Soylent Green and the Dangers of Doomsaying

The population is rising. Climate change is threatening our agricultural systems. How will we feed everyone?

The concerns may be current—hence the Future Tense event “Feeding the World While the Earth Cooks,” to be held April 12 in Washington, D.C. But they also call to mind the overpopulation and famine fears that were pervasive in the ‘70s, epitomized by the cult classic 1973 film Soylent Green.

Set in a sweltering, stuffed, starved New York City of 2022, Soylent Green is a whodunit cum cautionary tale about the dangerous path on which the country—the world—seemed to be set. Based loosely on Harry Harrion’s 1966 sci-fi novel Make Room! Make Room!, and starring Charlton Heston, Soylent Green shows a world in which most people subsist on wafer-like rations produced by the evil Soylent Corp. The rations are supposed to be made from plankton, but, as we learn from the most oft-quoted portion of the film, the corporation’s latest product has a sinister secret. Soylent Green is, of course, people!—manufactured from the corpses of those who elected euthanasia. (Pardon my spoilers.)

Even in its own time, Soylent Green wasn’t terribly well-received. New York Times film critic A.H. Weiler sensibly wrote, “There is, of course, every reason to view the next century with some fear. But ‘Soylent Green’ projects essentially simple, muscular melodrama a good deal more effectively than it does the potential of man’s seemingly witless destruction of the earth’s resources. … [Its] 21st-century New York occasionally is frightening but it is rarely convincingly real.”

It’s even less convincing today—and serves as a case study in the dangers of doomsaying. Scenes that were clearly meant to be chilling now read as overly earnest hysteria. It’s pure comedy when a food riot is broken up by construction equipment that “scoops” people into a dumpster. And it seems preposterous that Heston’s middle-aged character (the actor himself was 50 when the film was released), who we can deduce was meant to have been born in the ‘80s, would never have known an Earth with any wildlife or greenery.

Soylent Green was released five years after the best-selling book The Population Bomb, by Stanford professor Paul R. Ehrlich. Ehrlich warned that the world was on the brink of disaster, doomed by high birth rates, low death rates, and environmental decline. “The battle to feed all of humanity is over,” Ehrlich declared.

In Future Babble: Why Expert Predictions Are Next to Worthless and You Can Do Better, Dan Gardner describes the panic about overpopulation and food that gripped many at the time:

The sulphurous smell of doom even wafted from the pages of mainstream newspapers. “Civilization as we know it may be in for a drastic change,” concluded a four-part series of articles that ran in the Knight-Ridder chain of newspapers in December 1974. … Unless revolutionary changes were made at every level, argued Richard Falk, a legal scholar at Princeton University, in This Endangered Planet, “people will increasingly doubt whether life is worth living.” 

Most reading those predictions now will scoff. That’s the danger in of the direst warnings about climate change or other challenges just over the horizon: If predictions don’t come to pass, people can end up dismissing very real problems. Climate-change denialists, in particular, can seize on failed predictions as proof that the phenomenon isn’t real. Scare-mongering that is meant to inspire may end up doing the very opposite.