JUMP CUT
A REVIEW OF CONTEMPORARY MEDIA

Soylent Green's population explodes.

How An Inconvient Truth deals with the issue of food demand in light of population growth. The last two sets of bars show the growth in food demant from 2015 to 2050, with developed countries in light green and developing countries in a deeper shade of green.

Gore highlights population as an environmental issue. The graph ends at 2025.

Consequences of global warming in An Inconvenient Truth

Gore show's Bush's policy on global warming: "Bush aide edited climate reports."

Global warming's legitimate critics are few in An Inconvenient Truth. 0% scientific articles doubt the cause of global warming; 53% of articles in popular press do.

Gore's signs of hope

Nostalgic opening in Soylent Green

Gore shows one inconvient cause of global warming: industry.

Nostalgia and food in Soylent Green

Silent Running and food

Another inconvenient truth — growing demand for water. The largest growth between 1995 and 2020 will be for industrial uses, seen in light blue.

Receding glaciers prove Bailey wrong in An Inconvenient Truth.

Another way Gore depicts receding glaciers. The dark section is the sea.

China and global warming as depicted in An Inconvient Truth. In contrast, Bailey says population figures cannot predict food scarcity because fertility rates have decreased.

 

From Soylent Green to
An Inconvenient Truth
:
rhetoric of nostalgia made real

Soylent Green seems like a direct reaction to Earth Day and the establishment of the EPA. It also seems to follow the same rhetorical strategies as do the doomsday predictions of contemporary environmental activists like Paul Ehrlich, whom Life Magazine called “ecology’s angry lobbyist.” The film seems to agree with Ehrlich’s predictions in his 1968 book, The Population Bomb and illustrate them through its own prophets of doom. From the film’s opening montage shots of an increasingly over-populated and polluted Earth to the film’s 2022 urban New York City future setting, where every inch is packed with people, the “population bomb” idea seems to jump off the screen. The film seems to bring to life Gore’s current claims that the Earth’s population will increase from 6.5 to 9 billions in 20 more years.

In a world so overrun with humans, food sources for the masses come in the form of “soylents,” including the infamous soylent green — people. Soylent Green provides a picture of what would happen on Earth if Paul Ehrlich’s predictions came true: as he claimed in April 1970 (quoted in Bailey):

“Population will inevitably and completely outstrip whatever small increases in food supplies we make.”
[open works cited in new window]

Charlton Heston’s character, Thorn, serves as a prophet revealing the most horrifying result — “Soylent Green is made out of people.” Thorn, perhaps like Gore, reveals the truth in Soylent Green. Gore builds on a truth to predict a possible future we have the power to avert.

Constructing Charlton Heston’s character, Thorn, as a prophet also establishes him as a tragic hero like that described by Joseph W. Meeker. According to Meeker,

“Literary tragedy and environmental exploitation in Western culture share many of the same philosophical presuppositions … Three such ideas will illustrate the point: the assumption that nature exists for the benefit of humanity; the belief that human morality transcends natural limitations; and humanism’s insistence upon the supreme importance of the individual personality” (The Comedy of Survival 24).

Unlike Thorn, however, Gore gives us the possibility of a happy ending, with individual personality perhaps overpowered by communal need.

In his essay, “The Comic Mode,” Meeker defines the tragic hero in relation to biology: “Pioneer species are the loners of the natural world, the tragic heroes who sacrifice themselves in satisfaction of mysterious inner commands which they alone can hear” (161). Thorn of Soylent Green is a pioneer, a tragic hero willing to speak up and resist homogenizing forces as an individual whose morality transcends all those around him. Even his name suggests that he is a prickly plant, one of the pioneering “weeds” “whose life styles resemble behavior that men have admired most when they have seen it in other men. We celebrate the qualities in human pioneers that we despise in the pioneers of other plant and animal species” (“The Comic Mode” 161).

First as a rogue detective in a police state, and then as the sole voice of reason, proving the dreadful truth about Soylent Green for the intellectual’s Supreme Exchange, Thorn stands alone, morally superior to the corporate heads who control the food supply. For him, the crime is against humanity, not nature, since his biggest fear is that the company will raise humans “like cattle.” “It’s people,” he says. “Soylent Green is made out of people.” Thorn proclaims his message after fighting off bullets and punches from corporate thugs first to his police captain and then to the scores of others sleeping in what’s left of a church. A suffering tragic hero to the end, Thorn’s words seem to be his last, and he passes the task of taking evidence to the Exchange to his captain. Here the prophet, Thorn, becomes a pioneer, a tragic hero with a message that becomes his dying words. Gore, on the other hand, supports his claims with evidence and offers positive solutions to prevent our and our planet’s death.

But the film’s cultural backdrop and its hero’s role seem obvious, and both serve as a direct response to the 1970s environmental movement and its prophets of doom. In a narrative form similar to Gore’s documentary, the film offers photographic evidence to demonstrate the Earth’s deterioration under our hands.  From its opening, Soylent Green harks back to better times. Here a series of old photographs from the nineteenth century until the 1970s demonstrate the burgeoning population growth that devastates the natural environment and leads to humans’ reliance on Soylent Green for survival. Photos from the nineteenth century show small groups of people sitting peacefully beside an ocean, perched on a hill, fishing on a bridge, lazing on a hay pile and then riding in street cars, cars and then planes. As the pictures reflect the turn into the twentieth century, automobiles and industry seem to take over the pastoral scenes from the earlier photos.

The photographs pass by more and more quickly as Earth’s population increases mathematically and the waste produced by industry and technology destroys more and more of the planet, just as in shots from Gore’s documentary. A montage sequence showing increased numbers of machines and cars, devastating pollution, dying birds, smoke stacks, nuclear explosions, humans wearing masks, and oil wells point to the painful repercussions of a population explosion. As the opening sequence nears the current time of the film, the photos slow down, revealing garbage dumps, more smoke stacks, polluted water, over-developed urban centers, and cities covered in smoke. Then the title, Soylent Green, comes up, with a setting note — The year is 2022. This is New York City, and its population has now reached 40 million.

As with movement from Gore’s opening shots of Tipper and himself on a river thirty years to more contemporary photographs of a changing Earth, these passing photographs reveal progression towards the film’s current setting. But they also demonstrate a nostalgic view of a past before over-population and environmental devastation. The nineteenth century photographs are yellow and faded, but the people they show us are happy, well-dressed, and relaxed. Later photographs show only the results of an overpopulated world — pollution, nuclear war, the death of nature. The first human enters the current setting only after the last montage shot of the polluted city. We hear a voice state something about “first stage removal.” Then in Thorn (Heston’s) apartment we see and hear the governor on an old television talking about soylent green. Sol (Edward G. Robinson) and Thorn (Charlton Heston) talk about what “books” can do to help solve a police case, but these people seem cramped in their dark apartment, not lazing happily on the ocean’s shore.   

Sol serves as the reminder of better times and a figure with assertions similar to those of Gore — when “real” food was plentiful and the natural environment thrived. When Thorn offers Sol some soylent crackers, Sol exclaims, “Now, when I was a kid, food was food.” But that was before people “poisoned the water, polluted the soil, [and destroyed] plant and animal life,” according to Sol. Sol remembers and looks back nostalgically on a world before the “green house effect,” the global warming Gore proves we must reverse. When Thorn leaves for work, the reason for such a dead world seems clear: people, so many that Thorn must climb over or through hundreds sleeping on stairs and in the streets. What was once a world of plenty has turned into a corporate dictatorship where only the rich can afford fruits, vegetables, and meat — food other than the soylents they produce. These scenes bring to mind Gore’s scenes of farmlands turned to deserts due to repercussions of global warming.

Food symbolizes the nostalgic world of plenty in Soylent Green. When William Simonson, a corporate executive, is murdered, it is the food he leaves behind that gain Thorn and Sol’s respect and attention — lettuce, tomatoes, apples, celery, onions, and even beef. Thorn takes the food — and some bourbon — as his reward from Simonson’s apartment. When Sol sees the beef, he weeps. “How did we come to this?” he exclaims. “Nobody cares. Nobody tries, including me. I should have gone home long ago.”

Since Sol remembers a better world, he creates a real meal for himself and Thorn and serves it on linen, giving Thorn the one set of real silver with which to enjoy it. After feasting on beef stew and apple, Sol exclaims, “I haven’t eaten like this in years.” But Thorn doesn’t remember more plentiful times: “I never ate like this.” “Now you know what you’ve been missing,” Sol tells him. “There was a world once, you punk.” Sol provides the memories Thorn is missing — of beef stew and strawberries stolen on a spoon. But their real meal is juxtaposed with Sol’s research on Simonson and Soylent Green.

Sol’s research, too, brings up memories — of his previous life as a full professor, with as many books as he could read. Now the elite have air conditioning, showers, and space. The masses sleep in piles and fight over genetically engineered food. With such a large population, “farms are like fortresses. Good land has got to be guarded, just like the waste disposal plants,” so there’s no place for Thorn and Shirl (Simonson’s furniture girl) to go. Intellectual property, too, must be guarded at what they call the Supreme Exchange.  At the Exchange “books,” former intellectuals including judges, perform research using the last real books, helping Sol solve Thorn’s murder mystery but also making a much more devastating discovery about Soylent Green. Their discovery prompts Sol to seek the ultimate nostalgia — home, the place he claims God might be found.

Going home brings up both corporate and individual nostalgia for Sol. Going home means going to a corporate hospital for termination, but it also means enjoying twenty minutes of the Earth’s past glory. In a clean and spacious room where he is served by two attendants, Sol lies on a comfortable bed and enjoys his favorite color and music as they surround him. But the memories of Earth — his home — are what he seeks here, eco-memories of deer in woods, trees and leaves, sunsets beside the sea, birds flying overhead, rolling streams, mountains, fish and coral, sheep and horses, and lots and lots of flowers — from daffodils to dogwoods.

In the end, Thorn shares Sol’s nostalgic moment. “Can you see it?” and “Isn’t it beautiful?” asks Sol. “Oh, yes,” says Thorn, with tears in his eyes. “How could I know? How could I, how could I even imagine?” he gasps — now understanding what he and the rest of the world has lost. Gore invokes similar techniques that draw on our eco-memories, but with less tragic consequences. If the science is right — and it seems to be, for the most part — then we can go “home” to a world more like that of the 1970s by making a few changes to our roles as consumers, not by giving up our lives.

With the knowledge of not only Earth’s losses but also its tragic future, Thorn readily sacrifices himself to provide evidence that Soylent Green is people. Nostalgia and memories of nature give him enough incentive to want more, to want what the corporations provide the dying only in 20 minute increments. So the closing credits serve not only as a reminder, an eco-memory, but a road to hope. The film closes with the scenes Sol had seen on his literal deathbed, but this time no death is connected to them. The film begins and ends with nostalgia, with scenes of what Sol calls home. And when Hatcher, Thorn’s superior officer, carries him away, it seems as though the corrupt political structures controlled by Soylent Green are breaking down. Even a cop on the take like Hatcher responds to the powerful message Thorn tells him.

Soylent Green is a film of the 1970s and responds to the civil rights and environmental movements as it critiques contemporary (corrupt) political structures But it also looks back fondly from 2022 to a world very like that of 1973 — especially after Earth Day and the EPA intervened — with nostalgia. More importantly for us, it employs the same strategies as does Gore in An Inconvenient Truth.    

Like Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth, eco-disaster films like Soylent Green provide overt environmental messages that serve as part of a public debate over “apocalyptic predictions.”  Right wing politicians supported Earth Day and the establishment of the EPA in the middle of the Vietnam War and diverse civil rights movements because environmental politics served a powerful cross-section of the electorate — not just what politicians would call a fringe. Soylent Green reflects this political change and the strategies of more radical elements of the environmental movement itself, in which a messenger, according to Bailey, acts as a prophet of doom. It also all embraces nostalgia for a world like the one Bailey believes we can regain — if the world gets richer. Bailey talks about the “huge environmental gains made over the past 30 years” and insists that “increased wealth, population and technological innovation don’t degrade and destroy the environment.” Instead, “such developments preserve and enrich the environment.”

Bailey, however, seeks to debunk apocalyptic predictions only by arguing that things have not become as bad as some thought they would — as soon as they said they would. Although he admits, for example, that “far too many people remain poor and hungry in the world” (800 million-1.2 billion according to Bailey), Bailey seems to discount their struggles because “we have not seen mass starvation around the world in the past three decades.”  And Bailey suggest that because “the amount of land devoted to growing crops has barely increased over the past 30 years” that “millions of acres have been spared for nature,” not recognizing that much of that land has been devoted to development of strip malls and sub-divisions. He argues, too, that overpopulation (a category of predictions he names after the movie Soylent Green) is less likely because fertility rates have decreased.

Bailey also argues that because (as he sees it) air pollution has decreased, our main concern should be increasing other nations’ wealth, since

“once … income thresholds are crossed, societies start to purchase increased environmental amenities such as clean air and water.”

He suggests that “similar trends can be found when it comes to water pollution.” In spite of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, Bailey also asserts that

“there’s a broad consensus that exposure to synthetic chemicals, even pesticides, does not seem to be a problem.”

Bailey also dismisses arguments about

“depletion of nonrenewable resources, ostensibly disappearing biodiversity, and apparent global climate change due to human activity.”

For Bailey, “a far greater threat for the next century comes from environmental activists.” Then Bailey makes his own predictions — about how the environment will improve over the next thirty years because countries (both developed and developing) will grow wealthier. And that improvement is based on a nostalgic look at our Earth as a cleaner place where nature can thrive.

Although Bailey seeks to debunk the predictions made by what he calls apocalyptic prophets of doom, he, like these eco-disaster films from the 1970s, responds to Earth Day and the environmental movement with his own predictions immersed in environmental nostalgia. He points out the relevance of both the political and popular culture repercussions of Earth Day, even paying tribute to Soylent Green. And the environmental movement’s impact on popular culture continues (see for example 2003’s 28 Days Later and 2004’s Day After Tomorrow).  More intriguingly, films like these also contribute to environmental arguments. Soylent Green, Silent Running, and Omega Man may reflect predictions whose timing was off, but the films’ messages still resound and offer fair warnings.

Gore’s film supports the claims made in these earlier eco-disaster films. Global warming has already impacted on the earth in ways predicted by such prophets, with loss of arable land, destruction of forests, and influx of natural disasters that resemble repercussions of biological warfare like that in Omega Man and eco-disasters in Silent Running. Environmental nostalgia works in both these 1970s eco-disaster films and in Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth. The difference lies in the ways that nostalgia is evoked. Whereas the earlier disaster films drew on a current environment as the hope for a future world, Gore looks to a past, the past of these films’ context, to demonstrate the destruction to which we have already contributed. Gore does not play the role of an apocalyptic prophet in his film. He serves as a personal example and a conveyor of hope.

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