“It’s only a movie”: The Picture of 2022 as Seen in SOYLENT GREEN
By John C. Alsedek:
It’s New York City, the year 2022. The city is wall-to-wall people, housing is horrendously expensive, thousands upon thousands live in hallways or subways or wherever else they can find a place to squat with their meager belongings. The gap between the haves and have-nots has never been wider, with the "elite" living in unmatched, fortress-like opulence, surrounded by private guards, while the commoners clog the streets, struggling just to survive day-to-day. Mass demonstrations are common but are violently broken up by a militarized police force. And radical climate change threatens to destroy what small shred of an organized society remains, as well as the city itself . . .
No, that’s not actually meant to be a description of our own real-world NYC, though it’s close enough to be more than a little disconcerting. Rather, it’s the setting of the 1973 Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer film Soylent Green, which stars Charlton Heston, Leigh Taylor-Young, and Edward G. Robinson. Most of us are probably familiar with the final line “Soylent Green is people!” to the point where it’s become almost a punchline. But that doesn’t make Soylent Green any less of a triumph as a film or as a cautionary tale of where we could be headed in the next decade if we don’t change right now.
The basic plot of Soylent Green is this (SPOILERS AHEAD): Heston plays NYPD detective Frank Thorn, who shares a small, squalid upstairs apartment with Sol Roth (Robinson), an elderly former college professor turned police analyst. Thorn is assigned to investigate the killing of William R. Simonson, a board member of the Soylent Corporation, in his own home in what appeared to be a burglary gone wrong. This is a death of unusual interest and sensitivity, for Soylent manufactures half the world’s food supply via a color-coded line of nutritional wafers; their newest offering is Soylent Green, made from ocean plankton.
However, Thorn begins to suspect that there’s more to it than just a random murder, especially when a priest who had taken Simonson’s last confession is killed and an attempt is made on the life of Thorn himself. Ordered off the Simonson case by the governor, Thorn nonetheless plows on with his investigation. But it’s Sol Roth who discovers the awful truth via a pair of books Thorn filched from Simonson’s apartment: oceanographic survey reports commissioned by the Soylent Corporation. What Roth learns drives him to state-assisted suicide and leads Thorn to the Soylent Green production plant for the finale, where that iconic line of Heston’s is uttered.
Today, Soylent Green comes across as a bit dated. For one thing, the basic premise of both the film and the novel it’s based on—the overpopulation of the entire planet—hasn’t come to pass. It was based on the Malthusian Theory of Population, posited by the English cleric and scholar Thomas Robert Malthus in 1798. In it, Malthus anticipated that population growth would occur exponentially, while food supply growth would proceed arithmetically; inevitably, the teeming masses of humanity would completely overwhelm Earth’s ability to provide food. At least, that was the theory. In practice, there is more than enough food produced every year to feed the world’s current population of just under 8 billion people, even though over 800 million still go hungry.
Then there’s the way that climate change is presented in Soylent Green. In the film, due to the greenhouse effect, Earth is perpetually hot and humid, with temperatures always well into the 100s. But in the real world today, climate change means something else. Yes, it can mean extremely high temperatures (see the horrifying example of an estimated one billion seashore creatures such as mussels and clams being literally cooked to death by a record heatwave in British Columbia last summer), but it also means that weather events will be more severe: ice storms in places without the infrastructure to handle them, more frequent/devastating hurricanes battering already vulnerable coastlines, tornadoes appearing in parts of North America where they were previously all but unheard of, record wildfires in the western United States . . .
Still, other things that Soylent Green predicts for 2022 aren’t far off the mark. While there aren’t any modified garbage trucks scooping up protesters to be turned into green wafers, U.S. police forces have been equipped with billions of dollars’ worth of military equipment since President George H. W. Bush signed off on the 1033 Program in 1990. And this equipment, including armored personnel carriers, has been used against unarmed protesters in incidents from Standing Rock to Occupy Wall Street. As for the enormous disparity between the haves and have-nots . . . I’m not sure even the "elites" of Soylent Green would have had something like Jeff Bezos’s $500 million superyacht, which requires its own 300-foot "support yacht" for a helipad, smaller boats, etc. Meanwhile, over 80,000 people are regularly homeless in New York City alone.
And then there’s the other central concept of Soylent Green: the exhaustion of Earth’s resources. As things stand right now, humanity has the means to provide for everyone—even if the distribution of those means is often grossly disproportionate. But we’re not far from a tipping point; that is, if we haven’t already reached it. For example, look at Lake Mead and the Colorado River. Lake Mead is the nation's largest reservoir, and the Colorado River provides water and power to about 40 million people in the West. This past August, a Tier 1 shortage was declared, which triggered restrictions in water allocations; Arizona’s allocation will be cut by 18%, Nevada’s by 7%, and Mexico’s by 5%. The Arizona restriction will be most felt by the state’s farmers, which have been using 70% of Arizona’s water allocation but also have the lowest-priority access to it.
As for Lake Mead, it is currently at its lowest level since it was created in 1935 and is over
150 feet lower than its high of 1,225 feet in 1983. That trend is expected to continue in the next few years: computer models have Lake Mead dropping below 1,050 feet by November 2022 and below 1,040 feet by July 2023. A drop of 10–20 feet may not seem like a lot, but it would trigger Tier 2 restrictions, cutting the allocations to Arizona, Nevada, and Mexico even further and restricting the allowance to California as well—and you can imagine what that would mean to the state’s agriculture. And if that isn’t worrying enough, the Hoover Dam has a "dead pool" line at 895 feet, meaning that if the water level of Lake Mead drops below that, the Hoover Dam can no longer generate electricity. Given that it currently provides power for over 8 million people, that’s an enormous issue in and of itself.
And all of this impact is from one river in one country. Now multiply that worldwide, and the picture going forward becomes clearer in a very bad way.
Anyway . . . while we’re still unlikely to end up in a dystopian hellscape as depicted in Soylent Green— during our lifetime at least—we’re a lot closer to it then we were when the film was made 50 years ago. And that should be enough to give all of us a lot of sleepless nights.
Soylent Green was largely well-received, winning both the Saturn Award (for Best Science Fiction Film of the Year) and Nebula Award (for Best Film Script of the Year, Dramatic Presentation). But guess who didn’t much care for the film? The author of the novel it was based on (1966’s Make Room! Make Room!), Mr. Harry Harrison. We’ll be talking about the career of one of science fiction’s all-time great satirists next time. Until then, thanks for tuning in!
SUSPENSE writer, producer, and radio-drama aficionado John C. Alsedek shares the history of early radio and television and the impact it has made on the world of entertainment in his ongoing series for Flapper Press.