Soylent Green is a dystopian sci-fi film from 1973. It depicts a world suffering from overpopulation, climate change, and extreme inequality, where the rich exploit and own the poor, who survive on the evil Soylent Corporation’s processed plankton.
To make matters worse, the oceans are dying, and with them the resources to make said plankton, the only product that can (barely) sustain New York City’s population of 40 million. SPOILER ALERT: At the end of the film, while being taken away by ‘medical’ personnel, the protagonist-detective exclaims to an indifferent crowd his discovery that Soylent Green is actually not made from plankton, but from the only resource that’s still abundant.
Hence the famous line, “Soylent Green is people!” which features on the American Film Institute’s list of the 100 most famous movie quotes.
When does Soylent Green take place, you might ask? In 2022.
The bomb that didn’t explode
2022 is now over, and Soylent Green is not people. Not only did that grisly prediction not come true, but:
— New York City’s population increased by less than 20 percent since the film’s release
— The world’s population has more than doubled
— And, while 48 percent of the world’s population lived in extreme poverty in 1970, in 2019, before the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, only about 8 percent (of twice as large of a global population) lived in absolute poverty.
Catastrophic visions of the future like that of Soylent Green were common in the 1960s and 70s. In 1968, Paul Ehrlich’s book The Population Bomb became a hit, with a prediction perhaps even more drastic than the one Soylent Green dared to put on screen: all is lost, and nothing can stop a global famine that, Ehrlich believed, would kill hundreds of millions of people in the 1970s.
The global population, according to Ehrlich, would stabilize at what he believed to be an ‘acceptable’ 1.5-2 billion people by 1985. For context, in 1968, the global population was just over 3.5 billion. So Ehrlich expected up to 60 percent of the world’s population to starve to death in less than 20 years!
The supposed threat of overpopulation seems to be one of the issues that every generation must deal with anew. Long before Ehrlich and the books of his post-World War II predecessors like William Vogt, there was Thomas Malthus in the late 18th century, with his Essay on the Principle of Population and the simple (and wrong) observation that population was growing rapidly faster than available resources.
Unlike Ehrlich and science fiction authors, Malthus did not go into specific doomsday predictions, but he still argued that unless humanity limits its own growth, wars and food shortages will do so for us. To prevent this outcome, he suggested measures ranging from reproductive restraint to fining parents and mass sterilization — suggestions the Chinese Communist Party seemingly took to heart.
The revolution the alarmists missed
Despite all the negative predictions, on November 15, 2022 (according to estimates) we celebrated another population milestone: 8 billion people. Global life expectancy has risen from 55 to 72 years since the publication of The Population Bomb. Instead of famines, average food intake in calories has increased by more than 30 percent. See for yourself how the situation in any country has improved since you were born.
What the population alarmists persistently underestimate is the human capacity for innovation. One of the most impactful stories of ingenuity saving lives is the Green Revolution in Mexico, India, and a number of other developing countries. While William Vogt was writing Road to Survival (1948) about resource scarcity, where he described the history of capitalism with all its innovations as a “march of destruction,” a team of scientists funded by intergovernmental organizations like the United Nations, as well as corporations, were developing high-yield, disease-resistant wheat. Mexico went from wheat importer to exporter after domestic production quadrupled in twenty years.
And while Ehrlich was burying half the world in his Population Bomb predictions, the Green Revolution continued in Asia, and especially in India, Pakistan, and the Philippines, with the development of further wheat and rice variants, again with the support of local governments, but also private foundations. One of the leading researchers of the Green Revolution was Norman Borlaug. Less than two years after the release of The Population Bomb, he received a well-deserved Nobel Prize for his work, which is estimated to have saved more than a billion lives.
While this is a hard-to-surpass achievement in terms of lives saved, it is far from the only one. Breakthroughs in the areas of hygiene, health care, transport, logistics, and even inventions such as washing machines, which freed millions of people (especially women) from hours of backbreaking housework, changed the world in the second half of the 20th century, as Johan Norberg documents.
What Soylent Green got right: the ultimate resource is people
Skeptics like Ehrlich didn’t just underestimate the speed of progress and innovation. They overestimated population growth in the long run too — as Soylent Green‘s 40-million-strong New York of 2022 shows.
While it took us 11 years to move from seven billion in 2011 to eight billion in 2022, we likely won’t see the ninth billion until 2037 15 years later), and the tenth billion around 2058, more than another 20 years later, according to current estimates.
And what about the eleventh billion? We probably won’t see that one at all; from about the 2080s onward, the world’s population is likely to begin to naturally decline. And not because of a lack of resources or overpopulation, but for the exact opposite reason: abundance.
Birth rates are negatively correlated with economic prosperity; at a certain level of income, the family is not a necessary unit of production, and single life and old age without children to take care of the elderly is economically sustainable. Moreover, greater equality throughout the world of rights, education, and opportunity is enabling women in more countries to pursue active careers rather than living in the household and raising children.
Contrary to the Malthusian thesis, however, the imminent population decline is not good news. For it is people who are the scarcest resource and the engine of growth, as Julian Simon wrote in The Ultimate Resource (1981). Because not only do more people mean more brains capable of innovation, more people also mean a greater division of labor.
We often overestimate “expert” knowledge and underestimate everyday knowledge of a particular situation, place, or circumstance. That’s what Friedrich Hayek wrote in The Use of Knowledge in Society (1945). And it’s the small, local innovations of people who, as a result of their narrow specialization, notice that a particular production process can be done marginally better or in a slightly better location, thus driving global progress.
How population size and the division of labor determine the rate of innovation is well illustrated by the example of island populations given by another experienced rebutter of population alarmism, Matt Ridley, in The Rational Optimist (2010). It concerns the question of how isolated native island populations came to be.
Ridley argues that in a large mainland population, there was probably a relatively large capacity for the division of labor. Meaning, of course, that not all people had to engage in direct food production, but could instead engage in crafts — or in economic terms, the production of capital goods. These might include the production of boats for more efficient fishing or transportation.
But living on the mainland also meant exposing oneself to greater risk of attack by migrating inlanders, so it is likely that coastal dwellers were at some point forced to take their boats and sail to nearby islands where they were safe from the ship-less invaders.
However, this practice also meant cutting themselves off from the trade taking place on the mainland. As a result of the population being effectively smaller, the surplus of resources was not sufficient to sustain a larger number of people engaged in the production of capital goods, so their producers also had to take up hunting and gathering. With generational change and an imperfect ability to pass on information, the knowledge of boat-making was then lost, and island populations found themselves isolated for long periods of time.
Saved by the machines?
So what does the expected peak in human population in about 60 years mean? Is it the end of growth, after which we will continue in permanent stagnation? Will the proponents of no growth (or de-growth) finally get their wish? In other words, what happens when we reach the maximum stock of the ultimate resource?
First and foremost, innovation will probably continue. Unlike Ridley’s forgotten boatmen, we have a fundamentally better infrastructure for retaining knowledge. As for the division of labor, the answer might be increasing automation, thanks to which machines will gradually take over more work and humans will specialize more narrowly in other areas even after the population has stabilized or even begun to decline.
So the chances are that growth of wealth and living standards will continue even after global population peaks.
Among those who don’t think so, however, remains Paul Ehrlich. Despite the fact that virtually none of his predictions have come true, including his legendary bet with Julian Simon himself, Ehrlich was again claiming in 2018 that the total collapse of civilization was in sight. And he recently appeared on CBS’s 60 Minutes, where he gave his catastrophic vision a new coat of paint: a supposedly apocalyptic biodiversity loss.
The current debate is not lacking pop-culture representations of Ehrlich’s vision either. After all, what else is Thanos but a space Thomas Malthus in purple? And the slightly older Cloud Atlas (book 2004, film 2012) owes more than one entire plotline to Soylent Green, including its iconic quote.
In the end, though, it’s the nonagenarian Ehrlich, in fine physical condition, still sharing his delusional predictions on CBS here in 2023, who himself is a demonstration of the invalidity of his theories. After all, at the time of his birth, life expectancy in America was just 61.
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