Sunday, December 20, 2009

Global Warming the Old Fashioned Way

The Copenhagen Global Warming Conference is over, and while I haven't followed it as carefully as I should, its outcome does not appear to be the life preserver we badly need. Not all is hopeless though - Barack Obama sounds like a semi-hero in keeping the talks from going down to unambiguous, chaotic failure. His detractors need to keep in mind that Obama is a pragmatist; he may be an idealist in his heart, but as president, he almost of necessity is a pragmatist.

But the real point of this entry is to recollect a movie I remember from my youth: Soylent Green (1973). As a boy, I was always squeamish about scary movies. This movie, even with its only passable acting, and lack of modern special effects, left me absolutely horrified as a kid, and depresses me as an adult, because while not "coming true" in a conventional sense, its base message is still remarkably intact.

If you've never seen it, Soylent Green is a dystopian tale of an overpopulated and depleted Earth. Set in the year 2022, the horrifically overpopulated streets of New York (pop. 40,000,000+) team with homeless, hungry people. Crowds are controlled using power shovels. All food and water is rationed, and most people eat only little wafers made of, what turns out to be, dead bodies. No one in the movie knows this of course, the wafers being advertised as a plankton derivative. Fresh food is enormously scarce and tremendously expensive. The Soylent Corporation controls the food supply, and are secretly covering up the fact that "the oceans are dying," and that humanity will probably follow it.

The movie stars Charlton Heston at his wooden best (or worst), and in kind of a sad irony the great actor Edward G. Robinson. Soylent Green was his last film. and the character he plays dies in Soylent Green. There are many details that could be listed here: Robinson and Heston eating a meal of stolen fresh food, Heston working his way down a staircase crowded with homeless, Robinson choosing assisted suicide to the tune of Beethoven's Pastoral Symphony, the "furniture," who are live-in prostitutes; these motifs may be spooky or silly, depending on the viewer.

In the opening scene where Heston and Robinson are eating spoiled margarine, Robinson scomplains about the greenhouse effect, and Heston joins the plaintive refrain with a "so what else is new" take on the problem. I think that was the first time I had ever heard the term (I first saw this movie in about 1976).

As I write this, 2022 is only about twelve years away. And while the movie no longer scares me, global warming still does. I don't think Soylent Green was any more capable of predicting the future than any other piece of popular culture. But I think it does portray a fairly realistic guess at what the world will look like if we don't get a handle on global warming.

The picture at the start of this entry was one of the "outside" shots in the movie. I don't know the details, but apparently some of the film was shot (or retouched?) with a green filter. It does (at least to my eye) give the impression that the atmosphere is full of particulates or smog. Already we are breathing an air more full of carbon than anything our ancestors knew. But it doesn't really matter. Can a movie predict the future? Probably not, but this one shows a view "through a lens (or filter) darkly" of the dystopia we might create if we continue to ignore the warming of the planet.

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