Scarcity and Waste

Last night I watched Soylent Green, the 1973 Charlton Heston film set in an overcrowded future America. Like Citizen Kane it has, for some reason, become known for its twist ending. That twist is actually one of the less interesting aspects of the movie, which is reminiscent of Blade Runner in its ceaselessly pessimistic imagination of human nature and our human future.

Heston plays Detective Thorn, a tough-guy cop who doesn’t always play by the rules but does right when it counts. Thorn lives and works in the New York City of 2022, home to 40 million packed-in souls (compared to 2010’s 8.1 million); according to an early line, there are 20 million unemployed people in Manhattan alone, although perhaps this should be dismissed as exaggeration. It is strongly suggested that the outer boroughs of the city now touch the Philadelphia city line somehow, presumably in New Jersey. The broader world, which we never see, is severely overpopulated and overpolluted, with dying oceans and fortress-like farms that can’t produce enough food for the teeming masses. Because of the greenhouse effect (whose inclusion demonstrates amazing prescience, given that the term “global warming” wasn’t even coined until 1975), the earth has become uncomfortably hot year-round, and the air in all exterior daytime scenes has a strong greenish haze.

The film takes part in the anti-urbanism of its day, which also produced such city-as-hell thrillers as Escape from New York (1981, set in 1997) and RoboCop (1987, set in “the near future”). Even as cities emptied out in the era of suburban sprawl (New York lost almost a million residents between 1950 and 1980), in the popular imagination they remained the site of overcrowded tenements and cheek-by-jowl poverty—and no place more than New York, the most urban of American cities. As science fiction tends to do, the film takes this contemporary fear of packed-in run-down apartments and exaggerates it into a claustrophobic city-world. Every time Thorn enters or leaves his apartment, there’s a scene of him half-stumbling up or down a staircase literally full of sleeping bodies. Every exterior daytime shot is full of people, desperate dirty people milling about, waiting in line, scrounging, sometimes rioting. When the detective visits the opulent apartment of the murdered rich man whose death sets off the events of the movie, the wide open rooms with their quiet emptiness seem almost as luxurious to the viewer as to Thorn.

But there are too many of these reprieves in the movie, and they lessen the impact of the dispiriting crowds.The staircase in Thorn’s apartment building is full of sleeping bodies because there’s a curfew at night and they can’t be out on the streets, but a large part of the movie consists of Thorn wandering through these empty streets. Another large part takes place in luxurious indoor spaces like the dead man’s apartment, but their quiet undercrowding would come as more of a relief to the viewer if the noisy overcrowding scenes were more relentless. It’s a shame, because the images of humanity filling every available space seem vital to the film’s central idea: humanity as abject victim of its own shortsighted excesses.

While the New York of 2022 may be overfull of people, it’s lacking in every resource and comfort imaginable: housing, meat, vegetables, eggs, strawberries, air conditioning, incinerators, clean water, soap, books, watches, trees. These are available only to the rich, for whom they’re generally plentiful. In one scene, Thorn attempts to fix his lieutenant’s watch for the umpteenth time; he tries for a bit and gives up, concluding that it’s really broken this time. It would be laughable to suggest buying a new watch. You fix what you have until it can’t be made to work even a little bit, and then you just don’t have it any more. You make do with a trickle of water to wash your hands after a meal of tasteless soylent crackers. You sweat all the time in the constant heat and shower only rarely, briefly, with no hot water. This is the ultimate vision of scarcity, and the viewer’s cultural competence will allow him or her to fill in the irony: that it was all caused by the heedless waste of our 20th century.

But the scarcity, as thematically important as the constant crowding, is also as insufficiently imagined. When Thorn steps into the bathroom in the dead rich man’s apartment and turns on the tap, his joy at the freely flowing fresh water is palpable. He splashes his face once. But he lets the water run for much longer than he needs to, as though there weren’t a voice inside him crying out to shut off the precious resource as soon as he’d finished with it. Late in the movie, Thorn’s aged companion sets out for a mysterious facility called Home. When he arrives, a smiling woman holds the door open for him, and he luxuriates in the cool air that escapes the air-conditioned building—it’s been years, no doubt, since he last felt air conditioning. But instead of walking inside to let the door shut, he stands outside for several seconds in the cool wash of air escaping, then steps in with no apparent sense of urgency. It sounds like nitpicking to begrudge the movie a few seconds of running water here, a few seconds of cool air there. But no one who’s experienced the sort of deprivation that makes up everyday life in Soylent Green could evince such nonchalance at the waste of a precious resource. It would be like a famine victim leaving food untouched at a meal.

In the four decades since Soylent Green was released, the environmental movement has established itself in mainstream American life and psychology (though not, unfortunately, in American politics). A generation has been raised with the ideas of recycling and carbon footprints. Most of us have not yet become the victims of our excess, and the world hasn’t yet been plunged into conditions of extreme scarcity, but I would argue that we’ve already absorbed the virtues of conservation to a much greater extent than anyone involved with the making of Soylent Green. Many of us, at least, feel an urge to turn off the tap when we’re not using it and shut the door when the AC’s on. No one knows whether we’re still destined to wind up in the film’s poor, teeming, broken New York City, but one way to prevent it might be to act as if we’re already there.

Cross-posted from Empire Avenue.

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