The ones who walked away

Imagine a utopia where there are no kings or rulers, where everyone is prosperous and no one goes hungry. There are celebrations on the street. Imagine this place didn’t have currency. There was no need to work. You spent your time doing what you wanted: making art, learning, spending time with family and friends. Everyone in this place had all the means they would ever need and then some.

In 1973, Ursula K. Le Guin wrote a short story about this type of utopia. Omella she called it. Except with one caveat:

Can you sacrifice one innocent child to a life of pain and suffering for everyone else to be happy?

Imagine that paradise hinged on this child’s suffering. The child was locked in a small closet basement with no light or windows. No fresh air. No sanitation. And in order for the society to function, you must leave this child be. That was the rule. You could visit this child but you couldn’t give them any love or encouragement. No learning or care. Just leave enough food for them to survive. That’s it.

Some of the citizens of Omela never worried about the child. Out of site, out of mind. A few would go visit the child and leave in tears. Changed by the experience. And a couple, leave the city all together.

Because how can one be happy if it hinged on the suffering of a few?

It is a fascinating thought experiment that has left me speechless. And when you start thinking about the systems we have set in place, and the inequality that faces our world, it’s difficult to think of throwing away leftovers when 800 million go to bed hungry. Or how you can turn on the light when the sun goes down and not worry about pollution from kerosine lantern slowly killing you each day. Or how some of us can turn on the tap and we are so used to clean drinking water coming out while hundreds of millions suffer without access.

Just like the child, each of us hears rumblings throughout the world. Cries from the unjust. We don’t want to believe that someone is working $2 per hour to enjoy a pair of Nikes. But it happens. Once you see it, you can’t unsee it. The opportunity then going forward isn’t to walk away from it all but instead to fight for a more just world.