Reflections on “The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas”

I read this short story again recently; it’s by Ursula Le Guin and is one of the most haunting short stories that I’ve ever read.  The only short story that sticks with me more than this one is Parke Godwin’s ‘Stroke of Mercy’, which is stunning.

I’d suggest you go and read ‘The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas’ before you hit the link below, but, if you can’t, to save the plot summary, here we go:

I guess the question for me is whether I would choose to be one who walked away; I suppose that in our heart of hearts we all like to think that we have in ourselves the courage and self-knowledge to ‘do the right thing’.  For several years after I first read this story – which must have been in the mid 1980s – I guess at one level such thinking was hypothetical and rhetorical; it wasn’t the sort of world we lived in, after all.  But today I’m not so sure that it is rhetorical anymore, and also I’m not sure I’ve got the guts to walk away.

We in the ‘developed world’ live a materialistic and consumer driven lifestyle, which has had an increasing amount of impact on the state of the world.  For us to have many of our goodies, it could be argued that somewhere else in the world someone else’s lifestyle takes a kicking.  We have an oil-driven economy; if you’re cursed enough to live above rich oil fields then start running now.

We want high-technology equipment; if you’re a young, female, circuit board assembler in a sweat shop then be aware that some of the processes that are involved may expose you to fertility affecting chemicals.  In order to provide us with cheap electronics, some of the safeguards that we adopt in the developed world are ignored.

Have a think about it, please.

I guess my hiking boots and rucksack are still in the store cupboard right now, and I sincerely doubt that I’ll be walking away real soon.  But I do wonder whether I should at least dust the rucksack down and polish the boots, figuratively speaking, for the day when I too start looking to the distant hills of a less consumption oriented lifestyle and choose to walk away from Omelas.

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