What are the consequences of ecological catastrophe and the obliteration of an ecosystem upon which the human is dependent for his very survival? When the human being is responsible for this dystopia, the deep irony of this situation presents itself, and this is precisely the focus of the cult classic 1973 film Soylent Green, directed by Richard Fleischer and starring Charlton Heston. As depicted in the film, an ecological catastrophe has emerged precisely because of the human being’s anthropocentrism and domination over the earth. The human being, namely, being lord of the earth, capable of manipulating its materials for his own gain, fails to grasp the sense in which our lives are fundamentally dependent upon this same earth. It is precisely this twist which the film investigates.
Amidst this dystopia, the film centers around a murder investigation, where Heston, playing a police inspector, must discover who has murdered a wealthy member of the Soylent Corporation. This murder narrative, however, is secondary to the greater ecological narrative which drives the film. The Soylent Corporation has become a hegemonic power in the world, able to provide food products in an ecologically exhausted world to the remaining human populace: the “Soylent Green” of the title. The film centers around a twist, which Heston discovers with this product: the food product is made of human beings. As Sandra Sapshay (2009) explains this twist, there is a double usefulness to this product: “they trim the excess (and excessively miserable) population, and they provide grim raw materials for the survival of the remainder of the population.” (p. 286) Those deemed expendable and a burden on society are turned into something useful: food for others.
What is most compelling about the film is that it shows how an anthropocentric perspective ultimately turns into anthropocentrism eating itself, described poetically by the philosopher Nicola Masciandaro (2012) as a being “gourmandized in the abattoir of openess.” The strength and value of the film namely is that it shows us directly what will be the consequence of our neglect of the environment, upon which we are dependent: we will ultimately be forced to turn on ourselves. The devaluation of ecological life is simultaneously a devaluation of human life, because the human is part of nature.
- Fleischer, R. (1973). Soylent Green. United States: MGM.
- Masciandaro, N. (2012). “Gourmandized in the Abattoir of Openness.” In E. Keller (eds.) Leper Creativity. Brooklyn, NY: Punctum. 234-242.
- Shapshay, S. (2009). Bioethics at the Movies. Baltimore, MD: John Hopkins University Press.