Monday, March 25, 2013

Soylent Green is the movie that made me a foodie

Back in the 1970s Soylent Green was a leader in the dystopia genre. The grim movie presented an overpopulated, polluted, and depleted world in which people were being secretly fed food biscuits made out of dead people. Makes the recent horse meat scandal sound a little tame doesn't it?

One of my very favorite actors of all time is the star of the movie: Charlton Heston.  I had always heard about this famous movie but it was not until about 2006 that I actually sat down and watched it. It had a profound effect on me. It was such a horrifying portrayal of the future that I could not get it out of my mind. I finally worked up the courage to watch it again this winter. It is an astonishing movie. The issues it presents are eerily relevant, especially global warming. In the story people are living in a never ending heat wave. Even in January in New York it is 90 degrees. The greenhouse effect is directly mentioned. Air conditioning is a luxury that few people have access to. Showers and hot water are also rare because resources are so scarce. Electricity is rationed. A man rides a stationary bike to generate power for a light bulb.

Throughout the story people say they won't take any risks that will cost them their job. If you lose your job then you will be in the street. The streets are clogged with millions of homeless, awaiting their food handouts. Armed guards sit at the doors to apartment buildings to protect residents from the unsheltered hordes. When the mobs riot they are controlled with the "scoops" that are big trucks that toss people back with big front loaders.

Food is mostly derived from plankton harvested from the oceans. The land has been depleted and poisoned and can no longer produce anything close to enough food for the world. The story is commenting on the deleterious effects of industrial farming practices that strip mine nutrients from the soil and pollute the land and water with pesticides and chemical fertilizers. Our existing food system is something that will ultimately fail.

The big secret in the story is that even the plankton-based food supply has collapsed. The Earth's ability to nourish humanity is utterly spent. This is why dead people are now going to the food factories because they are a source of protein. This of course is also a secret. Death centers promote assisted suicide to the masses as an escape from the misery of existence without mentioning that their bodies will be translated into mass cannibalism.

One scene that had a great impact on me was the one with the strawberry jam. The character played by Charlton Heston is a police detective and he'll steal anything of value that he encounters while doing investigations, especially food and things like soap. He comes home with a jar of strawberry jam but does not know what it is. He asks his older partner to taste it. After some thought the older man replies that it's strawberries. The concept of a world in which people would not recognize the taste of strawberries terrified me. This movie impressed on me the need to appreciate real food with real flavor. It also made me much more aware of the state of the modern food supply. Now I grow food and shop at farmers' markets and do my part to nurture a local food system. I want to encourage a food system based on a sustainable model.

Since I first watched Soylent Green I go strawberry picking every spring and make jam. That's the power of science fiction. It can dramatize plausible real world scenarios and impart a lesson.

No matter how things go in the future, I want to be certain that I still have strawberry jam. And when I eat highly processed foods that are usually crunchy and of uniform shape and color, I jokingly call them Soylent Green. Hopefully such snacks only contain trace amounts of dead people. Nothing a little monosodium glutamate won't fix up.