I’ve banged on about Soylent Green in this space several times already, in the recent past. Richard Fleischer’s 1973 sci-fi flick about too many people living on an overheated world in a not-too-distant dystopian future wasn’t particularly good, or popular, but it has proved eerily prescient about the world we’re living in today. Soylent Green, based on a novel written in 1966, was set in the year 2022. That was then, this is now.
And while rapacious corporations haven’t turned people into graham crackers yet — Soylent Green’s most talked-about plot twist — who today would put it past them?
Soylent Green’s more credible — and less catchy — prediction was its vision of a future world dominated by hellish, overcrowded cities divided along economic lines, where rampant homelessness is taken for granted and the air is too dirty to breath. The world of the future, according to Soylent Green, is of a despoiled planet that can no longer grow the food needed to feed “a near-future world where 7 billion people live cheek-by-jowl.”
Well. According to recent figures assembled by the World Bank, we’re already past 7.5 billion and counting. We’re past the point, in other words, that science-fiction writers like Harry Harrison (author of the original novel Make Room! Make Room!) foresaw as humanity’s worst-case scenario, unlikely in our lifetimes. After all, they call it science fiction for a reason.
It was hard not to think about Soylent Green the other day, when Sir David Attenborough, a patron of the climate activist group Population Matters, told the Radio Times — as reported in the Daily Telegraph and elsewhere — that a “frightening explosion in human numbers” threatens the future of humanity itself.
(Some detractors dislike the phrase “Save the planet,” since the planet itself will likely remain long after humans, and possibly life itself, have died out.)
“We keep putting on programs about famine in Ethiopia; thatʼs whatʼs happening,” Attenborough told the Radio Times. “Too many people there. They canʼt support themselves — and itʼs not an inhuman thing to say. Itʼs the case. Until humanity manages to sort itself out and get a coordinated view about the planet itʼs going to get worse and worse.”
Attenborough said humans are threatening their own existence and that of other species by using up the world’s resources. It isn’t just a question of overpopulation but overconsumption.
The birth rate in the developing world may be increasing exponentially in some cases, but the real heart of the problem — and possibly the easiest for climate-conscious citizens of the developed world to tackle — is our own desire for more, more, more. An inconvenient truth of climate denial is that, even as educated people in the western world have smaller families, it doesn’t much matter if one person in, say, Edinburgh, consumes as much in a single year as an entire village in Ethiopia.
It’s not too late, Attenborough insists in the Netflix documentary program Our Planet, though we’re getting there. It will take courage and fortitude, though, a willingness to admit our own mistakes and the resolve to do something about it.
That’s starts with choosing the right leaders, and deciding what we can do ourselves, on our own.
It’s a big job, and a vitally important one. It can’t all be left to a16-year-old climate activist.