Games arena. However, these tactics only cause the rebellion to spread:

As the days pass, things go from bad to worse. The mines stay shut for two weeks, and by that time half of District 12 is starving. The number of kids signing up for tesserae soars, but they often don’t receive their grain. Food shortages begin, and even those with money come away from stores empty-handed. When the mines reopen, wages are cut, hours extended, miners sent into blatantly dangerous work sites. The eagerly awaited food promised for Parcel Day arrives spoiled and defiled by rodents. The installations in the square see plenty of action as people are dragged in and punished for offenses so long overlooked we’ve forgotten they are illegal. Gale goes home with no more talk of rebellion between us. But I can’t help thinking that everything he sees will only strengthen his resolve to fight back. The hardships in the mines, the tortured bodies in the square, the hunger on the faces of his family (Catching Fire 131-132).

Finally at the end of Catching Fire, full-blown rebellion brakes out. The Capital firebombs District 12 in retaliation and most of the population dies. A few people are able to escape including Katniss, Peeta, Gale and Katniss’s family and eventually in the final book, the districts are able to overturn the Capital and establish a new government for themselves.

The Hunger Games series is one of the clearest examples of the life and energy equivalency that I have studied. The Capital does not care about District 12 as long as they meet their coal quotas. They do not have any safety laws in place. They do not care if there are accidents or deaths in the mines, as long as their coal quotas are met. To ensure that their energy is paid for, as all energy must be paid for with life, the Capital creates the Hunger Games, which requires two human sacrifices from District 12. Their deaths make sure that the coal is paid for. In the year that there are no deaths from District 12 in the arena, the Capital loses their energy, and in order to get it back they must go to war. However, the rebels realize that they can pay for it with their own lives and so the Capital is destroyed in this pretty bleak energy narrative.


Energy narrative characteristics found in these novels: life=energy, environmental degradation, political oppression, exaggerated inequalities, impedes labor unions/civil rights campaigners, segregation, convenient racism, nomadic existence, insurrection.

King Coal: Undercover Boss

“Mary,” he said, “did you ever read about ants in Africa?”

“No,” said she.

“They travel in long columns, millions and millions of them. And when they come to a ditch, the front ones fall in, and more and more of them on top, till they fill up the ditch, and the rest cross over. We are ants, Mary” (58).

In King Coal by Upton Sinclair, Hal Warner, the son of a rich coal tycoon, decides to go undercover to learn about the mining business from the workingman. Hal dons the name “Joe Smith” and gets a job with the General Fuel Company (GFC), the company of one of Hal’s college friends, Percy Harrigan’s father, so that his own employees will not recognize him. In order to get the job Hal has to swear that he does not belong to a union. Over time, Hal befriends the miners and begins to realize the corrupt business practices taking place. For example, the bosses show favoritism to certain workers because of their ethnicity, which causes racism to be rampant in the coal camp. Hal also laments about the difficulty of the work itself, after he changes positions from taking care of the mules to working directly in the mines:

If any one had told him the horror of attempting to work in a room five feet high, he would not have believed it. It was like some of the dreadful devices of torture which one saw in European castles, the “iron maiden” and the “spiked collar.” Hal’s back burned as if hot irons were being run up and down it; every separate joint and muscle cried aloud. It seemed as if he could never learn the lesson of the jagged ceiling above his head—he bumped it and continued to bump it, until his scalp was a mass of cuts and bruises, and his head ached till he was nearly blind, and he would have to throw himself flat on the ground…It was amazing how many ways there were to bruise and tear one’s fingers, loading lumps of coal into a car. He put on a pair of gloves, but these wore through in a day. And then the gas, and the smoke of powder, stifling one; and the terrible burning of the eyes, from the dust and the feeble light. There was no way to rub these burning eyes, because everything about one was equally dusty. Could anybody have imagined the torment of that—any of those ladies who rode in softly upholstered parlour-cars, or reclined upon the decks of steam-ships in gleaming tropic seas? (38)

Hal also realizes that the coal bosses are cheating the workers out of their commission. The bosses weigh each worker’s cart of coal and determine how much that worker will be paid. The bosses always underrepresent the amount of coal in each cart. Hal notes that the government has passed a law that allows for the workers to appoint a check weigh man to check the bosses’ estimate of the coal weight. Hal argues with one of the miners about whether unions are needed to enforce such laws:

“How do you feel about unions?”

Hal answered, “They’re one of the things I want to find out about. You hear this and that—there’s so much prejudice on each side. I want to help the under dog, but I want to be sure of the right way.”

“What other way is there?” And Olson paused. “To appeal to the tender hearts of the owners?”

“Not exactly; but mightn’t one appeal to the world in general—to public opinion? I was brought up an American, and learned to believe in my country. I can’t think but
there’s some way to get justice. Maybe if the men were to go into politics—”

“Politics?” cried Olson. “My God! How long have you been in this place?”

“Only a couple of months.”

“Well, stay till November, and see what they do with the ballot-boxes in these camps!”

“I can imagine, of course—”

“No, you can’t. Any more than you could imagine the graft and the misery!”

“But if the men should take to voting together—”

“How can they take to voting together—when any one who mentions the idea goes down the canyon? Why, you can’t even get naturalisation papers, unless you’re a company man; they won’t register you, unless the boss gives you an O. K. How are
you going to make a start, unless you have a union?”

It sounded reasonable, Hal had to admit; but he thought of the stories he had heard about “walking delegates,” all the dreadful consequences of “union domination.” He had not meant to go in for unionism!

Olson was continuing. “We’ve had laws passed, a whole raft of laws about coal-mining—the eight-hour law, the anti-scrip law, the company-store law, the mine-sprinkling law, the check-weighman law. What difference has it made in North Valley that there are such laws on the statute-books? Would you ever even know about them?”

“Ah, now!” said Hal. “If you put it that way—if your movement is to have the law enforced—I’m with you!”

“But how will you get the law enforced, except by a union? No individual man can do it—it’s ‘down the canyon’ with him if he mentions the law. In Western City our union people go to the state officials, but they never do anything—and why? They know we haven’t got the men behind us! It’s the same with the politicians as it is with the bosses—the union is the thing that counts!”

Hal found this an entirely new argument.

“People don’t realise that idea—that men have to be organised to get their legal rights” (41-42).

Hal will change his opinion about unions later in the novel, but first he tries to convince the bosses to the change their ways with the law. The miners choose Hal to be their check weigh man, however when Hal tries to work with the bosses, they try to bribe him into keeping his mouth shut. When it becomes clear that the Hal cannot be bought the marshal attempts to frame Hal for accepting a bribe so that the workers will no longer trust him. Though Hal outwits them, he is eventually put into the jail by the marshal. The marshal threatens Hal and tells him that he has two choices: he can admit to stealing money and be fired or he can go to jail for ten years. Hal lets the marshal in on the fact that he is not really a worker but the son of a wealthy businessman. The marshal immediately changes his tune and lets Hal go.

Shortly thereafter, there is an explosion in the mine. The explosion was caused by the dryness of the air, which is saturated with coal dust and allows for sparks with any sort of friction. These explosions can be prevented by the sprinkling of a special chemical around the mine, something that the bosses frequently neglect to do. After the explosion, the GFC seals the mine because it will suffocate the fire and leave much of the coal unburned, however, this seals up many of the workers as well. The bosses are only interested in saving the property, one of them even shouts: “Damn the man! save the Mules!” Hal tells this story to a reporter, who prints the story but claims that since his is from a poor-man’s newspaper that it will not prompt a rescue operation. Hal seeks out Percy Harrigan and tells him and his guests about the horrors of the mine:

“You’ll hardly be able to believe it; but nothing has been done to rescue these men. The criminal has nailed a cover of boards over the pit-mouth, and put tarpaulin over it—sealing up men and boys to die!”

There was a murmur of horror from the diners.

“I know, you can’t conceive such a thing. The reason is, there’s a fire in the mine; if the fan is set to working, the coal will burn. But at the same time, some of the passages could be got clear of smoke, and some of the men could be rescued. So it’s a question of property against lives; and the criminal has decided for the property. He proposes to wait a week, two weeks, until the fire has been smothered; then of course the men and boys will be dead” (137).

Percy agrees to tell his father’s employees to open the mine but they convince him that everything is already being done to do so and that Hal Warner is wrong. The workers organize a strike and a union to demand their rights from the bosses.

Hal pleads with the United Mine Workers to support the strike. They tell him that though they would love to be able to support the workers they do not have the ability to help them, since it would take resources away from strikes they are more invested in:

Don’t misunderstand us!” [the union boss] cried. “It’s heartbreaking—but it’s not in our power to help. We are charged with building up the union, and we know that if we supported everything that looked like a strike, we’d be bankrupt the first year. You can’t imagine how often this same thing happens—hardly a month we’re not called on to handle such a situation. (192)

King Coal is the quintessential novel about the early American coal industry. It exposes the seedy underbelly of big business at the turn of the twentieth century. It is similar to Oil! in that the book is extremely dense and full of important passages about corporate corruption, lack of political oversight, racism and the need for Sinclair’s socialism and unions. Coal was what moved the world before oil and still provides a significant amount of energy to power grids across the United States. While the ruthless and supposedly now, archaic practices of the GFC in the novel can no longer exist to the same degree today in the United States, they still exist around the world, and we support them through our consumerism.

I attended a lecture recently by Prismatic Ecologies author, Jeffrey Cohen on “Geophilia, or the Love of Stone.” His lecture inspired me to think about humanity’s fascination with not only coal but also oil and other energy minerals in a new way. Cohen one of the reasons for humanity’s fascination with stone especially in Medieval thought because it represents immortality. I wonder if it is this obsession with taking an immortal substance from the earth and using it as a life force is just a way for humans to try to rob the mineral of its immortality. This theory would both explain the life and energy equivalency that is so common in energy narratives and the hesitation of humans into looking into alternative energy sources.

Energy narrative characteristics found in this novel: life=energy, environmental degradation, corporate ruthlessness, political oppression, exaggerated inequalities, impedes labor unions/civil rights campaigners, segregation, convenient racism, nomadic existence, insurrection.

Oil!: How to Buy the Presidency of the United States

Oil! by Upton Sinclair is a classic example of how oil corrupts businessmen and government alike. Sinclair was inspired to write the novel following the Teapot Dome Scandal, which was when the Secretary of the Interior, Albert B. Fall, accepted bribes to lease petroleum reserved for the navy to two private oil companies during the 1920s. The novel follows the life of James Arnold Ross Jr., or Bunny, who is the son of one of an upcoming oil tycoon. I wish that I could go into more detail in describing each of the key scenes in this novel, but I would end up with a post five times as long, thus I will only discuss the following two scenes: beginning of Ross Sr.’s corporate ruthlessness on a local level in Paradise, California, and Ross’s and Roscoe’s corporate ruthlessness on a national scale when they attempt (and eventually succeed) in buying the president of the United States.

Part 1

Ross discovers an “ocean of oil” underneath the property of the Watkins family in Paradise, a small town in Southern California. Ross then buys the Watkins’s property at only the land price rather than also paying them for the oil he found on their property. This is first of many immoralities committed by members of the oil industry throughout this novel. The Rosses integrate themselves into Paradise life and become good friends with the Watkinses and other members of the town. Bunny becomes good friends with Paul and Ruth Watkins, while Ross squares off with Old Man Watkins and his religious son Eli. As Bunny gets older he begins to realize that his father is not as much of a hero has he reveres him to be. Ross tends to cut corners and invest the money he makes in expansion rather than in making safer working conditions. As a result, one of Ross’s workers, Joe Gundha, has a fatal accident at the well, but as the narrator puts it: “the less you thought about a thing like that, the better for your enjoyment of the oil-game!” (153). Shortly thereafter the well in Paradise, catches fire and explodes, causing major damage to the environment around it:

They were never to know what did it; perhaps an electric spark, or the fire in the boiler, or a spark made by falling wreckage, or rocks blown out of the hole, striking on steel; anyhow, there was a tower of flame, and the most amazing spectacle— the burning oil would hit the ground, and bounce up, and explode, and leap again and fall again, and great red masses of flame would unfold, and burst, and yield black masses of smoke, and these in turn red. Mountains of smoke rose to the sky, and mountains of flame came seething down to the earth; every jet that struck the ground turned into a volcano, and rose again, higher than before; the whole mass, boiling and bursting, became a river of fire, a lava flood that went streaming down the valley, turning everything it touched into flame, then swallowing it up and hiding the flames in a cloud of smoke. The force of gravity took it down the valley, and the force of the wind swept it over the hill-side; it touched the bunk-house, and swallowed it in one gulp; it took the tool-house, everything that was wood; and when there came a puff of wind, driving the stream of oil and gas to one side, you saw the skeleton of the derrick, draped with fire! (160-161).

In order to put the fire out, Ross orders that the well be blown up, an extremely risky job for his workers: “the man who worked in that hole was risking his life— suppose the wind were to shift, even for a few seconds, and blow that mass of boiling oil over him! But the wind held strong and steady…they would go as close as they dared, before they set the dynamite” (162). What is worse, is that Ross does not even seem dazed by the well’s explosion, as if environmental disasters like these and dangerous labor practices are all happenstance:

[Ross:] “Why, boy, we got an ocean of oil down underneath here; and it’s all ours— not a soul can get near it but us! Are you a-frettin’ about this measly little well?”

[Bunny:] “But Dad, we worked so hard over it!”

Dad laughed again.

[Ross:] “Forget it, son! We’ll open it up again, or drill a new one in a jiffy. This was jist a little Christmas bonfire, to celebrate our bustin’ in among the big fellers!” (163- 164).

Part 2:

Many years later, Ross partners with the corrupt Vernon Roscoe, who convinces him that they should buy politicians to protect their oil prospects. At one point in the novel, Roscoe and Ross conspire to win the Republican nomination for president for Senator Harding. Roscoe and Ross believe that Harding is more likely to keep the government out of the oil industry and leave it to the private sector:

“Dad, you’re proposing to buy the presidency of the United States!”

“Well, that’s one way to say it. Another is that we’re protecting ourselves against rivals that want to put us out of business. If we don’t take care of politics, we’ll wake up after election and find we’re done for…”

“It’s such a dirty game, Dad!”

“I know, but it’s the only game there is. Of course, I can quit, and have enough to live on, but I don’t feel like being laid on the shelf, son.”

“Couldn’t we just run our own business, Dad?”

“There’s no such thing, son— they’re jist crowding you all the time. They block you at the refineries, they block you at the markets, they block you in the banks— I don’t tell you much about it, because it’s troubles, but there’s jist no place in the business world for the little feller any more. You think I’m a big feller because I got twenty million, and I think Verne is a big feller because he’s got fifty; but there’s Excelsior Pete— thirty or forty companies, all working as one— that’s close to a billion dollars you’re up against. And there’s Victor, three or four hundred million more, and all the banks and insurance company resources behind them— what chance have we independents got? Look at this slump in the price of gas right now— the newspapers tell you there’s a glut, but that’s all rot— what makes the glut, but the Big Five dumping onto the market to break the little fellers? Why, they’re jist wiping ’em off the slate!”

“But how can public officials prevent that?”

“There’s a thousand things that come up, son— we got to land the first wallop— right at the sound of the bell! How do we get pipe line right-o’-ways? How do we get terminal facilities? You saw how it was when we came into Paradise; would we ever ’a got this development if I hadn’t ’a paid Jake Coffey? Where would Verne and me be right now, if we didn’t sit down with him and go over the slate, and make sure the fellers he puts on it are right? And now— what’s the difference? Jist this, we got bigger, we’re playin’ the game on a national scale— that’s all. If Verne and me and Pete O’Reilly and Fred Orpan can get the tracts we got our eyes on, well, there’ll be the Big Six or Big Seven or Big Eight in the oil-game, that’s all— and you set this down for sure, son, we’ll be doin’ what the other fellers done, from the day that petroleum came into use, fifty years ago.”

“It’s all very well for a feller to go off in his study and figure out how the world ought to be; but that don’t make it that way, son. There has got to be oil, and we fellers that know how to get it out of the ground are the ones that are doing it. You listen to these Socialists and Bolshevikis, but my God, imagine if the government was to start buying oil-lands and developing them— there’d be more graft than all the wealth of America could pay for. I’m on the inside, where I can watch it, and I know that when you turn over anything to the government, you might jist as good bury it ten thousand miles deep in the earth. You talk about laws, but there’s economic laws, too, and government can’t stand against them, no more than anybody else. When government does fool things, then people find a way to get round it, and business men that do it are no more to blame than any other kind of men. This is an oil age, and when you try to shut oil off from production, it’s jist like you tried to dam Niagara falls.” (p. 299-300).

They are successful and sure enough Senator Harding becomes President Warren G. Harding. Roscoe and Ross become more successful than ever, and are able to continue to expand despite several strikes from their workforce, at least for a while. As I mentioned earlier, there are many more scenes in Oil! that make it one of the most important energy narratives to read. There are strikes, labor abuses, dirty politics, and dog-eat-dog business dealings, not to mention a manipulation of the masses through religion. In fact, Oil! is the only one of the narratives that I have written about so far that has all of my twelve energy narrative characteristics. If you have the time, I definitely recommend reading this novel, as it is both enlightening and an interesting read.

Energy narrative characteristics found in this novel: life=energy, environmental degradation, nature fights back, religious element, corporate ruthlessness, political oppression, exaggerated inequalities, impedes labor unions/civil rights campaigners, segregation, convenient racism, nomadic existence, insurrection.