What we can learn from eco-thriller ‘Soylent Green’, 50 years on

The 1970s was the golden age of eco-thrillers, films and books that imagined not-too-distant futures in which the environment was so badly damaged that life as we knew it had become impossible. The greatest of these is unquestionably the 1973 film “Soylent Green,” which envisions a grim future in which most people have lost hope.

A product of its time, “Soylent Green” reflected the chief environmental and social concerns of its day: pollution, overpopulation, starvation, violent crime, social inequality and ecological collapse. It also happened to be set in 2022. So now, midway through that year, we can look back on “Soylent’s” predictions to consider just how accurate it was.

Harry Harrison’s 1966 novel “Make Room! Make Room!,” on which the film was based, was primarily concerned with overpopulation and the grossly unequal distribution of wealth. Published just two years before Paul and Anne Ehrlich’s “The Population Bomb,” the nonfiction bestseller that triggered a global panic over human population growth, Harrison’s novel was among the first to imagine the impacts of an unchecked humanity.

“Soylent Green” expanded on his work, following a story involving Charlton Heston as a police detective in New York City and his analyst partner, played by Edward G. Robinson in his final film appearance before his death in 1973. The basic narrative is a procedural crime, as Heston’s character investigates the murder of a wealthy individual under suspicious circumstances, at each stage exposing the viewer to another aspect of a world caught up in a slow apocalypse.

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