The future is sci-fi: Soylent Green, climate change and the slippery slope from capitalism to cannibalism

Prahlad Srihari

Jan 01, 2020 09:10:53 IST

As we embark on a new decade, how do visions of the 2020s — imagined in books like Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, films like Soylent Green, or even manga like Ghost in the Shell —match up against our reality? In this series, we look at seven pop culture artefacts from the past that foretold the future, providing a prophetic glimpse of the decade we’re now entering.

Words by Prahlad Srihari | Art by Trisha Bose and Sharath Ravishankar | Concept by Rohini Nair and Harsh Pareek


821.6 million. That's one in nine people around the world who suffered from chronic hunger in 2018. An IPCC report links this food security crisis to global warming and the damage it has caused to virtually every ecosystem. Moreover, we know the Earth's getting warmer as July 2019 was the hottest month on record. Yet, the most powerful elected official in the world, who once called climate change a Chinese hoax, continues to downplay all the warnings. Greta Thunberg has every right to be angry. She has turned what was previously just a background noise into a relentless refrain as more and more youth mobilise to demand action against climate change. Even their parents are rallying behind them as climate change represents an existential threat to all of human civilisation.

As always, science fiction gave us an advance notice. Richard Fleischer's Soylent Green presented a grim vision of a world on the brink of collapse following decades of environmental neglect. Loosely adapted from Harry Harrison's novel Make Room! Make Room!, the 1973 film warns us that continuing on our current path will most certainly lead to catastrophe.

 The future is sci-fi: Soylent Green, climate change and the slippery slope from capitalism to cannibalism

Illustration by Trisha Bose

Set around two years from now, Soylent Green shows us a 2022 New York where unchecked population growth and an endless heatwave have resulted in a near-exhaustion of natural resources. The extreme poverty has resulted in an overspill of homeless people, who sleep on staircases and hallways of tenements, and inside unserviceable cars on the street. Those fortunate enough to have their own apartments, like lowly public servants, must power their homes by cycling on stationary bikes, like in Black Mirror's Fifteen Million Merits. One of these public servants is NYPD detective Thorn (Charlton Heston), who is brought in to investigate the murder of a top executive of Soylent Corporation, the state-sanctioned monopoly which manufactures and distributes food rations for the common folk.

The investigation takes him to the contrasting world of the one-percenters, who have cordoned themselves off in high-rise, air-conditioned apartments that come furnished with "furniture" — young attractive women offered to the men as an amenity. While the wealthy enjoy the comforts of a warm, home-cooked meal and clean water for drinking and showering, the poor riot over the rationed food, which come in wafers of three different varieties — red, yellow and green. In a shocking scene, these rioters are picked up and cleared with a front-end loader, like something out of a Holocaust documentary but with living, breathing, screaming people.

The film explicitly singles out the greenhouse effect to be the chief cause behind this world falling apart. This is evident even in the opening montage: a how-we-got-here collage of man and nature, and how the former's destructive agency becomes more and more insatiable with industrialisation and technological progress. There is a yellowish-green fog that blankets New York in the film, and there is no sign of trees or other animals, all victims of human-induced climate change. In a world with no visible plant life or livestock, food thus becomes utilitarian: an eat-what-you-get meal. Among the three wafers, Soylent Green is the most in-demand due to its high-protein content. But, as Charlton Heston discovers in the end, "Soylent Green is people." It is not a combination of soy and lentil, or extracted from ocean plankton.

This cannibalism trope is however used to shock us into action against environmental degradation and gradual resource depletion. It acts as a condemnation of a consumerist culture which eventually begins to consume itself. The throw-away society we currently live in wastes about one-third of the food we produce, according to the IPCC report. This, in turn, increases greenhouse gas emissions and fractures the four pillars of food security: availability, access, utilisation and stability of supplies. Priyadarshi Shukla, co-chair of IPCC Working Group III, said: “Food security will be increasingly affected by future climate change through yield declines — especially in the tropics — increased prices, reduced nutrient quality, and supply chain disruptions.”

Fleischer also makes his cautionary lesson in Soylent Green more urgent by turning it into a Malthusian crisis, the idea that there will come a point where there won't be enough room or resources to fulfil the escalating demands of an exponentially growing human population. But Malthus's preventative measures to limit population growth included celibacy, delaying marriage and government-mandated birth control, which are all impossible to implement democratically. China, of course, implemented a strict one-child policy, subjecting those who didn't comply with more drastic measures like forced sterilisations and abortions. Even the more "democratic" India, during the 1975 Emergency declared by Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, had a state-sponsored mass sterilisation campaign, which Salman Rushdie described in Midnight's Children.

So, as the IPCC report suggests, the solution lies in keeping global warming to well below 2°C, and transitioning from industrial agriculture to a more sustainable land and resource management in our terrestrial ecosystems. Louis Verchot, lead author of the report, warns we'll lose all natural subsidy if we continue down this dangerous path. "We absolutely must protect the quality of all the land used to produce food," he said, stressing the importance of sustainable management practices in tackling climate change.

Even if world leaders respond to our plea to fight climate change with sneering comments, we — like Thunberg — must never stop from calling them out for their inaction. The future of humanity rests on it. Society may not regress into a bunch of cannibals, but we must stop mortgaging the wellbeing of future generations for our current economic well-being.

Also read — Sex, love and alienation in the digital age, as seen in 2014’s Her

Read our 'Decade in Review' series here.

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Updated Date: Jan 04, 2020 23:24:38 IST