Posted by Pablo Kjolseth on October 6, 2013
Harry Harrison wrote Make Room! Make Room! in 1965. It was published a year later and in 1973 was turned into the feature film Soylent Green by Richard Fleischer, starring Charlton Heston. Harrison was clearly influenced by Malthusian theory, a stance that might be summed up by the 18th-century British cleric and scholar in one concise sentence: “The power of population is indefinitely greater than the power in the earth to produce subsistence for man.” Over the years, critics of Thomas Robert Malthus have found plenty of fodder with which to reject his dire premise, mainly because the models used by Malthus didn’t account for the many ways in which human ingenuity would make many resources more readily available, and at lower prices, to the growing number of people inhabiting the planet. Malthusian critics might also point to the divide between Harrison’s scenario, which envisioned life in the Big Apple circa 1999 as being multiplied by a factor of five, going from seven million people in the sixties to 35 million by 1999. That didn’t happen, not in NYC at least (Tokyo, on the other hand, has now surpassed that number). Today, the population of of NYC hovers under the nine million mark, perhaps held in check by the exorbitant price of a martini, not to mention the going rate for monthly rent. Fleischer, working in the 70s, decided to hedge his bets by extending the date for Soylent Green out to the year 2022. He also contributed powerful imagery not found in the book of people being scooped up by garbage trucks, which also made for a very compelling poster.
When Harrison wrote Make Room! Make Room! there were just over three billion people on Earth. Now there are over seven billion people on the planet. In Harrison’s book he projected a world bereft of whales, which was thankfully off the mark. But not by much, since humpback whales alone are guessed to have once numbered around 1.5 million before the advent of 19th century whaling, and are now estimated to number 20,000. Other sea creatures are facing similar ruin; at moment somewhere between 70-100 million sharks are being killed every year. Could sharks, which were around when dinosaurs roamed the planet, now be facing extinction? Humans are certainly reeking havoc and having a massive impact on the aquatic realm and beyond. If current trends continue some estimates project that half of all species still in existence will be gone within a 100 years. Harrison and Fleischer’s combined talents deliver many shocks, but they pale in comparison to what can now be found one-click away on the internet (file under: abandon all hope ye who enter here):
When Harrison wrote Make Room! Make Room! environmental consciousness on a governmental scale was just starting. It wasn’t until 1968 that Sweden first suggested the idea of having a U.N. conference on human interactions with the environment, which would finally come to fruition in 1972, the same year of Soylent Green‘s production. Although the concept of a greenhouse effect was first postulated in 1896 by Swedish scientist Svante Arrhenius (1859-1927), the mainstream media didn’t really latch onto it until the 1980s, the terminology then morphing into global warming, and now climate change. Harrison predicted food and water shortages, as well as extreme weather, mentioning dust-bowls as one of the reasons for food shortages. As anyone who has been displaced by storms or floods can tell you, the scarcity of potable water and a good day’s meal become of real concern during any calamity. Harrison also talks a great deal about birth control.
Harrison never mentioned Soylent Green, but he did talk about soylent steaks, soylent wafers, and other convenient man-made food forms that were made from plankton and algae. The film, famously, shifted our shock from that of a small caste system of rich people living in luxury (while the rest of the over-populated world subsisted in abject poverty – which in and of itself was quite prescient), to a nutritional paradigm based on cannibalism. The “Soylent Green is PEOPLE!” line deserves its immortality for so concisely conjuring the worst-case scenario of an over-populated planet beset by shrinking resources, and can be placed alongside Cormac McCarthy’s The Road as a prime example of the premium that protein-starved people can be expected to pay for survival under extreme conditions. But what Harrison gets right, which the film gets wrong, is that we are now seeing a bevy of research in the fake meat department (ie: Soylent Steaks), as well as other suggested paradigm shifts in our diet that have nothing to do with cannibalism, and everything to do with bugs and/or grubs:
In Soylent Green, there is a scene where Charlton Heston’s character cries in a part played opposite Edward G. Robinson. The tears were real. The reason for this is that both men knew that Robinson, acting in what was to be his 101st picture, was dying of cancer. They knew it was to be Robinson’s last picture, and the scene depicting him on his death’s bed hit close too close to home. Something was understood: it was the end of an era.
One week ago meteorologist Eric Holthaus made waves when he broke down into tears after reading the most recent results of the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), which he saw as a wake up call regarding our planet’s direction. He vowed to never travel by plane and even considered getting a vasectomy. These are the actions of an individual reacting to what he suspects is the end of an era for our species. He’s not alone. In Werner Herzog’s documentary Encounters at the End of the World (2007), the scientists interviewed predict that humans have another 200 years before they meet a sad demise. These statements are made with broad brush-strokes and don’t account for our uncanny ability to adapt to severe circumstances. One of many questions unanswered is that of who, and how many, will adapt to the possible and extreme conditions on the horizon… it’s a question neither Harrison or Fleischer answer in a direct way. Both the author and director employed their respective talents to increase our awareness of a significant problem, and although the book and film diverge wildly on many fronts, they both make their mark and leave a lasting impression.
A Hopeful Note.
It’s kind of amazing to think that Fleischer, the same director behind Narrow Margin (1952), could also bounce around and do films like Doctor Dolittle (1967) and Tora! Tora! Tora! (1970), among many others. They guy was prolific, with around 50 films to his name. He ends Soylent Green with the same scenes of nature that flashed on the screen as Robinson’s character was dying, to add a bittersweet note and remind viewers of what might be lost if we’re not careful.
Harrison also leaves behind a rich and diverse legacy of work. His fantastic range and imagination alone are a testament to the fact that humans are capable of a whole bevy of amazing, wonderful, and creative achievements (see link below). He dedicates Make Room! Make Room! to his son, Todd, and his daughter, Moira, adding ominously: “For your sakes, children, I hope this proves to be a work of fiction.” If Harrison alone could create so many fantastic worlds, surely humanity can summon up the collective imagination to save the one we’re on… one hopes, anyway.
For info on when Soylent Green screens on TCM and more:
The issue of over-population reminds me of a home-town hero who passed away last September. Al Bartlett was famous for a speech on exponential growth that, at last count, he delivered 1,742 times. It has been posted to YouTube, where it has been viewed by almost five million viewers. Below are links to both the YouTube speech and a recent tribute piece written by Paul Danish:
For those keeping score of adaptations of Harrison’s work being made for the screen, I urge you to check out the latest news on the Bill, the Galactic Hero, which comes to us courtesy of director Alex Cox:
May Harrison’s spirit live on, and may Alex’s project to “the Skies Avaunt!”
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