Saucers of Mud

June 24, 2008

Soylent Green Is Bocaburgers (Spoilers)

Filed under: Uncategorized — matt w @ 6:49 am

So Soylent Green is based on a science fiction novel called Make Room! Make Room! in which… Soylent Green isn’t made of people. (I’d say it’s like Planet of the Apes without the Statue of Liberty, but.) Everyone’s desperate for “soylent steaks,” where “soylent” is soya and lentil. Veggie burgers, in other words.

I was reminded of this by Yglesias’s comment that limiting carbon emissions will lead to eating less meat and more plants, since raising animals is very carbon-intensive; and

That kind of thing is one reason why I think the cost of adjusting to a low-carbon future will actually prove much lower than people think. A lot of the changes in habit that a world of more expensive energy will incentive are things that there are sound unrelated reasons to do. Less meat-eating and more walking and biking would improve the health and long-term quality of life of the population.

The thing is that soylent products can be quite tasty. A New York where many people eat lots of soy and lentil products isn’t a dystopia of near-starvation, it’s our modern New York that’s full of vegetarians and people who don’t eat much meat. (And this vision is a lot more plausible than the movie version; if you think about it, reprocessing people into meat is an incredibly inefficient way of getting nutrients. Only works if the population is dropping drastically, so you’re eating more people than you’re feeding. This is not to deny that it’s much more effective artistically.)

Make Room! Make Room! also seems to have a Caves of Steel population estimation problem — apparently there are seven billion people worldwide in the book, which there almost are now and New York City isn’t a Malthusian hellhole (even if people do live in small spaces). Though admittedly the book has New York City’s population at 35 million, which might be a bit of a strain (though maybe not, if there was a lot more density in the Bronx, Queens, and Staten Island; and if you didn’t have super-rich people taking up a lot of spacein Manhattan, which I’m guessing you don’t have in the book). Lots of people in underdeveloped countries are living the Malthusian nightmare, but I don’t think it’s due to population pressure, and I’m not sure that it’s worse than it was around 1966.



  1. My wife and I are vegetarians, but we have cows and sheep for milk and cheese, and chickens and ducks for eggs. It’s always struck me that even with some limited meat consumption, with a slightly modified village/agrarian model it should be virtually impossible for people to go hungry.
    The current agricultural model ought never to have happened, and it only happened because of artificial pressures, and the endless capacity of rurals to get themselves fleeced. Earl Butz (Get big, or get out!) and the fertilizer/pesticide corporations are largely to blame. Long term successful agricultural systems evolve slowly and are intricately wound with the cultures that spawned them.
    Since we don’t eat meat, we purchase a lot of prepared soy products, so there’s a sort of consumerist loophole we’ll never close. But I look at it as a luxury not to have to wring a cockerel’s neck or wade through a steaming heap of pig offal on an October morning.
    Milking’s goddamned hard enough.
    Not too far from us, there’s an elderly Asian couple who manufacture both soy based chicken and beef substitutes that are absolutely delicious. And they tried to have local farmers produce the organic edamame type bean they’re made from.
    The company is called Delight Soy, and they ship, but only if you have a tax ID. You can have your local market order from them.

    Comment by coozledad — June 24, 2008 @ 7:30 am

  2. Starbucks is PEOPLE! It’s made of PEOPLE!!

    Admit it, you know it’s true.

    Comment by Ben — June 24, 2008 @ 8:35 pm

  3. So, there are actually some good arguments that overuse of limited resources is one of the major underlying problems that causes ills plaguing underdeveloped countries. Competition over natural resources, violence, drought, migration of people and the resultant tensions all are related, in many ways, to population pressure. This is not to be simplistic and say that it’s the fault of underdeveloped countries for having too many people. Nor is it a Malthusian necessity, as the reasons for this have to do with global trade and food and resource use policies. But it is not something we should ignore, especially when trying to understand the causes of any given conflict. Jared Diamond’s Collapse has more on the subject.

    In any case, probably one of the US’s stupidest foreign policy decisions is its longstanding and by-now almost forgotten gag rules on family planning foreign aid (OMG somebody might have a smushmortion!)

    Speaking just about politics, I don’t think that soylent green is going to sell Americans on better eating to reduce their carbon load. However, there is no need for meat to be as cheap and overeaten as it is. There aren’t a lot of vegetarians in France, but they eat about 20% less meat per capita than the US. Some or much of their food is likely better quality.

    Comment by Ben — June 24, 2008 @ 8:53 pm

  4. Yes, but when all we have to eat is dairy, lentils, and soya products just think of all the constipated, farting, feminized men? Will no one have pity on the women?


    Comment by aimai — June 25, 2008 @ 8:58 am

  5. I would blame soy for the startling increase in my breast size, but I suspect it has more to do with the fries and beer.

    Comment by coozledad — June 25, 2008 @ 9:15 am

  6. The thing is, Soylent Green is not (or not necessarily, since I can see someone holding a contrary interpretation, but I do not so hold), at the time the movie takes place, supposed to be efficient. Heston’s character yells about the oceans dying and the plankton dying: the Soylent Corporation has turned to Soylent Green relatively recently and they seem to have done so not just out of being immoral, but out of being low on their usual ingredients. The transport of the dead to the processing plants is a makeshift operation.

    I agree that the prediction Heston’s character makes at the end is less plausible (I paraphrase): “Soon they’ll be breeding us like cattle.” That points to a reorganization of the Soylent Green production process that I doubt would come about, for both efficiency and resistance reasons (assuming it can’t be kept secret). But it hasn’t reached that point yet.

    Comment by andrew — June 26, 2008 @ 3:47 am

  7. I always wondered about that — admittedly I only saw the movie in fragmentary form on Saturday afternoon TV, but it struck me that the infrastructure needed to ensure that Ernest Borgnine dies happy could have been used instead to, you know, grow food.

    Comment by Chilly — July 16, 2008 @ 3:38 pm

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