For my dear friend JR, more or less twenty-five months after having watched this together
NB: Those who have not yet seen Soylent Green may find many of the assertions in the following to affect viewing experience of the film, probably in negative ways.
Soylent Green, a science-fiction film released in 1973 that stars Charlton Heston as a police detective working in a catastrophically degraded New York City in 2022, is not a great film. For one thing, screen-writer Stanley Greenberg’s strongly patriarchal treatment of the story’s female characters seems highly problematic, as does the film’s opening montage—one that presents a slide-show of photographs which depict the ‘development’ historically experienced in the U.S., from small-agrarian communities peopled by European settlers to an urbanized, mass-industrial nightmare. That this brief glimpse into the history of the future-society depicted in Soylent Green excludes all reference to the lived-experience of those peoples who lived in North America before European colonization is unsurprising for a U.S. production, however offensive such a portrait may be.1 Detective Thorn, Heston’s character, is for his part hardly a particularly admirable human (much like the actor who plays him), at least until the close of the story. For all this, nonetheless, the film portrays a future society wracked by environmental collapse in which social barbarism holds sway. In this sense, it is to be hoped that it can be placed side-by-side with existing society in critical and fruitful ways. It is towards this end that the present work is directed.
The world-condition of the social environment presented in Soylent Green is, to quote Adorno, “deeply ailing.”2 Forty million residents are said to exist in the New York City depicted in the film, and there seems to exist a massive degree of homelessness of the part of the city’s denizens, for many in the film seem to sleep on floors or stairs. Some buildings in Soylent Green’s world feature gatekeepers armed with automatic rifles—socio-economic inequalities seen in the film’s society are stark, with a small privileged elite seemingly lording over a vast, materially impoverished majority. Food riots, a logical consequence of the generalized lack of access to food that at times prevail in the film, seem to be common events in Soylent Green’s New York; they are brutally put down by the police, including Thorn, in attacks that include the use of ‘scoopers,’ trucks that are designed to ‘scoop up’ the assembled masses and throw them into receptacles—quite like garbage. Almost no trees exist in the depicted New York City; the only ones that remain are located in the sanctuary fortuitously named Gramsci Park. The diets seemingly experienced by most in the film are vastly more impoverished than those experienced by those who do not starve in the present world; animal-based products such as eggs, butter, and meat are largely unknown, just as strawberry jam is essentially unavailable. Similarly, things like pencils, paper, and books seem to be goods available only to the materially wealthy. Significantly, the climate of the world of Soylent Green seems to have been subject to dangerous anthropogenic interference—as Solomon Roth, Thorn’s aging investigative assistant, remarks: “How can anything survive in a climate like this? A heat-wave all year long—a greenhouse effect! Everything is burning up!” Severe global warming, it seems, grips the future-society of Soylent Green. This is the background for the film’s most shocking revelation, made also by Roth: the food-product that constitutes the general diet of most people in the film—Soylent Green—is in fact derived from human bodies. The corpses of those who die, it seems, are shipped to heavily-protected industrial sites, where they are then processed into Soylent Green.
The world depicted in Soylent Green, then, is clearly a “world of horror,”3 one whose very “essence is abomination.”4 This world is at its base characterized by total “world alienation”5: instead of humanity’s having instituted sets of social relations promotive of dignity, justice, freedom, and rationality, it has come to cannibalize itself. In place of the giving “of the bread from one’s mouth, of one’s own mouthful of bread” to the Other, an act that Emmanuel Lévinas finds to constitute the very basis of human existence,6 history has established quite the opposite. The lived-experience of the world of Soylent Green, indeed, constitutes the very negation of Kant’s categorical imperative: “act in such a way as to treat humanity, whether in one’s own person or generally, always as an end and never as a mere means.” Clearly, human history itself has nearly always featured negations similar to those seen in Soylent Green, whether through colonialism, total war, or genocide. However important it nonetheless is to describe the various horrors of Soylent Green—or, indeed, of the existent—examining the ‘why’ for a given existing reality is surely also crucially important.
The basis for the total catastrophe seen in Soylent Green is the marriage of capitalism with massive environmental degradation and destruction. Although it is unclear exactly what kind of socio-economic system governed the past of the world depicted in Soylent Green, it seems to have been one incredibly insensitive to ecological considerations, given the condition to which it has driven the world in 2022. Historically speaking, only Western capitalism and Soviet ‘communism’ have proven capable of provoking the extreme environmental destruction seen in Soylent Green, as in the world today. It seems safe, though, to surmise that the world-condition shown in the film is the result of the historical trajectory of capitalism, given that the film’s opening montage seems to portray the ‘achieved past’ of U.S. capitalism as the background for Soylent Green’s plot. It is in any case clear that existing society in Soylent Green itself is ruled by an oligarchical business class at least in part populated by capitalists who profit off human death, especially of the abandoned and infirm elderly, who are encouraged to ‘go home’ at special suicide-assistance centers once they’ve had enough of life. The oligarchical interests that oversee this apparatus cannot “risk [the] catastrophe”—to their profits and power, it is to be imagined—that would likely result if the truth about Soylent Green were to be made known, hence their attempt to kill off those who investigate their business practices.
Such fascist-capitalists are of course not alone in actively working to defend the profound horrors of the status quo; the State in Soylent Green also protects it. In Gramsci Park, capital and the State are metaphorically seen coming together in an effort to consolidate their hegemony over unfree humanity: a representative of the Soylent Corporation meets with Governor Santini in the tree-sanctuary, where he informs the governor that Thorn’s investigation into Soylent’s operations is advancing. The governor, representing the interests of capital, responds by giving the hitman a carte blanche to deal with Thorn—essentially, to endorse his elimination, as Soylent’s directors had previously done with William R. Simonson, whose murder Thorn is at the opening of the film assigned to look into. In general terms, much of the profundity of the human predicament shown in the film surely has to do with the “greenhouse effect,” or global warming, that Sol identifies as having ravaged the planet early in the story; as Thorn explains to Lieutenant Hatcher as he lies dying after he himself learns of the truth about Soylent Green, “the ocean’s dying,” and “the plankton’s dying,” leading to the “solution” promoted by Soylent. Of course, the question of what gave rise to such catastrophic environmental changes returns us to consideration of the dominant social system of Soylent Green; its nature is rather clear. The possible future-outcomes for capitalist society as portrayed in Soylent Green, it should be said, are ones that have long been warned about by various legitimate observers.7
Within the fascist-capitalist constellation depicted in Soylent Green, we find patriarchy to be entirely ascendant, at least among the more materially privileged classes.8 Cheryl, a young female portrayed in the film, is considered “building furniture” to the occupant of the apartment rented by Simonson at the film’s beginning. It seems that the social behavior expected of Cheryl is for her to act as little more than diversion for her various masters, functioning perhaps in this sense as something like the arcade-game we see her playing in the first scene in which she appears. In general terms, the violence of patriarchy seems to be highly prevalent in the world of Soylent Green; Thorn remarks to furniture-Cheryl at one point that she’s a “lucky girl” not to have been beaten by her former lover, given, it seems, that so many others are. As Thorn conducts a search of the apartment of Simonson’s bodyguard, moreover, he encounters the latter’s lover, who remarks that she “should have offered [him] something,” to which he responds rather flatly: “If I’d had the time, I would’ve asked for it.” Placing this exchange within the context of the film’s patriarchy is not of course to suggest that sexual promiscuity necessarily entails exploitation or degradation, but rather to suggest the degree to which Thorn sees women as instruments for his pleasure. He clearly practices such behavior with Cheryl; even after having gotten to know Cheryl somewhat, and seemingly to have moved away from viewing her solely as a sex-object, Thorn tells her he considers her to be “a hell of a piece of furniture.” Such offensive treatment of Cheryl continues to the very end of the film, when Thorn tells Cheryl over the phone as Soylent-affiliated agents close in on him that she should “stay” with the new occupant of the apartment formerly held by Simonson, even if, as we learn a few scenes before, she will likely find herself subjected to entirely degrading treatment at his hands.
Beyond the patriarchy he affirms and advances in the film’s plot, Thorn, who, next to Sol, ultimately serves as the hero of Soylent Green, is clearly plagued by other significant limitations. Clearly, his participation in the police-force, and especially in riot-control operations against masses of impoverished and hungry New York residents, seems deeply problematic, though it is true that he ends up dialectically using the knowledge gained through his police investigations to attempt to make known the truth regarding Soylent Green—and hence to inform humanity of its dire need to overturn the prevailing state of affairs by overthrowing constituted power. Before he comes to learn what Soylent Green in fact is, though, he expresses hegemonic maxims that would be expected of a patriarchal man who works for the police: reflecting in an intimate scene with Cheryl, he claims to agree with prevailing practices that see military-style control practiced over key production sites: plankton ships, Soylent plants, farms, and waste-disposal plants. “Good land’s got to be guarded,” he asserts, in violent contradiction of non- and post-capitalist commentators, who see in the private control of property a means that could be socialized to promote distributional patterns based on considerations of justice and need—a general policy proposal that would seem to promote humane change in the world of Soylent Green, as in the present one.
The various limitations seen in Thorn’s character are shared generally by many aspects of the perspectives advanced in the film. For one thing, Soylent Green seems to affirm much of contemporary ‘environmentalist’ discourse that suggested environmental problems to have been largely the result of population growth and ‘over-population’: Sol Roth asserts at one point in the film that there are simply “too many—far too many” people alive in the world. The main problem with such interpretations of environmental problems, it seems, is that they over-emphasize population questions to the exclusion of consideration and critique of social systems like capitalism, though as we have seen, such an either-or treatment is not found in Soylent Green. David Walsh’s lamentation in his review of Children of Men—that the film, as is the case also with Minority Report and V for Vendetta, makes little attempt to explain how it is that British society “has become so oppressive”9—could perhaps be directed as well to Soylent Green, although we have here attempted a rough reconstruction of this question from the evidence available to us. Films, of course, should not be required to name capitalism—or, perhaps more convincingly, domination10—as the world-problematic to be abolished, as Walsh seems to suggest; in the case of the three films considered by him, indeed, viewers can certainly be expected to come to conclusions along such lines by themselves through experiencing such films. The potential for radical reflection resulting from the watching of Soylent Green and films like it—Children of Men, Planet of the Apes (1968), Blade Runner, and Syriana come to mind—surely means that the watching of such films should be advanced and promoted.
For all these limitations, then, Soylent Green is nonetheless surely an important film worthy of contemporary reflection. As stated at the outset, the plot’s action takes place within a world subject to acute environmental crisis in which barbarism holds sway—a situation not terribly different from the contemporary world or its likely futures. The absolute depravity of the behavior of the Soylent Corporation, it must be said, is clearly reflected in the limitless barbarities advanced by business interests in the present world, the ‘development’ of hydrocarbon resources and the not unrelated triggering of potentially catastrophic climate change being two prime examples of such. That the “oceans” and “plankton” are dying in the future-society of Soylent Green is sadly a reality seen in the actual world, considering that the world’s oceans are today for all intents and purposes dying: due to the mass-emissions of carbon dioxide that industrial-capitalist societies have engaged in since the eighteenth century CE, the oceans are acidifying at rates not seen for 65 million years; more acidic oceans, as is to be expected, pose dire threats to marine life.11 The British environmental journalist Mark Lynas, summarizing the findings of a number of predictive climatological reports, expects vast ‘marine deserts’ to result from acidification processes that would exist in a world with an increased average-global temperature of 2°C—the ‘safe-warming limit’ endorsed by most hegemonic global institutions.12 Given an average-global temperature increase of 6°C—the worst-case scenario considered by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change as possible within the twenty-first century, and an outcome to which humanity at present is committed to ‘realizing’13—the world’s oceans are to be essentially bereft of all life, as are to be the world’s continents.14 Food production in much of the world under conditions of higher average-global temperatures is to be severely compromised15; the possibility that power-interests are to resort to the “Fortress World” envisioned by the Global Scenario Group, and highly authoritarian modes of social control generally conceived, is not to be discounted16—nor, even, is the resort to the limitless horror of mass-industrial cannibalism depicted in Soylent Green, for such would be entirely commensurate with the “expediency” that a representative of the dissident intellectual group The Exchange identifies in the behavior of the Soylent Corporation, a characteristic of the “antireason of totalitarian capitalism”17 hegemonic on Earth today. From these considerations, then, it should be clear that Soylent Green has much to teach us much about the world in which we reside.
As serious an indictment of hegemonic social relations as Soylent Green is, the film’s importance to the present is certainly not limited to its highly negative portrayals of the “iron cage” created by capitalist modernity. The Central-/Eastern-European dissidents who constitute the Exchange, in their commitment to squaring with the enormity of horror advanced by Soylent and to making knowledge of such publicly available, represent the “spirit of humanity,” as weakened and corrupted as such seems to be in the film’s world. In this sense, the members of the Exchange parallel the historical and contemporary efforts of Anton Schmidt, the Bielski brothers, Mads Gilbert, the White Rose, the Zapatistas, and anti-fascists generally, all of whom resist and rebel to defend humanity.18 Soylent Green also stresses the importance of the use of reason, symbolized in the efforts of Sol Roth and the Exchange as well as the investigations carried out by Thorn, in allowing humanity the chance to come to grasp the profound horrors of the existent and hence make possible its extrication from such. Moreover, in perhaps the most moving scene of the film—when Thorn arrives to the processing center where Sol, appalled by the knowledge regarding Soylent that he has come to learn, has requested his own death—viewers are presented with stunningly beautiful montages of nature-scenes from the Earth as it had existed in times previous to those experienced in the film’s world. Besides reflecting the remarkable destruction of experience seen in the world of Soylent Green—Sol comes to be able to experience nature’s beauty only in his death-throes after sacrificing himself to Soylent after learning of the limitless horrors it promotes—the scene arguably acts as a sharp criticism of the profoundly tragic nature-destruction engaged in by existing society; to the question of “Isn’t it beautiful?” posed by the dying Sol, Thorn, who coerces one of the facility’s attendants into allowing him to witness the nature-montages, responds emotionally by remarking, “How could I know? How could I have ever imagined?” The world’s beauty, then—being presently so brutally destroyed by capitalism and modernity, and having been largely eradicated in Soylent Green—serves as a means by which to “displace and estrange the world” as it is exists19 and as such advance the conclusion that its destruction must be halted, and the world be made anew.
Finally, the nature of Thorn’s character has important implications for the activist finale with which the film-makers end Soylent Green. Like the character of Honus Gent from Soldier Blue, Thorn represents tradition and hegemony during much of the film: he works as a police-officer to defend extant power relations, sees women as little more than sex-objects, and believes in private property. Like Honus, though, he over the course of the film comes to recognize the world which surrounds him as being governed by horror; by the end of the film, when he lies dying from the gunshot-wounds inflicted upon him by hitmen associated with the Soylent Corporation, he very clearly emphasizes the importance of the project recommended by The Exchange: that is, informing the public about the truth of Soylent Green. As he is carried away on a stretcher, Thorn is uncharacteristically beside himself with concern for life: he melancholically mentions that the oceans and plankton are dying just as he reveals to Lieutenant Hatcher and the assembled crowd the horrifying truth about Soylent Green—that it’s “made out of people.” He goes on to make Hatcher promise to assist The Exchange, just before he desperately cries, “We’ve got to stop ‘em somehow!” How it is that we could come to put a stop to the power-interests that today are in no uncertain terms precipitating humanity’s self-destruction is a question that deserves urgent consideration, as Thorn correctly stresses with his final utterance.
1I say ‘may be’ in the sense that, in omitting reference to Native Americans altogether, the fimmakers of Soylent Green may be saying excluding such peoples from complicity with the historical ‘progress’ seen in Soylent Green’s future U.S.
2Minima Moralia: Reflections on a Damaged Life (London: Verso, 2005 , §128
3Max Horkheimer and Theodor W. Adorno, Dialectic of Enlightenment: Philosophical Fragments (Stanford, California: Stanford University Press, 2002 ), p. 93
4Adorno, op. cit., p. 113
5Cf. Hannah Arendt, The Human Condition, as well as John Bellamy Foster’s treatment of the concept in light of the present threat of climate catastrophe in The Ecological Revolution (New York: Monthly Review Press, 2009)
6Otherwise than Being, or Beyond Essence, trans. Alphonso Lingis (Dordrecht, Netherlands: Kluwer, 1994 ), p. 74
7Cf., e.g., Allan Schainberg, The Environment: From Surplus to Scarcity (New York: Oxford University Press, 1980) , James O’Connor, “Is Sustainable Capitalism Possible?” in Is Capitalism Sustainable? Political Economy and the Politics of Ecology (New York: Guilford, 1994), or John Bellamy Foster, Ecology Against Capitalism (New York: Monthly Review, 2002)
8This question is left largely unexplored in the case of the proletarian masses shown in the film.
9“Cuarón’s Children of Men: Despair and hope in the near future,” World Socialist Web Site, 13 January 2007
10 As many self-identified anarchists have done, and as Horkheimer and Adorno do in op. cit.
11 David Adam, “Carbon emissions creating acidic oceans not seen since dinosaurs,” The Guardian, 10 March 2009; Severin Carrell, “Ocean acidification rates pose major disaster for marine life, major study shows,” The Guardian, 10 December 2009
12Cf. Mark Lynas, Six Degrees: Our Future on a Hotter Planet (Washington, D.C.: National Geographic, 2008)
13Steve Connor and Michael McCarthy, “World on course for catastrophic 6° rise, reveal scientists,” The Independent, 18 November 2009
14Lynas, op. cit.
16Gilberto Gallopin et al., “Branch Points: Global Scenarios and Human Choice,” 1997
17Horkheimer and Adorno, op. cit., p. 43
18Cf. Albert Camus, The Rebel (New York: Vintage, 1992)
19 Adorno, op. cit., §153