Overpopulation, Cannibalism, and Racist Fear in Soylent Green

Scroll this

Support NiCHE Today

The Network in Canadian History and Environment (NiCHE) is a volunteer-led, not-for-profit public history organization dedicated to the dissemination of environmental history research in Canada and building a network of researchers. We make a blog, book reviews, news & announcements, a monthly newsletter, a podcast, videos, a peer-reviewed journal, teaching/research resources, research project websites, and more.

If you like what we do, consider becoming a supporter today.

There is a prevalent, though barely acknowledged, fear that as our population grows and we run out of food we will begin to eat each other. This fear is not dwelt on at length, or even explicitly stated, in the writings of most demographers. And yet the idea of cannibalism crops up surprisingly often in the writing inspired by overpopulation crises. These mentions of the unmentionable, though they seem inconsequential at first, demonstrate an anxiety that links overpopulation and cannibalism. This anxiety stems from a fear of being consumed by the Other.

The fear that links overpopulation and cannibalism, and the racism which fuels it, is expressed most clearly in the 1973 film Soylent Green. In what follows, I will read Soylent Green as a condensation and clarification of the otherwise murky relationship between demography and anthropophagy. In order to situate Soylent Green within the problematic demographic rhetoric of the 1960s and 70s, I read it alongside Paul Ehrlich’s influential 1968 book, The Population Bomb.1

Soylent Green

Soylent Green begins with an opening montage that compresses more than a hundred years of American history into a frenetic sequence.

One early image in the above montage shows a horse-drawn trolley ridden by well-dressed white passengers and driven by a solitary black man. As the montage progresses, crowds of people, polluting industry, mass-consumption, and traffic indicate that as the century wears on things are only getting worse. While the montage effectively conveys the damages that capitalism has wrought on the environment, it also yearns for a time in American history defined by endemic racism. As Michelle Yates observes, the film’s environmental nostalgia “asks audiences to re-invest in hegemonic white masculinity, a system of power and oppression intimately linked to capitalism.”2

Soylent Green “asks audiences to re-invest in hegemonic white masculinity, a system of power and oppression intimately linked to capitalism.”

Michelle Yates

Soylent Green follows detective Frank Thorn (Charlton Heston) as he tries to solve the murder of a prominent businessman named William Simonson in a very crowded New York City. Simonson was a board member of the corporation Soylent, which feeds half the world with its freeze-dried crackers. Thorn spends the bulk of the film searching for a motive in the Simonson case, which hinges on a mysterious ingredient in the company’s most popular wafer, “Soylent Green.”

We are introduced to Thorn in the apartment he shares with Sol Roth (Edward G. Robinson) who works as Thorn’s “book,” or researcher. Sol is old enough that he remembers a time when there were less people, a natural environment, and “real” food.

In the world of the film all the injustices enumerated by Sol in the above clip have been caused by one thing: overpopulation. 

The Population Bomb and the Racist Underpinnings of Overpopulation Discourse

Sol’s concern about too many people is echoed in Paul Ehrlich’s influential book, The Population Bomb. Published in 1968, the book propelled the issue of overpopulation to the forefront of environmental discourse. Ehrlich mobilized dire prognostications and forceful rhetoric in his bid to convince the American public that overpopulation was the most significant threat to human life on the planet. In his desperate plea for action, Ehrlich unconsciously drew on his fear that the rapidly growing populations of the developing world would overwhelm North America, consuming their resources and demanding their way of life.

The Population Bomb, like Soylent Green, predicts that in the near future the crisis of overpopulation will reach apocalyptic proportions. Both texts were produced during a unique moment in human history. It had taken until around 1800 for humanity to reach the one-billion population mark; the second billion was added in another 125 years, and the third arrived in 1960, just thirty-five years later.3 From the perspective of the late 1960s, it looked as though the world population would continue to double at this alarming rate until some global calamity.

The cover of The Population Bomb and Ehrlich's overpopulation graph.

Throughout The Population Bomb Ehrlich refers to overpopulation as a disease and the planet as a patient. For example, Ehrlich says:

A cancer is an uncontrolled multiplication of cells; the population explosion is an uncontrolled multiplication of people… We must shift our efforts from the treatment of the symptoms to the cutting out of the cancer.4

While Ehrlich would not characterize it this way, it is easy to read the cancer that he says must be cut out as a metaphor for India. India figures prominently in the book as the prime example of a country with runaway population growth and inadequate food production. At the beginning of the book Ehrlich describes a trip to Delhi (which at that moment was no more densely populated than New York City).5 Riding in a taxi to his hotel, Ehrlich recounts the fear he felt as he witnessed “People thrusting their hands through the taxi window, begging. People defecating and urinating. People clinging to buses. People herding animals. People, people, people.”6 What this passage reveals is that Ehrlich was not so much afraid of too many people as he was of too many Indians. India, as Ehrlich’s worst-case example of unchecked population growth, functions in the book as the planet’s cancerous tumour, the site of “an uncontrolled multiplication of cells” that must be dealt with by “radical surgery.”

“Ehrlich’s feelings about India are indicative of the patronizing, racist, and protectionist arguments that are prevalent in Neo-Malthusian and environmental discourse of the 1970s.”

Ehrlich’s feelings about India are indicative of the patronizing, racist, and protectionist arguments that are prevalent in Neo-Malthusian and environmental discourse of the 1970s. Underlying Ehrlich’s examination of the Indian “problem” is the assumption that if the standard of living enjoyed in the West is to be maintained, the growth in power and population in the formerly colonized nations is not to be tolerated.

“Cannibalism May Occur…”

Having established the prominent, and problematic, fears of overpopulation in 1970s environmentalism and science fiction it is now possible to return to cannibalism. Overpopulation and cannibalism are linked by their shared concern over the availability of food and their tendency to dehumanize. In The Population Bomb, Ehrlich mentions cannibalism only once, but his invocation of the practice is tellingly situated within a metaphorical comparison of overcrowded humans to animals. He says, “We know all too well that when rats or other animals are overcrowded, the results are pronounced and usually unpleasant. Social systems may break down, cannibalism may occur, breeding may cease altogether.”7

Waiting until the final minutes of the film to reveal what has been heavily suggested all along, detective Thorn utters the now infamous line “Soylent Green is people” while bleeding out in a church. The film ends as Thorn is carried away on a stretcher, exclaiming more confidently now, “Soylent Green is made out of people!”

These seemingly anomalous instances of anthropophagy in Soylent Green and The Population Bomb are in fact deeply intertwined with concerns about overpopulation. Ehrlich, Soylent Green, and its source novel, Make Room! Make Room!, are all deeply worried about non-white populations overwhelming the planet and demanding the resources enjoyed by those living in the West. Neo-Malthusianism can, like cannibalism, be characterized as a fear of being consumed by the Other.

Before the film Soylent Green demonstrated this shared anxiety, Thomas Malthus, the original doomsday demographer, drew a causal link between overpopulation and cannibalism. Malthus’ An Essay on the Principle of Population, first published in 1798, is best known for its claim that populations increase by doubling, while food production grows in much slower increments.

Malthus suggests, like Ehrlich and Soylent Green, that when populations exceed the carrying capacity of their environment, they may turn their appetites towards themselves. He states:

Cannibalism undoubtedly prevailed in many parts of the new world; and… I cannot but think that it must have had its origin in extreme want, though the custom might afterwards be continued from other motives. It seems to be a worse compliment to human nature, and to the savage state, to attribute this horrid repast to malignant passions, without the goad of necessity… When once it had prevailed, though only occasionally, from this cause, the fear that a savage might feel of becoming a repast to his enemies, might easily raise the passion of rancour and revenge to so high a pitch, as to urge him to treat his prisoners in this way.8

Malthus imagines being so afraid of being eaten that one is compelled to cannibalize one’s own enemies. He transfers his own fear of being consumed onto the “savage,” demonstrating the enduring link between fears of overpopulation and the “horrid repast.” This link, which emerges in only a few pages here and there in Malthus and his followers, is brought into focus by the film Soylent Green. Soylent Green expresses this underlying connection, demonstrating its basis in colonial anxiety.

“Scene from ‘Soylent Green'” by futureatlas.com is licensed under CC BY 2.0.

Notes

  1. Paul R. Ehrlich, The Population Bomb, illustrated ed. (New York: Sierra Club, [1968] 1969).
  2. Michelle Yates, “Crisis in the Era of the End of Cheap Food: Capitalism, Cannibalism, and Racial Anxieties in Soylent Green,” Food, Culture and Society 22:5 (2019): 609.
  3. According to David Lam, the world population did double between 1960 and 1999 (from roughly 3 billion to 6 billion), but, due to a changing demographic landscape, it is not expected to double again for a long time, if ever. He says, “It is virtually certain that world population will never again double in 40 years, making the 1960-2000 experience absolutely unique in human history.” David Lam, “How the World Survived the Population Bomb: Lessons From 50 Years of Extraordinary Demographic History,” Demography 48:4 (November, 2011), 1234.
  4. Ehrlich, Population Bomb, 148.
  5. Jonathan Sully, “On the Cultural Projection of Population Crisis: The Case of The Omega Man,” Criticism 58:1 (Winter 2016), 93.
  6. Ehrlich, Population Bomb, 12.
  7. Ehrlich, Population Bomb, 150.
  8. Thomas Robert Malthus, An Essay on the Principle of Population, or, A View of its Past and Present Effects on Human Happiness, 7th ed. (New York: Augustus M. Kelley, 1872 [1st ed. published 1798]), 25.
The following two tabs change content below.

Latest posts by Matthew I. Thompson (see all)

NiCHE encourages comments and constructive discussion of our articles. We reserve the right to delete comments that fail to meet our guidelines including comments under aliases, or that contain spam, harassment, or attacks on an individual.