If you're paying attention to the biggest realities in the world, and you're also aware of the organizing principles and assumptions behind market capitalism and the global economy, it's hard not to see what look like inevitable contradictions and predicaments becoming more acute in this century.
Although every epoch has its challenges, young people today may be the first to face developments that are globe-straddling and that threaten the orderly workings of both society and the ecosystem.
For example, global warming and its consequent climate change are accelerating unabated. We continue steadily to pump carbon dioxide into the atmosphere and oceans, and there is no indication we intend to reduce these emissions within any time frame that will prove meaningful.
Similarly, on a finite planet, we continue to operate a global economic system that depends for its health on continued expansion and consumption. Companies must grow, markets must widen, jobs must be created, and products and services must be purchased.
As the world population rises — perhaps to 10 billion by 2060 — how can capitalism not attempt to feed, clothe, shelter and employ everybody?
But the gap between the material needs and desires of developed nations, and the ability of Earth's resources and ecosystems to meet them, is huge.
Additionally, overt hostilities and conflict loom over the present and future. There are the violent passions in Africa, central Asia, the Mideast and elsewhere. There is the never-ending impasse in Israel; the crazy talk of bombing Iran; the corrupt states everywhere; the rising fanaticism affecting almost every religion; and the constant threat of nuclear holocaust.
The lack of progress in all of these areas — economic, environmental, religious and military — has created for many people an overlay of uncertainty and foreboding. A sort of stubborn tribalism hangs over the current events of the world, making possible solutions and compromises seem less likely.
It is against this backdrop that three novels — "The Hunger Games," "Catching Fire" and "Mockingjay" — by Suzanne Collins have become best-sellers. Aimed at teen readers, but popular also with adults, the books have sold 24 million copies each, and "The Hunger Games" has been made into what is currently the world's hottest movie.
Set in a post-apocalyptic future, it portrays a society of poor masses controlled and exploited by a corrupt, ruthless elite. The workers are kept hungry, cold, ignorant and cowed.
Once a year, two teenagers are selected from each district of this empire to participate in a survival contest that is broadcast live to TV screens everywhere. In this reality show, the children actually kill each other — only the winner survives.
The story contains a heroine — 16-year-old Katniss — who volunteers for the contest and begins to challenge and defy the central powers who dominate the people.
The trilogy — which guides the reader through the dystopian contours of the empire, the resistance of Katniss, and the attempted popular uprising — explores the topics of authority, justice, freedom, the distribution of wealth and resources, and the relationship of the individual to the state.
The books' popularity comes partly from their kinship with today's events, and partly from the combination of anxiety and inspiration that they can engender in readers.
In "The Hunger Games," the first of what will be three movies, the power center of the empire contains many unsettling parallels to the most narcissistic, titillated, cyberconnected and fashion-conscious segments of our society. It's unsettling because in the end, it can be a society's values that determine the path it takes.
After watching the movie together, a number of high-schoolers told me that they think about global warming, nuclear war, the many conflicts around the world and the unknown quantity of natural resources available, and wonder where it is all leading.
They also identified with the subjugated population of workers, and not the oppressors. They said to me, "What if someone did that to us?" They found plausible the notion of the world driven to a bad place by greed and irresponsibility.
But they were also inspired by the person that Katniss is, and therein lies the secret of human hope and goodness. For people who love freedom and justice — because we can't truly have one without the other — and who will fight so all may possess them, are simultaneously the reason to hope and to fight for a better future.
You may find "The Hunger Games" depressing; you may find it uplifting. But aren't you curious to see a serious film that virtually every youth in America between the ages of 13 and 19 considers indispensable?
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Brian T. Watson of Swampscott is a regular Salem News columnist. Contact him at email@example.com.