Soylent Green is People! So What?

posted in: The Quickening | 7

Author’s note: I wrote the below essay over the summer, while consulting with an organization devoted to fighting corporate food dominance and working to increase transparency in the food industry. But I have been holding it for the right moment (if ever there was one). Then, this past week, we discussed A Small Farm Future in our monthly book discussion. The hope and premise of the book is that we’ll intentionally move to a small-scale, low-input, and regenerative agricultural system that’ll better care for people and the planet. But as the discussion leader (and farmer) pointed out, farming is hard work, especially without fossil fuel support. And without skill, knowledge, experience, and a willingness to work really hard, farming isn’t going to draw many (until they have no other choice—but by then, what farmer will want hungry, reluctant, and unskilled workers to join them?). Instead, as we see in many developing countries today, it is more likely that people will continue to remain in cities (and slums), and most likely try to survive there rather than head for the metaphorical hills (and valleys). So in the context of that, I share this essay on Soylent Green, which, sadly, may be a more realistic vision of the future of food than we care to think.

Many of you have seen or are at least familiar with the classic 1973 eco-dystopian film, Soylent Green—one of my favorite movies ever. (And if you haven’t seen it, do yourself a favor and watch it. But the short of it is a New York police detective, Thorn, discovers, and then tells the world, that the popular food product, Soylent Green, “is made out of people…,” specifically from people who go to euthanasia (or Home) facilities to die in the highly overpopulated world of 2022!) I wondered, recently, what would have happened to the Soylent Corporation after the film ended. Sadly, probably not much. This letter from the CEO of Soylent to his shareholders says it all.

Hmm… Soylent Green is made out of people. Should I care?

A Letter to Soylent Shareholders

To the esteemed shareholders of the Soylent Corporation,

It is unfortunate that it was external sources rather than our own disclosures that were credited with revealing to the public from where we source our ingredients for our award-winning product, Soylent Green™. As our reports (which I do want to note for the record were and continue to be available at a number of libraries in major cities in our operating markets) clearly state, inputs are recycled from Home™ facilities and are rendered into high-quality protein, fats, carbohydrates, and micronutrients for our discerning customers.

We stand by our product; Soylent Green is nutritious and delicious and that is why we sell it at a premium. Soylent Red and Yellow do come from other sources—rendered animals and plankton, respectively (as our reports also detail). However, plankton sources have been under increasing stress due to climate change and oceanic plastic contamination and therefore, in order to continue to sustainably harvest these resources, we had to reformulate our Soylent Green product three years ago. (Note: in the medium-term, Soylent Yellow may also shrink in availability or undergo recipe adjustments due to supply chain limitations and thus could become a premium product as well.) We do recognize that our marketing department did not make this transition clear enough in packaging and promotional materials and we promise to correct that moving forward.

Moving Forward

Two important notes as we move beyond this public relations challenge.

First: inputs for Soylent Green are always screened thoroughly for disease, and only healthy sources are utilized. Rigorous quality inspection and testing are part of our brand promise. Plus, it is important to note that through our patented processing procedures, it is impossible to transmit any disease agents from source ingredients to the final product.

Second: people willingly enter Home facilities and in every service agreement, which all users of Home services are required to fill out and sign, there is a disclosure of what happens to their remains and an option to opt-out of this process for a fee. As you know, Home facilities are a subsidiary of the Soylent Corporation and it is only through this harvesting of nutrients that we can provide Home services free to customers. As with the source of Soylent ingredients, we have been transparent in this since the beginning.

It’s worth reading. Really.

As part of the agreement with the Department of Agriculture and Recycling, we have agreed to pay an annual fee to cover an additional government inspector at each of our manufacturing facilities as well as offer a coupon for one of our other fine products for those customers who write to our headquarters and send in a proof of purchase for Soylent Green (limit one per household). We will also now include clearer labeling on our food packaging and provide ingredient lists to all of our vendors (available for review by their customers upon request).

While this information may have taken the public by surprise, government officials were aware of our practices and understood the necessity of these actions and the relationship between Home services and Soylent Green production. Therefore, larger legal consequences are not expected, nor are significant consumer preference shifts.* We are confident that Soylent’s share price will remain robust and will continue its growth in future quarters.

We thank you for your continuing support and trust, and look forward to what appears to be a profitable year.

Sincerely,

J. B. Tyson, CEO of Soylent Inc.

*In the immediate aftermath of this information release, purchases of Soylent Green did fall 35 percent. However, sales are now back up to 93 percent of pre-release. Our share price, contracting briefly, is now 15 percent higher than pre-release, reflecting the resilience of and trust in the Soylent Corporation, as well as expectations for increased demand in our line of quality products.

Yes! Now Made with High Quality People! (Image from Bonhams with updates.)

On Cannibalism and Corporate Malfeasance

Considering corporations’ role in so many aspects of the sustainability crisis, I think about corporate malfeasance often (and have done so for more than 15 years). And recently, I’ve been having fun applying this to the fictional realm, as with Onceler’s Inc. some months back.

While researching the food industry over the summer, I got to wondering about the Soylent Corporation. Detective Thorn gave his life to warn people that “Soylent Green is made out of people.” But what would his self-sacrificing act of whistleblowing have accomplished? If there really were few other food sources, would anything change? Would it even be considered wrong to feed people to other people, assuming it wasn’t causing terrible diseases? Your gut, like mine, probably screams, ‘Of course it’s wrong!’

But is the wrong part the feeding people to people or the lack of transparency? I agree, viscerally, that it’s both. Cannibalism is a deep cultural taboo, though not in all cultures (and perhaps less so in famine or siege times when cannibalism is often a means of survival). So, assuming people know their bodies are going to feeding others when they die, and consumers know what they are eating (and there really are no negative health consequences1), is it still wrong?

I still want to say, yes, though like the Soylent board member in Soylent Green explains—as he accepts death willingly from his assassin—perhaps it’ll one day be “necessary” because we failed to make the sacrifices needed today to live within nature’s limits when we still had the agency to do so. I do worry this fictional dilemma one day could become a real one—even more expediently solved than in this film (perhaps through a new fast food chain called “SecretBurgers,” as Margaret Atwood muses in her MaddAddam trilogy). A warning, certainly, for all of us. And while disturbing, I have to admit I had fun putting myself in the mind of the Soylent CEO justifying and spinning the exposure of dirty secrets into a net win for the company—a regular rite of CEOs that isn’t very fictional at all!

Rest in Peace, Thorn. You did Soylent Inc. a great service.Sincerely, J. B. Tyson. (Still from Soylent Green)

Endnote

1) Of course, how could you trust these findings in a world where there is no transparency? So that complicates things further.

Share this Reflection:

7 Responses

  1. Tom Read

    G’day Erik,

    This is one of your most provocative, entertaining* and disturbing Reflections ever.

    As you mentioned, cannibalism has been practiced in some cultures at times in the past, and in our culture by people in dire straits (think Arctic expeditions, etc.). When there isn’t enough to eat humans are like rats or pigs and will eat almost anything. Your essay portrays a very convincing, if fictional, picture of a possible food future for humanity. Another angle would be that societal collapse destroys all corporations and the survivors resort to cannibalism in its most basic form, without the disease-testing, marketing and packaging. Wouldn’t you, if you were otherwise going to starve to death? I try not to think about this too much.

    For me, the underlying implication of your essay is that one way or another “change is gonna come,” to quote Sam Cooke, and it won’t be pretty.

    I’ve sadly concluded that a “small farm future” is highly unlikely, for reasons which you picked up on from our Gaian conversation this past week. That hasn’t stopped me from trying to build a resilient local food system in my community. It just seems like the right thing to do at this time, whether it has much of a future or not.

    Take care, and thanks for keeping these essays coming.

    –Tom

    * I urge you to give science fiction a try — you’d be great!

    • Erik Assadourian

      Thanks Tom! Yes, I sensed that it felt unlikely from our conversation, which makes the pursuit no less worthwhile! Not to mention inspiring to watch you do it!
      And I’m glad while disturbing (and entertaining, thanks), the essay wasn’t too much!

      Erik

  2. jthad

    fairy dust. that’s what they call it, in the shampoo industry, when you take a liter of glycerol then add a gram of jojoba oil and lavender extract and you get the miracle hair product that’s light-years from the product with a gram of shea butter and camomile extract. the people in soylent green have less to do with feeding humans at the Sames restaurant and more to do with marketing the miracle of cannibalism. the native tribes of america have the myth of wendigo where an unnatural strength and power is given to the cannibal but soylent green still only has the faintest flavor of human without any supernatural benefit.

    • Erik Assadourian

      Good points! We never do hear about Soylent’s competitors in the movie. And boy, their marketing arm really was exemplary–the fledgling edible insect industry should take note!

  3. Erik Assadourian

    Here’s a fun additional take on Soylent Green (and the how to of it). https://www.syfy.com/syfy-wire/soylent-green-made-people-science-bad-idea The author makes the point that this method of feeding humanity isn’t sustainable (simply because we’d be eating more people than are born). But in a state of post-overshoot collapse, in which humans are going from 8 billion to far fewer, it would make a decent business model! Especially if humans weren’t the only ingredient–grain, fillers, a bit of plankton for color (and so the company could say there’s plankton in them), etc.

  4. Ken Ingham

    Discussing canibalism in the context of gaianism, while amusing, feels like a denigration of the suffix ism.

    • Erik Assadourian

      A fair perspective. However, I would argue the bigger point the essay is trying to grapple with is the moral ambiguity of everything–even eating people–in the state of extreme overshoot we’re now in. Yes, things are still functioning at the moment (so cannibalism is still the realm of sci-fi), but part of the Gaian philosophy is to help people navigate the horrors of the next century without losing their humanity.

      Sometimes a light, tongue-in-cheek approach helps grapple with the harder topics. But I did grapple for a while with whether I should publish this essay here. In the end, I felt the fact that Soylent Green is a part of global culture, as is cannibalism (with fake meat companies now even making ‘human-flavored fake meat’ as I write about here: http://gaianism.org/should-we-eat-insects-or-people-in-the-future/) it was not out of line to talk bluntly about this topic. I think ‘straight talk’ about all topics–even the hardest ones: population, abortion, cannibalism, pet ownership, euthanasia, for example, should be on the table. Having a better understanding of all of these, leaning on good science, and an ecocentric perspective is of great value.

      A final thought: this -ism is not communicated from on high. There is no God or Gaia communicating through this website. We are just people–imperfect people–trying to navigate the difficult and confusing time where 8 billion individuals are rapidly devouring Gaia’s life force, and theirs with it, in pursuit of foolish trinkets and experiences. In this context, I feel like nearly no topic is taboo to discuss–if it helps break through the delusion that we are separate from Gaia and that satisfying our desires are more important than the living Earth that we are part of and utterly depend on.

      Erik

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