Soylent Green and the reactionary Malthusians

Karl Marx didn’t mince words when it came to the Rev. Thomas Malthus, the ‘pastor of the Poor House’. Marx described him as “the greatest destroyer of all hankerings after a progressive development of humanity” and “a shameless sycophant of the ruling classes“.

(Apart from that, he wasn’t too bad, though!)

In 1968, Paul Erlich’s book, ‘The Population Bomb’, revived Mathusian dystopianism and, surprisingly, was embraced by some people who regarded thermselves as on the Left. Yet in emphasizing population growth and limited resources as the source of problems, the neo-Malthusians overlooked the capitalist mode of production and the structures of class power.

In the C19th, in blaming ‘too many people’ as the source of poverty, Malthus was indeed committing “a libel on the human race” and offering “apologia for the poverty of the working classes”.

The Canberra Times recently published my article below. It had been gestating for a long time and the movie ‘Soylent Green‘ prompted me to write something, given that the dystopian sci-fi film is set in our year: 2022. The movie came out nearly 50 years ago.

My article in The Canberra Times took up a full page, so I definitely can’t complain about the generous word length. However, had I had more words, I would have included at least three more references

First, a personal memory: In the mid-1990s, I was at a party at a friend’s place overlooking the Georges River in Sylvania Heights, Sydney, and the eminent palaeontologist and climate alarmist, Tim Flannery, was among the guests. We had known each other, briefly, at La Trobe University around 1973 or 1974, and struck up a conversation. Tim was very much concerned about population growth, believing that Australia was already over-populated. He told me that the optimum population for Australia was seven million people. I pointed out that that figure approximated the population in 1947 and asked whether he really wanted an Australia of the 1947 type. He seemed not to have thought of it like that, in terms of society, before.

I would also have liked to add more examples of very popular dystopian sci-fi films that have helped create a disempowering doom-and-gloom ethos and that were proven completely wrong in how they saw the future. A powerful example is the original ‘Mad Max‘. The filmmakers in 1979 were so freaked out by the oil crisis of 1973 that they set Mad Max in the ‘wasteland’ of 1985!

Thirdly, it’s worth noting that the Internet Movie Data Base lists the top 500 dystopian sci-fi films – which means there are many more than that. They really are a cultural phenomenon.

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Science fiction stories had a big impact on my early political development. I liked the ones that dealt with ‘the impossible’ that was nonetheless potentially possible. Unlike fantasy, which never interested me with its dragons and other mythical creatures and impossible scenarios, sci-fi had a basis in science and innovation. Stories and films about space travel, planetary exploration and colonisation of other planets thrilled me; they seemed beyond possibility back then but I loved to fantasize about a future in which they would be part of life. Later, I was influenced by ideas about how society itself could be reshaped into something much better and, through Marxism, came to a rudimentary understand about the forces that were retarding such progress and those that were pushing things forward.

It’s very rare to find progressive sci-fi in mainstream cinema today. An exception in the mainstream was the movie ‘The Martian‘ which came out in 2015. I really enjoyed the way it showed how humans can overcome obstacles imposed by Nature, in this case the apparently uninhabitable planet Mars. Human ingenuity, wit, courage, innovation and spirit combine to ‘conquer’ Nature. The stranded astronaut survives to tell the tale.

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Anyway, here is my article…

‘SOYLENT GREEN’ IS STILL BAD FOR YOU – 50 YEARS ON

Barry York

It is a brave science fiction film that offers a precise year in its speculations. This is particularly so in the dystopian genre where eco-catastrophe is a common theme.

The makers of the iconic ‘Soylent Green’, which was released nearly 50 years ago, offered us a glimpse to our own year, 2022. It was the first film to mention the Greenhouse Effect, though there is no suggestion that the inhumanly overcrowded, sweltering, society depicted is the result of CO2 emissions. Rather, all the problems in the dystopia of 2022 are caused by ‘overpopulation’.

The film was made in 1973 when the world’s population was 4 billion. Today, it is 7.7 billion. The filmmakers’ expected it to be much larger than that. Some countries, like China and India, with huge populations are lifting themselves from poverty. The United Nations Human Development Index, which has measured health, education, income, gender equality, and poverty since 1990, indicates that population growth and progress are not mutually exclusive.

Soylent Green is a type of biscuit on which the malnourished population portrayed in 2022 has come to rely. It was formerly made from plankton but then the oceans acidified. Soylent, the monopoly manufacturer, finds a new source, one that is not revealed until the film’s shocking end.

The action takes place in New York City, which in the film has a population of 40 million and is terribly overcrowded and polluted. (Reality check: New York City’s population today is 8.8 million). There is no sunshine, just grim darkness and power outages. The streets have people dying in gutters, car wrecks everywhere, and makeshift shanties in laneways. Tenements are dilapidated and their stairwells crowded with women and children who have nowhere else to sleep. The film’s main character, Detective Thorn, played by Charlton Heston, clammers over them to reach his small room.

In this imagined 2022, Manhattan has two million out of work. Corruption and crime are out of control. (Reality: crime has reduced greatly in New York City since the 1970s). In Thorn’s precinct, there are 137 murders a day. (Reality: there were 450 murders in all of New York City last year).

In the Soylent Corporation’s New York, everyone swelters as the days reach 32 degrees all year round. (Reality: Winters remain very, very, cold).  The masses line up at rusty central water pumps for their ration of water which has become a scarce resource. (Reality: New York City’s seven reservoirs are at 88% capacity).

Fresh food is a luxury for the great mass of people who are malnourished. But not so the rich. Thorn, who is probably in his late 30s, has to be taught how to eat an apple by his best friend, Sol, the elderly man of wisdom who remembers how things used to be in ‘the good old days’ before ‘our scientific magicians poisoned the water’. (Reality: New York City water is only poisonous if you regard fluoride as a poison). Sol is played admirably by Edward G. Robinson in his last cinematic role.

An exasperated Sol declares that ‘Everything’s burning up! No-one cares!’, but that is hardly true when it comes to climate change. Not only do governments around the world take action to reduce CO2 emissions, admittedly some more than others, but some of the biggest multinational corporations are on side as well.

At its core, Soylent Green is a reactionary film because it adopts the Malthusian view that ‘too many people’ cause the problems. The misanthropy is expressed through Sol when he says: ‘People were always rotten but the world was beautiful’. Beautiful – but for the people?! None of the world’s problems, such as lack of democracy and development, corrupt governments, oppression of women, inequality, nationalism, shifts in climate patterns and the rule of capital, would be solved by reducing population numbers.

Charlton Heston, a prominent right-winger in the US, commissioned the script for the film. The great divide between rich and poor is revealed when Thorn investigates the murder of a director of the Soylent Corp and enters the victim’s spacious apartment in the ruling class’ exclusive Chelsea Towers. The capitalists live in utter luxury with fresh food, water, air-conditioning and the latest mod-cons, including video games. But the film goes nowhere with this class divide; instead, the problem is overpopulation. Echoing the Rev Thomas Malthus’ ‘libel against humanity’, as Marx described it 157 years ago, it is the poor, tired, huddled masses who are responsible for their own suffering. A very convenient belief system.

There is one scene in which the people riot but that is short-lived and they are easily defeated, their bodies scooped up from the streets in large front-end loaders and taken off to… well, that would be a spoiler.

The film’s portrayal of women in the imagined 2022 is laughable. They are either part of the sweaty anonymous mass or beautiful ‘furniture girls’, who are assigned to each new tenant in the apartments of the rich. They do what they are told. It’s as though the Women’s Liberation movement never happened.

The film ends with poor old Sol going to a euthanasia clinic. Given his attitude to Humanity, who can blame him? It’s legal in 2022 and performed in clean comfortable circumstances. Sol watches beautiful scenes of Nature on a large screen – blooming flowers, blue skies, fluffy white clouds, streaming rivers, forests, ocean waves crashing gently on a beach – while his favourite classical music is played in the background.

He is nearly eighty, which approximates the life expectancy in New York today. But in 1973, when the film was released, life expectancy was seventy-one.

After Sol dies, Thorn secretly follows the truck carrying the corpse to an unknown destination. Dozens of bodies end up in a large warehouse and are then processed into… you’ve guessed it! – Soylent Green. Thorn screams out: ‘It’s made out of people!’ Not a bad metaphor for capitalism, actually, as a system that objectifies our labour potential and exploits and consumes the best hours of our lives.

As the end credits roll, we again see the scenes of beautiful Nature. My mind turns to recent road trips with my wife along the east coast of Australia and the glorious scenery.

Soylent Green inspired hundreds of similar sci fi films and influenced countless numbers of people with its unreal dystopian vision. Such films are a reflection of a social system that accurately sees no future for itself.

Soylent Green, and the ideology it represents, really are bad for us – toxic, in fact.

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