15

Soylent Green (1973) takes place in the 2040s and the population has become so great that they used up all the foodstuffs on Earth. Starvation is rampant so a company creates an edible product called Soylent Green

SOYLENT GREEN IS PEOPLE

If all people are being fed a huge amount of the population must be killed, not just a few people, so if a large amount of people must disappear why is the population still so dense?

3
  • 4
    I don't recall people actively being killed to make it, I assumed Soylent Green was made from the bodies of people who died of natural causes.
    – Celeritas
    Commented Dec 16, 2014 at 3:25
  • 1
    @Celeritas If you call being crushed when scooped into a riot truck "natural causes" then you are correct.
    – user20155
    Commented Dec 16, 2014 at 4:43
  • Eh, it was okay. Commented Nov 7, 2022 at 10:27

5 Answers 5

28

Film

In the film, the books that Sol acquires (catchily titled "Soylent Oceanographic Survey Reports I+II") show that there has been a recent collapse in food supply from the oceans. In response to this disaster and the inevitable food riots, we learn that a new foodstuff called Soylent Green has started to become available. This is replacing the existing food supplements; Soylents Red, Yellow and Blue which we see in the market scene and which are presumably made from seaweed (the source novel refers to them as "weedcrackers").

Richard: [TV announcer] ... is brought to you by Soylent Red and Soylent Yellow, high energy vegetable concentrates, and new, delicious, Soylent Green. The miracle food of high-energy plankton gathered from the oceans of the world.

... (later)

Det. Thorn: Ocean's dying, plankton's dying ... it's people. Soylent Green is made out of people. They're making our food out of people. Next thing they'll be breeding us like cattle for food. You've gotta tell them. You've gotta tell them!

It's not ever made clear whether Soylent Green consists solely of ground-up people or whether it's simply being mixed with the existing seaweed protein to bulk out the new tablets but you can see that the other Soylents are being sold at a huge discount, presumably because their protein count is very low and has been padded out with inedibles.

My interpretation is that this was a stop-gap solution to the population becoming increasingly violent rather than a sustainable solution to feeding the populace over the long term. At the end, when the reveal is made, the likelihood is that it will lead to the collapse of the existing order but possibly also a toppling of the elite who evidently get to eat steak and drink milk.

Novel

The novel on which Soylent Green is based ("Make Room! Make Room!" by Harry Harrison, 1966) is explicit that the reason for the overcrowding is simply that they've projected the current birth and death rate trends forwards into a 'near future' world where 7 billion people live cheek-by-jowl.

"In 1950 the United States—with just 9.5 per cent of the world's population—was consuming 50 per cent of the world's raw materials. This percentage keeps getting bigger and within fifteen years, at the present rate of growth, the United States will be consuming over 83 per cent of the annual output of the earth's materials. By the end of the century, should our population continue to increase at the same rate, this country will need more than 100 per cent of the planet's resources to maintain our current living standards. This is a mathematical impossibility—aside from the fact that there will be about seven billion people on this earth at that time and—perhaps—they would like to have some of the raw materials too.

In the book, there's no "big reveal" at the end. There's simply too many people and not enough food to go around, especially amongst the poor. It's a typical overcrowded dystopia.


6
  • 18
    Seven billion people... imagine!
    – Robert
    Commented Dec 15, 2014 at 18:42
  • 7
    @Robert - Why, we'd be packed in like sardines.
    – Valorum
    Commented Dec 15, 2014 at 18:43
  • 4
    @RobertF - We see them going into the hopper and shortly afterwards we see the end-result in the factory.
    – Valorum
    Commented Dec 15, 2014 at 19:30
  • 3
    @Richard - It's a big factory, with all sorts of belts going this way and that. Poor Detective Thorn probably got confused & flustered after his friend's death. Here, Detective, why don't you lay down on this soft bed and watch a big screen TV, let our pretty attendants make you comfortable. Take a little nap and we'll get everything sorted out...
    – RobertF
    Commented Dec 15, 2014 at 19:42
  • 6
    Fun fact - this kind of projection nonsense is centuries old, and so well-developed as a trope in economics that it is called "Malthusianism". Commented Dec 15, 2014 at 19:43
5

The movie depicts 40 million people residing in New York City alone, which is extremely high, yet one could reason the population may have been even denser prior to Soylent Green production. In addition, hungry people may be flocking to New York City from depopulated rural areas to find food.

The movie does refer to other sources of food being scarce but not completely absent (indeed the elite enjoy meat and fresh produce), and that resorting to cannibalism of the elderly is a deperate ploy by the authorities to feed an overpopulated Earth (and perhaps a grim solution to reducing the world population).

BTW this question was investigated in this 2011 article, with the finding that cannibalism is not a viable long term solution to maintaining the human population:

Those victuals translate into about 60,000 kilocalories. Humans need 2,000 to 3,000 kilocalories a day for sustenance. (The "calories" listed on nutritional labels are actually kilocalories.) Assuming there was barely enough chopped-up man-meat to go around and the cannibals were getting only 10 percent sustenance per day based on a 3,000-calorie diet, a single person could provide 200 days of sustenance to the person who eats him.

Even so, Vogel writes, "a population would have to sacrifice nearly two of its adults each year for each of its (surviving) members. That means [the population] would decline by almost an unthinkable two-thirds each year."

1
  • 8
    FWIW, Randall Munroe ran the figures for an XKCD What-If column and he comes about with a figure of 32 months for the current populations. what-if.xkcd.com/105
    – FuzzyBoots
    Commented Dec 15, 2014 at 16:48
4

The population seems "dense" because there is a scarcity not only of real food, but also of jobs, shelter, etc, that would give the impression that there are too many people if there wasn't a problem of overpopulation to start with.

I don't know if you are just talking about the movie or want to discuss also the original novel by Harry Harrison.

If I recall correctly, people are not really killed

specifically to make Soylent Green,

although an "euthanasical" form of suicide is encouraged by the government

and the bodies go the described end.

There are also some other "ingredients" in the Soylent Green (probably some of the ones used for Soylents Red and Yellow), that would make a little bit more viable that "production" system. Not that is sustainable, of course. Also remember that that kinds of Soylent are still produced.

Soylent Green is more a patch than a solution. If population in this story is to reach something close to equilibrium, it will be by the starvation of thousands (that will be used for you know what), and still won't happen any time soon.

3
  • 1
    "If I recall correctly, people are not really killed..." Aren't the big loaders in the beginning of the film scooping up protestors from the crowd and (presumably) delivering them to the soylent green factories?
    – RobertF
    Commented Dec 15, 2014 at 20:10
  • 1
    @RobertF,I don't think they get intentionally killed (or harvested) to gather raw material for Soylent green. Just, people get killed as consequence of riots and the like, and that comes handy for the S.G. factories. Otherwise people would start to get suspicious sooner that something is going on ("Why are the authorities arresting so many people that we never see again? Why is that truck just taking people way?" etc.)
    – Kreann
    Commented Dec 15, 2014 at 21:14
  • @RobertF - No. Those are simply riot wagons. They scoop up the food protesters and take them to jail
    – Valorum
    Commented Dec 15, 2014 at 22:12
3

It's mentioned in the movie that Soylent Green is a fairly new (and popular) food product. Soylent Green isn't the only food source, it's a new addition to the existing - and increasingly inadequate - food sources. It's shown in-universe (more-or-less) that it's highly processed, so it's presumably sterilized to avoid the bacteria and viruses ("germs") that long pig can carry. One of the major downsides of cannibalism is increased risk of infection - many germs are species-specific. It's worth noting that prion diseases weren't well understood at the time the book and movie were made, but science-marches-on.

My guess is that institutional cannibalism isn't meant to be sustainable; it's meant to serve the dual purpose of reducing the population while also feeding the ones remaining.

For further reading on this delightful subject, I recommend Harry Harrison's Make Room! Make Room! (1966), Jonathon Swift's A Modest Proposal (1729), and Anthony Burgess' The Wanting Seed (1962). There are lots of other examples, it's a fairly common trope.

3
  • 1
    Speaking of relevant tropes; tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/Main/CrapsackWorld
    – Valorum
    Commented Dec 15, 2014 at 22:13
  • You can't sterilize prions out of food. They infect proteins, so anything that would destroy them would also destroy the food. The best that you can do is to sterilize the butchering instruments in between uses (with bleach or acid). The better way is to not include prion-infected meat in the food supply.
    – Brythan
    Commented Dec 16, 2014 at 7:23
  • I disagree. There's more than sufficient info in the book and film to identify the reasons for overcrowding.
    – Valorum
    Commented May 16, 2015 at 13:33
0

This is all spoilers -- this is a half-century old movie. Greetings from 2022! It has yet to happen. I do recall thinking when I saw the movie way back in 1973 that cannibalism was not remotely a viable option especially since the method by which bodies become available is too slow and labor intensive although there may be other ways of getting bodies besides what happens to Sol.

There are other issues: health issues and simply that people who are starving themselves do not provide much nourishment -- a Donner Party survivor discussed that eating someone who had starved to death was like consuming straw.

The original work and movie were both about dealing with overpop, not how it occurred iirc. I like that climate change is pointed to as a reason that growing food is very difficult. Even the richest, whose lives are immeasurably better than those of everyone else still are unable to obtain food that we today would consider acceptable -- the piece beef was both rare and (I am no chef) I think well below Prime or Choice -- making a stew seems like the way to go -- making a steak from it would have been a mistake.

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge you have read our privacy policy.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.