In 1973, actor Charlton Heston took on the lead role in an apocalyptic movie called Soylent Green. The movie is set in 2022, when the world is a grim and dangerous place. The human population of the Earth has risen to such a level that the natural resources of the planet can no longer sustain us – in fact, the Earth can barely sustain anything at all. In short, everyone, and everything, is in peril. The decades-long and reckless use of fossil fuels, widespread pollution, the greenhouse effect, and dwindling food supplies, have all ensured that the Earth as we know it today is no more. Forests, jungles, lakes, rivers, and the rich diversity of animals that once populated the planet are all but gone. Even the world’s oceans are rapidly becoming barren and sterile. Pretty much all that is left is the human race. And while numbers are growing, society is collapsing.
New York, where Soylent Green is set, is in chaos and resembles a war-zone. People live in cramped and crowded conditions; millions of them are on the streets, begging for food and shelter. Rioting is commonplace and the police have become definitively militarized. While a small elite group of people still has access to such luxuries as meat, vegetables, cheese and the many and varied food items that so many of us take for granted today, the billions upon billions of people that now swarm the Earth derive their entire sustenance from a product called Soylent. It is named after the powerful and mysterious Soylent Corporation that produces it. Resembling a wheat cracker in appearance, Soylent comes in three colors: red, yellow, and green. It is the latter which is the most popular – which, as will soon become apparent, is not a good thing.
Heston’s character, Robert Thorn, is a police officer who, while investigating the killing of one of the directors of the Soylent Corporation – a man named William Simonson – uncovers the terrible truth about Soylent Green. Officially, Soylent Green is made from plankton, taken from the oceans and refined into food. That certainly was the case in earlier years, at least. By 2022, however, the oceans are so polluted and screwed up that there is almost zero plankton left. This begs an important question: with the plankton gone, and the Earth’s resources all but spent, exactly what is Soylent Green now being made from? The answer is as simple as it is terrifying.
As Officer Thorn learns to his horror, the bodies of the newly deceased are being secretly transferred to huge processing plants. It is at these plants that the remains of the dead are converted into the world’s major form of food, Soylent Green. The movie ends in memorable fashion, as a shot and seriously injured Thorn cries out to anyone who will listen to him: “Soylent Green is people!”
Soylent Green brings to mind the imagery presented in the likes of The Walking Dead, albeit in a very strange and deeply skewed fashion. In the world of the zombie, the dead feed voraciously on the living. In the world of Soylent Green, however, the living feed equally voraciously on the dead – although, admittedly, the overwhelming majority of the population assumes they are eating modified plankton. In other words, the people of Soylent Green are the collective mirror image of the marauding monsters of The Walking Dead. In a curious way, in Soylent Green the human race has become the army of the undead.