Soylent Green: Why it Might Not Work

Soylent Green Recap (Spoilers)

(This article focuses on potential moral hang-ups. If you already know the Soylent Green plot and you’re more interested in the medical/epidemiological issues, here’s Part 2). 

The year is a distant 2022.* Humanity is dealing with the absurd dystopian scenarios of overpopulation, millions of people packed onto Manhattan, climate crisis, evaporating resources, and reliance on meal replacements. None of which, thankfully, present any real danger in our actual 2022.

*Yes, Soylent Green is the present. Blade Runner (2019), Robocop (215), and Back to the Future 2 (2015) are the past. And Rick Deckard is a millennial. But don’t worry, there’s still The Fifth Element (2263) to look forward to, as long as we survive 12 Monkeys (2028) and V for Vendetta (2038). Let’s try to divert from the path of Idiocracy (2505).

In this 1973 thriller, the downtrodden masses have become reliant on the meal replacement wafers known as Soylent Red, Soylent Yellow, and most recently, Soylent Green. The latter is made from oceanic plankton and is more nutritious/delicious than the previous wafers.1 

Long story short-ish, Detective Robert Thorn (played by Charlton Heston) follows a knock-knock Neo rabbit hole down to a carefully guarded secret: The oceans are dying and no longer able to keep supporting the plankton necessary to make Soylent Green. The public is already rioting due to shortages, and it would only get worse if this inconvenient truth came out. 

(Spoilers – last chance…)

Not to worry, the powers-that-be have devised a solution. Detective Thorn discovers that bodies are being transferred from the euthanasia center (widespread assisted suicide is also a thing) to a factory where they are ground up and turned into the little green wafers. 

After being chased and injured, Charlton Heston shouts to the surrounding crowd, “Soylent Green is people!” And it’s gross and creepy, but also somehow a little bit funny. 

As far as sci-fi fare goes, Soylent Green is probably among the more controversial. But considering impending resource shortages, could a SG-type substance have any place in our future? If we set aside the moral hang-ups and think utilitarian, is anything like this worth considering?

Why it Might Not Work: The Obvious Reasons

Murder/Violation of bodily autonomy/Non-consensual use of remains

While these are polarized times, the average person still seems to agree that first-degree murder isn’t cool. No matter how hungry you may be. Non-consensually ending the lives of our neighbors, even to thwart starvation, is an ugly bridge we don’t want to cross. 

That said, the Soylent Green “ingredients” were not technically murdered, at least not as shown in the movie. They were collected and processed from euthanasia centers, where they presumably made the free choice to end their lives. What was non-consensual, however, was the postmortem use of their bodies for Soylent Green wafers. 

For use of human remains in meal replacement in accordance with current values and laws, we would need explicit permission and freely given consent. The model would need to be similar to organ donation, where it’s offered as an option and you are told you’re doing a valuable and heroic service, but it’s not required. Anyone who died of natural causes or freely chose* to end their life at a euthanasia center would have the option of designating themselves as “Soylent Donor” prior to death. 

*“Free choice” is a big if. Depending on the circumstances and societal pressure, whether this would – or even could – actually be a “free choice” is up for debate. In a dystopian scenario similar to the Soylent Green world, it’s pretty likely that there would be pressure to offer yourself up as human jerky. Or, if you said no, your wishes would be ignored after death. For argument’s sake, let’s assume that the choice could be made willingly and without coercion, like organ donation or donating your body to science. 

So, our Soylent Donors have given permission for their remains to be used post-mortem. And they did so freely, without coercion, out of the pure desire to help the human-suits they left behind. That quells the fear of bodily autonomy violations.

So, are you sold? 

The Ick Factor

Probably not. 

Rachel Herz – a Brown University psychologist and author of the book That’s Disgusting – notes, “Disgust is about the outside coming in and contaminating our inside.”2 It’s a gut feeling designed to keep us safe from things that may harm us – be it rotting food, a cockroach, or yes, cannibalism. 

The Andes Crash

Herz discusses the infamous 1972 plane crash into the Andes mountain range. Many passengers, most of whom were rugby players traveling for a competition and family/friends, died on impact or from the freezing temperatures, but 16 survived long enough to face a rapidly dwindling food supply and extreme hunger. 

Coming to the realization that cannibalism may be their only ticket to survival, the remaining passengers gradually reasoned themselves into traversing this taboo with two arguments:

  1. It’s just another type of meat. We eat beef, not cows. We eat pigs, not chickens. You wouldn’t be eating the person, you’d be eating the meat. 
  2. If the survivors starved to death out of unwillingness to engage in cannibalism, then their friends’ deaths would have been a waste. Many admitted to themselves that their compatriots, given the situation, would probably have wanted their bodies to be used if it could save their friends.

In the end, the remaining passengers survived by eating human flesh. Not only did they consume human meat from the deceased, they made a pact with each other that their bodies would also be used in the event of their death, likening it to organ donation.2

Granted, this is different from consuming the flesh of an unwilling victim. Most people who hear the story of the Andes survivors feel sympathy, not disgust, once this instance of cannibalism is put into context. Still, it’s difficult to imagine. The Ick Factor remains, even when lessened by circumstance. 

Disgust is a form of intuition in that it’s based on a haze of collective history and potentially dire consequences, even if the actual danger is minimal. If you’re still not convinced that you would ever be able to consume a Soylent Green type substance, it’s understandable – even reasonable – to be turned off by the Ick Factor and leave it at that.

Origin of the Ick?

If the emotion of disgust is designed to protect us, why are we disgusted by cannibalism? Are there potential health consequences to Soylent Green? 

Turns out that yes, there could be epidemiological problems with a SG-type situation, especially with the movie’s shown methods of production. 


1. Fleischer, Richard, Director. Soylent Green. MGM, 1973. / 2. Vendantam, S. (Host). (2018, March 26). Crickets and Cannibalism: Unpacking the Complicated Emotion of Disgust.