Soylent Green at Fifty

What the dystopian movie tells us about the real 2022

It’s 2022, and the world is on the brink of collapse. Every day brings new temperature highs. A privileged few live in gated communities, but the sidewalks are covered with the homeless. And most of all, there is hunger. Mobs riot in the street over food shortages. Nations strain to feed their populations.

This is the world of Soylent Green, perhaps the most famous dystopian film ever made. Released in 1973, the movie projected how the future might look 22 years into the new millennium.

Here in the real 2022, it is comforting that many of the movie’s direst predictions never came true. But others did, and still more may be looming, especially when it comes to global agricultural supply. So what can a 50-year-old science fiction movie tell us about food? Plenty, it turns out.

People As Food

“...This conversation with Governor Henry C. Santini is brought to you by Soylent Red and Soylent Yellow, high energy vegetable concentrates, and new, delicious, Soylent Green. The miracle food of high-energy plankton gathered from the oceans of the world,” – TV announcer

Soylent Green is Malthusian theory meets Mad Max. Based on Make Room! Make Room!, the 1966 science fiction novel by Harry Harrison, the movie depicts a world where population growth has so outstripped food supply that most people live on meager government food handouts.

The size of Earth’s population is never specified, other than that New York City has 40 million people. With the population of today’s New York at around 8 million out of a global total of 8 billion, the same proportions would suggest that Soylent Green’s Earth is groaning under the weight of 40 billion people.

The movie centers on Detective Thorne—first name unknown—a weary New York City police detective played by Charlton Heston, who in this role sounds like an even more cynical version of his astronaut character in the dystopian 1968 movie Planet of the Apes. Thorne is tasked with solving the murder of a wealthy executive of the Soylent Corporation, which “feeds half the world,” during an apparent burglary.

Aided by his police “book” Sol Roth, a walking library in a world where books have become too difficult to publish, Thorne discovers that the executive had been assassinated. In fact, the Soylent Corporation and top politicians had ordered his death because they feared the conscience-stricken executive might reveal a secret: The ocean plankton that used to make up Soylent’s main product was dying off, and Soylent Green is now made from dead people.

Soylent Green movie poster, 1973.

In this grim world where people routinely die of starvation and their bodies are collected by garbage trucks, even the simple pleasures of life are scarce. Thorne, for example, is amazed to find hot running water and a bottle of real bourbon in the dead executive’s apartment. Things are even harder for Roth, who is older and is tormented not just by memories of what life was once like, but also because younger people don’t know that such a life even existed. Most have never seen real food, like lettuce and strawberries.

When Thorne brings home a small steak and a couple of tomatoes looted from the dead executive’s apartment, Roth briefly rejoices—and then weeps. “Why, in my day, you could buy meat anywhere,” he says. “Eggs, they had. Real butter. Fresh lettuce in the stores.” He wails: “Oh, my God. How did we come to this?”

The answers are many. In the story, climate change has resulted in a greenhouse effect that leaves everyone covered in sweat even at night. Thanks to oppressive pollution, fresh air and fresh food are just memories, “before our scientific magicians poisoned the water, polluted the soil, decimated plant and animal life,” Roth recalls.

But Thorne doesn’t have time or energy to care about the flowers. “There are 20 million guys out of work in Manhattan alone just waiting for my job,” he complains. The police are always busy in this society, either putting down food riots or lining their own pockets.

Is Science to Blame for Dystopia?

“Next thing, they’ll be breeding us like cattle for food,” – Detective Thorne

On the surface, Soylent Green is a warning about overpopulation and pollution. When Harrison wrote his novel in the mid-1960s, the world was grappling with soaring birth rates. The post-World War II Baby Boom had created hordes of restless young people in America; better public health in developing nations was largely responsible for a 22% increase in global population between 1960 and 1970. Meanwhile, Rachel Carson’s 1962 book Silent Spring, and the federal Clean Air Act of 1970 reminded Americans that smoggy cities and dirty rivers were signs of deep trouble.

While population and pollution may be the underlying causes of the world’s misery, though, they are not on people’s minds in this alternate 2022. Daily life in Soylent Green is motivated by one factor above all: food insecurity. Hair-trigger anger and simmering resentment, casual brutality, and sheer callousness, it is all caused by hunger. People riot if they don’t get their rations. Corporations and governments commit murder and state-sanctioned mass cannibalism to protect the food supply.

It’s a sign of the times that the Soylent Corporation employs an assassin to take care of its enemies, and that the killer doesn’t spend his pay on a car or a house. Instead, he splurges on real strawberry jam (“$150 per jar,” marvels Roth, or $971 in our real 2022 prices).

In all this, fatalism is the norm because there is no way out. Escape from the urban hellholes to the countryside to find food? That’s not allowed. “Those farms are like fortresses,” Thorne says. “Good land has got to be guarded.”

For moviegoers in 1973, these themes would have been familiar. Books such as Paul R. Ehrlich’s 1968 The Population Bomb warned of a population explosion in the 1970s and 1980s that would result in famine. Indeed, William and Paul Paddock’s Famine 1975!—published in 1967—called for a “triage” system where starving nations deemed hopeless, including Egypt and India, would be denied food aid from the few food-surplus nations such as the United States.

Today, such views are beyond the pale. And, at any rate, large-scale famine is largely a thing of the past. But when Harrison’s story was published in the mid-1960s, India was just coming out of the latest in a string of mass starvations. By the time Soylent Green arrived in cinemas in May 1973, the Cold War was in full swing and post-World War II economic prosperity was about to be shattered by soaring oil prices. Audiences were already primed to expect a dark future.

But the future has not been so dark, largely because modern civilization looks to technology to solve many problems. GMO crops spread around the world, while new forms of energy came into wide use. But Soylent Green shows a society that is de-technologizing. The privileged few in their fortress-like apartment buildings enjoy a high-tech existence by 1973 standards (check out the scene where a character plays an early Nintendo-like video game). But for most, technology has become almost irrelevant: Cars are abandoned, electricity so erratic that people pedal bicycles to generate power, and simple wristwatches have become a rarity.

Going a step further, in this world, technology is the villain (just as it was in those other Heston dystopian flicks, Planet of the Apes and The Omega Man). It was the “scientific magicians” who polluted the environment and created famine. It was science that developed Soylent Green, the ultimate processed food.

In the absence of technological solutions and in the face of great hunger, society is in a death spiral. Like medieval peasants who might occasionally revolt against an unjust lord, but otherwise accept their lot in life, civilization in Soylent Green is so beaten down that problems are internalized rather than solved. For corporations and government, it’s easier to murder dissidents and maintain the status quo than to address dissidents’ concerns.

In turn, Soylent Green becomes a universe of fear: fear of hunger, fear of unemployment, fear of revolution, fear of truth. Only one is missing: fear of death. For Roth, who is tired of the misery, burdened by knowing the truth about Soylent Green, and haunted by memories of when “the world was beautiful”—for him, the solution is to “go home.”

And so he goes to a government-run euthanasia facility where gentle, smiling attendants in white robes administer a drug and then take him to a special chamber like an IMAX theater. To the sound of classical music, Roth spends the last 20 minutes of his life watching beautiful images of green flower-laden fields, clear bubbling streams, smog-free sunsets, and deer peacefully roaming verdant forests. Perhaps the government built these facilities to encourage unwitting humans to become raw material for Soylent Green. Or perhaps it was a small kindness in a society whose only gift to offer is pleasant oblivion.

Is Soylent Green Our Future?

“How could I know? How could I ever imagine?” – Detective Thorne, after seeing video of grass and forest

On one level, Soylent Green is reassuring: No matter how bad our 2022 is, we aren’t eating Soylent Green. Earth has 8 billion people, not 40 billion. Annual population growth is now less than 1%, half the rate of the 1960s. For many developed nations, the problem isn’t too many people, but too few due to declining birth rates. Japan, for example, is turning to robots to replace human caregivers for the elderly.

Thanks to anti-pollution laws, cleaner energy, and improved crop varieties, our world is not a hellscape. The climate isn’t stuck in a permanent heat wave, our faces aren’t always bathed in sweat, and we don’t subsist on crackers made from vegetables or worse.

Yet like lightning flashes on the horizon, there are still some warnings in Hollywood’s vision that are worth heeding.

The world may not be overpopulated, but we do still need to find better ways to distribute resources to sustain all people at a level above mere survival. The most essential of those resources is food. One-third of the world’s population suffers from food insecurity, according to the United Nations.

Acid rain may be a thing of the past, but temperatures are still rising, with potential effects for global food production. On top of this, COVID-19 has disrupted global supply chains and transportation networks, and created shortages of farm machinery, pesticides, and other vital agricultural components. The pandemic has cause mass shutdowns of food production facilities and raised food prices.

And then came Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, followed by harsh sanctions on trade with Russia. Two nations that account for a quarter of the world’s wheat exports were at war, either unable to plant and ship wheat, or barred from global commodity and financial markets. And not just wheat: Prices for fertilizer and palm oil have skyrocketed, leading some nations to limit food exports. Inflation that has been tame for 40 years is back with a vengeance, with food leading the host of goods that are more expensive. For Egypt and other poor nations that subsidize foodstuffs such as bread, the choice comes down to bankrupting their national treasuries or raising food prices.

If these trends continue, authoritarian nations will see food protests met by harsh crackdowns from the security forces, which will fuel endless cycles of violence and repression. In democracies, inflation could erode support for democratic reforms and boost support for demagogues who promise a chicken in every pot.

What’s especially troubling is that people in today’s world are mirroring the skepticism toward science found in Soylent Green. The movie portrays technology not as the solution to problems, but as their cause, ultimately resulting in scientific cannibalism. Sol Roth is an intellectual disillusioned with those scientific magicians who promised utopia but delivered disaster.

Those same sentiments can be found in today’s anti-technology movements, such as those opposing vaccines, GMO crops, and nuclear power. Science and expertise are mocked or ignored. At heart, the issue is lack of trust. In both the movie and in our reality, many people simply don’t believe­ that scientific advancement will make their day-to-day lives better. Once things get bad enough, it seems, why would they?

Can Technology Alone Save Our World?

“People were always rotten. But the world was beautiful,” – Sol Roth

There is no real redemption in Soylent Green. The movie ends with a bleeding Thorne—nearly killed by a corporate assassin—desperately warning the crowd where their green wafers come from. But left unanswered is what solution will be found to rescue civilization from the abyss.

Roth and his fellow intellectuals want Thorne to collect evidence of Soylent Green’s origin to bring before the “Council of Nations.” But then what? If science is the villain that caused these problems, then what else but science can solve them? Either Earth’s population must shrink until it reaches a sustainable level, or science must discover a way to boost food production.

The problem is that science did find a way to boost food production, and that was Soylent Green. This raises the most disturbing possibility: that civilization has sunk so low that no one cares if they survive through cannibalism.

Which suggests that the emptiness in Soylent Green isn’t of the belly, but rather of the soul. Until humanity decides that people are more than beasts, then no technology can ensure that everyone is fed. And a hungry society can be neither happy nor stable. The same can be found in our 2022, where society doesn’t just suffer from food shortages, but also malnourishment of the spirit that can’t be satisfied by social media and Zoom. Science was supposed to feed our desire for connection, and yet people feel more disconnected than ever.

If there is any redemption in Soylent Green, it’s that there are flashes of decency in the moral darkness: the conscience-stricken corporate executive, the brutal cop who still believes in truth, the intellectual who refuses to forget that the world was once a better place.

Until our society decides that hunger is not an option, Soylent Green will always be a possibility.