July 16, 2009

Learning to Eat Humans with a Spoon: Natural Security Lessons from Hollywood

By the year 2022, things have taken a decided turn for the worse in New York City – and the world in general, we’re led to believe – in the 1973 classic dystopian film Soylent Green.

In the opening montage, the viewer is presented with a series of images showing an increasingly polluted, overpopulated, and energy hungry world where the streets are full of trash and the buildings – quite literally – overflowing with people. New York City has a population of 40 million and an unemployment rate of about 50%, riots are common, and the climate is discussed as being a “heat wave all year long” thanks to the greenhouse effect. Most importantly, water is extremely scarce – with long queues for access to public spigots – and food as we know it is all but nonexistent, available only to the ultra-elite. In its place, people subsist on manufactured rations produced by the ubiquitous Soylent Corporation. These rations come in three varieties – Soylent Red, Soylent Yellow, and the eponymous Soylent Green, which is ostensibly produced from oceanic plankton, and is by far the most popular of the trio (it’s only available on Tuesdays, and when it runs out, riots break out that can only be controlled by police in football helmets and what appear to be backhoes).

Against this backdrop we’re introduced to detective Robert Thorn, portrayed by Charlton Heston at a point in his career when he was still more famous for his role involving God than his role involving guns. Thorn is called in to investigate the murder of a wealthy member of the Soylent Corporation board; ostensibly in a robbery. Thorn, however, is convinced it was an assassination. Along with his cantankerous police researcher roommate, Thorn defies political pressure to abandon the investigation and delves into the private world of the Soylent Corporation, where he makes a startling discovery. To the viewer, it’s not entirely unexpected – way too many people, way too little food… Yes, indeed, Soylent Green is people.

 So, from a natural security standpoint, how realistic is Soylent Green? To deal with the elephant in the room first, I think we can all agree that it’s been definitively proven that cannibalism is a bad idea, and probably won’t factor into future food rations anytime soon. However, the movie’s grasp of climate change issues and resource scarcity was surprisingly prescient. The movie is victim to the common science fiction tendency to overestimate the speed at which calamity will happen; nonetheless, while New York City probably won’t be experiencing a “heat wave all year long” by 2022, the movie’s grasp of the potential of greenhouse gas emissions to radically alter the planet’s climate was far ahead of its time.

Food riots, on the other hand, have already arrived, and are likely to continue as the world’s population grows and climate change alters today’s stock of arable land. Soylent Green projects a future in which arable land is an extremely valuable commodity – with “farms like fortresses” – which again is increasingly on-the-mark. Consider that the world is already witnessing the purchase of large tracts of arable land in foreign countries by wealthy governments and corporations in efforts to stave off food shortages, and suddenly the notion of a world in which food is scarce and control of it is largely centralized seems slightly less far-off.

Even if New Yorkers aren’t chowing down on each other by 2022, the security implications of these trends is fairly obvious. Riots of any kind have the potential to present large security problems, and riots over food scarcity in Haiti brought down the government, which has regional security implications that the United States cannot ignore. Furthermore, food and water scarcity have the potential to be huge drivers of migration, as refugees flow out of areas no longer able to support basic human life; these refugees can in turn threaten to provoke instability in the areas they flee to.

Soylent Green is, overall, an enjoyable movie. Although aspects of it are certainly dated to the modern viewer (we can evidently expect a return to 70’s-era style circa 2020), the fact that a movie could seems so out of place in the modern world, and yet so strangely relevant to our current circumstances is food for thought (pun intended). Just don’t watch it over dinner.

Film reviews will be a recurring feature by the Natural Security Bloggers. Stay tuned for reviews of Quantum of Solace, Waterworld, and other fine Natural Security Movies.