Soylent Green on Energy Use, Pollution, and Overpopulation

1973’s Soylent Green may be best known for being people, but this classic of dystopian science fiction is much more than a catchphrase. At its heart, Soylent Green is a story of an overtaxed world, class disparity, and the trade-offs that humanity finds itself making in the name of survival. As a vision of the future it proved ahead of its time, envisioning what could happen if consumption were to continue unchecked.

Soylent Green stars Charlton Heston as Frank Thorn, a detective in futuristic and overcrowded New York City. He rooms with an elderly Sol Roth, played by Edward G. Robinson in his final film appearance. Sol remembers the old days and waxes poetic about luxuries like real food and clean air. When Frank is brought in on the murder of one of the elite upper class named Simonson, he finds himself entangled with the “furniture” of the man’s apartment, a concubine named Shirl, played by Leigh Taylor-Young. As the investigation unfolds, Frank learns that Simonson was part of a conspiracy involving the powerful Soylent Corporation, the world’s main provider of artificial food sources. The conspiracy is revealed: Soylent Green, the corporation’s newest product, is made of people.

The use of Soylent blocks as substitute food sources is an interesting one. It predicts that the overuse of the world’s resources would force humanity to come to a point where real food is no longer available and nutrients have to be extracted from any available source possible. At first, these sources were plankton and algae. As those sources were exhausted, the Soylent Corporation turned to the use of the corpses of humans who have presented themselves to government-sanctioned suicide clinics. Humanity is literally feeding off of its own despair.

Soylent Green also struggles to make a statement about the treatment of women, though it is never fully formed. Shirl, the film’s primary female character, lives a life of luxury but is so systematically oppressed that she is used for sex and called “furniture,” being passed on to whoever owns the apartment that she inhabits. The film does very little to examine the circumstances that led her to this decision, or question its morality at all. Perhaps Soylent Green is commenting on the fact that women and children normally suffer more than men in circumstances like these, but this is never obvious enough to get the message through to the audience.

What the film does bring into question is whether or not humanity can afford to keep consuming and reproducing at such a voracious rate. In the world of the film, the climate is heated to an endless hot summer incapable of sustaining agriculture of any sort, much less for the overcrowded population of the film. Today’s world may not be this overstressed yet, but with global carbon dioxide emissions from fossil fuels increasing almost 90 percent since 1970 according to Columbia Gas, it does not seem so very far-fetched.

The overpopulation of the film is also an interesting situation. In Soylent Green, the population of New York City was listed as 40 million people. As of 2014, the population of New York City was estimated at around 8.49 million. Current world growth estimates are around 1.13 percent per year, though the number is expected to drop. In Make Room! Make Room!, the book on which the film was based, overpopulation was explained with the outlawing of birth control, an argument still relevant today.

Soylent Green remains influential both for its strong performances and its insightful message. Far from being a camp movie to be forgotten, it serves as a warning about the dangers of assuming that things will always continue on as they currently are. Without preventative measures, humanity could very well find itself looking into Soylent blocks should we not take heed and make changes in our behavior.