“The Lottery” is a short story by Shirley Jackson, first published in the June 26th, 1948, edition of The New York Times. It’s a fictionalized account of a chilling ritual carried out on one day each year throughout villages in the “corn belt” of the United States. Everyone in each community gathers in their local square. Beneath the folksy greeting and meeting with friends and neighbours is a brooding seriousness. Some folks have talked about giving up the ritual but, as an old timer says dismissively, “Lottery in June, corn be heavy soon.” Then, each person draws a folded piece of paper from a black box. The one with the black dot “wins” the lottery, and is summarily stoned to death. Even little Davy, the son of Tessie, this year’s “winner”, is given pebbles to throw at his mother.
Jackson’s story, of course, is about a ritual fertility sacrifice, and it’s shocking because the practice is placed in a modern rather than a primitive context. But when considered as a symbolic story, the different circumstances echo with different meanings.
We don’t usually think that “winning” such a lottery is applicable today. Yet it’s not possible to consider our current climate and ecological emergencies without being reminded of Shirley Jackson’s story.
This description of a sacrificial ritual is not intended to diminish the loss and tragedy suffered by the victims of recent climate and ecological disasters. However, all such victims can be considered as “winners” in a lottery where we each have a piece of folded paper in the black box.
Those who draw a black dot are more likely to live in flood plains, in lowlands, in forests, near rivers, or along seashores. In cities, they are more likely to be the poor, elderly or infirm. In the case of a pandemic, caused by the intensifying interface between people and wild animals, the “winners” are most likely to be old, unhealthy and immunocompromised, although everyone is eligible. The “global village” in which we all live, qualifies anyone to “win”. It all depends where we happen to be when the lottery is held.
Life itself, of course, is a lottery, with no way of knowing when the black dot could identify any one of us as a “winner”—death, in a great act of fairness, brings an eventual “win” to everyone. However, the climate crisis and the ecological upheavals that we have instigated by our collective follies are lotteries of our own making, not the inevitable arrival of mortality. The economic, industrial, philosophical, religious, mythological, political and technological rituals we have been practicing have invented our own version of “The Lottery”.
Indeed, giving up the ritual has been a subject of serious consideration for decades, but “corn be heavy soon” is the promised reward of continuing to do what we have been doing for centuries. Tradition has provided its rites of reliability and its illusions of security. Change is difficult because it creates insecurities and anxieties. Some people, corporations and countries have vested interests that would be threatened. Habits are entrenched. For now, lottery “winners” are the disquieting price we seem willing to pay for the imagined guarantee of a good crop of “corn”.
Except when any one of us happens to be the “winner”. The growing problem is that more and more of these black dots are now in the black box, and the chances of any one of us being a “winner” is increasing. And we have little choice whether the prize is flood, fire, tornado, storm, drought, plague, or any of the other creative surprises that an unsettled global ecosystem is likely to concoct.
The people in Lytton, Merritt, Abbotsford and Sumas Prairie didn’t volunteer to be in the lottery, but a growing number are being chosen—not to mention the animals, plants and organisms that “win” by drowning or incinerating. Select a community almost anywhere on the planet: Australia, France, Greece, Italy, Spain, India, Kuwait, Siberia, Brazil, California, Colorado… . Nothing personal is intended. The lottery “winners” are just the cumulative result of our blundering plunge through history. This particular folly of our collective behaviour has been too much fossil fuel consumption to feed our industries, to buy our SUVs, to fly to distant destinations, and to satisfy the materialistic lust of an insatiable consumerism. No one wanted to acknowledge or count the price of carbon.
The ritual always came with its costs, but for a long time they seemed tolerable enough to be hidden. They never were. Now these costs inflect even our most folksy greetings and meetings with a brooding seriousness. Our rationalizations seem hollow and evasive, empty excuses that could foreshadow one, last, great, calamitous “winning”. And even on our little island in the wholeness of things, it’s uncomfortable being reminded that we’re all gathered in the same village square with its own ominous black box.
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Top photo credit: Image taken from The Lottery graphic novel (adapted from Shirley Jackson’s novel) by Miles Hyman