My wife borrowed the movie “Soylent Green” from Wycombe Library last week. I have seen it many times over the years and my other half had watched it with me on one previous occasion. I am not sure precisely why my beloved decided to borrow it although it is probably because of Soylent Green’s iconic status in our culture. You need only watch a few episodes of The Simpsons to see how often it is referred to. Everyone has heard of it – probably more people are familiar with the words ‘soylent green’ than know what it means or where it comes from. (It is much the same as with ‘big brother’ and George Orwell’s dystopian vision “1984”.) What is remarkable about the movie is how old it is considering the content and theme. If you think concerns about Global Warming, resource depletion, over-population and loss of bio-diversity appeared in the 1990’s you would be wrong. Soylent Green was made in 1973.
Imagine: it is 2022 in Manhattan. The population there has grown to 40 million souls. Global Warming has devastated the planet. New York is polluted, over populated and 50% unemployed. The pollution that envelops the city causes oppressive temperatures and humidity. Each day is a struggle to find enough food and water to survive. Food riots are a regular occurrence and dealt with in a draconian fashion. Only the very-rich live in separated luxury concrete fortresses/apartments (with women as part of the rented furniture) enjoying the last vestiges of the late 20th century, fresh meat, salad, strawberries, cigarettes, Scotch. Police investigator Thorn (Charlton Heston) is assigned to investigate the assassination of a high ranking member of the Soylent corporation (which feeds the masses with sea-food-derived Soylent Red, Yellow & Green). Thorn seeks information from his researcher and friend Sol (Edward G. Robinson).
Sol proceeds to study some innocuous looking ocean survey books found in the dead man’s apartment. What he finds is so horrifying that he chooses voluntary euthanasia. However, the death wish is not all that it seems. Thorn watches Sol’s final moments which are accompanied by films of lost natural grandeur. Classical music plays as vistas of pastoral fields and clear running streams play out on movie screens. They are scenes from an age that Thorn has never known and will now never see. There is not a dry eye in the house as he asks Thorn to find proof of what was discovered: that the Oceans are dead….. And the truth about Soylent Green is too awful to contemplate.
Although the concept seems way ahead of its time (from today’s perspective) Soylent Green was the perfect result of its day. After the publication of Rachel Carson’s “Silent Spring” and disillusionment about the Vietnam War the Green movement was (believe it or not) in the ascendant in the US. The early 1970’s saw the publication of “The Limits of Growth” by the Club of Rome. Soylent Green itself was based upon Harry Harrison’s sci fi novel “Make Room, Make Room”. This was the time of the first Earth Day and a plethora of new Environmental legislation to roll out of Capitol Hill (including the Clean Air Act). In the subsequent neo-liberal Reagan/Bush years it is difficult to recall that such a period in history did beset the USA but the fingerprint is still there in the output from Hollywood. This was a brief window that also saw similar eco-classic movies such as “Silent Running” and “Z.P.G.” both in 1972. But then the love affair was over. Hollywood lost interest in eco-sci-fi. By 1976 Star Wars was released and the rest is history. It was probably not until the recent release of “Avatar” in 2010 that the ecology of an entire planet had formed the plot of a major sci-fi blockbuster.
Soylent Green is a reminder that our fears are nothing new. It remains chillingly close to our worst nightmares – nightmares of a depleted and over-populated planet. But 2022 is yet to pass and no doubt it will not be the devastated hell that Harry Harrison envisaged. Cynics will, of course, see “Soylent Green” much as the “Limits of Growth”, ie, debunked. They assume that as it didn’t happen then it is all miserable baloney. Nothing could be further from the truth. Although the timing is poor the same game-plan is playing out in slow-motion. We know where present trends will end. We always discover the future at a slower rate that the worst fears of the sci fi authors. But if you think imagining the apocalypse began with “The Age of Stupid” or “Mad Max” you would be wrong. We knew the dangers 40 years ago and the fears were captured on the big screen as a warning to us all.
Time will only tell what the next 40 years will brings us and whether we act with wisdom.