History of the Future: Soylent Green

Event Details

On January 18, 2023, ASU Center for Science and the Imagination partnered with Majestic Neighborhood Cinema Grill for a screening of Soylent Green. This screening is part of a greater film series: The History of the Future, exploring gripping, cinematic visions of the future across the past five decades. 

The film was introduced by Dr. Christy Spackman. Read her introduction below.

Can you see the cow? On Jell-O, Mormon Musicals, and Soylent Green

Dr. Christy Spackman

I grew up one state north of here, near the Utah-Idaho border, in the central part of the geographic area known as the “Jell-O belt”. For those of you unfamiliar with this geographic designation, its scope follows the Mormon diaspora from the Salt Lake City area northward to Southern Alberta, and south through Arizona into the northern regions of Chihauhua and Sonora, Mexico.

One of my early childhood memories from life in the Jell-O belt is of a jazzy song from the musical Saturday’s Warrior:[1]

“Ev’ry day the world is getting smaller by far!/ Bursting at the seams, what can we do?/ Zero population is the answer, my friend! / Without it the rest of us are doomed!”[2]

The song goes on to ask who can survive in the face of overpopulation, a shrinking food supply, and peak oil. First performed in 1973, Saturday’s Warrior, like Soylent Green, built on emerging policy concerns around population growth, energy crisis, and the role of food access in shaping how society functioned.[3] My brothers and I regularly braved the mysteries of our parent’s record player so we could dance around the room to the musical’s overwrought lyrics. While I’ll spare you my slightly off-tune singing, the song, and the musical’s larger argument that zero population is NOT the answer, my friend, has stuck with me over the years.

The same things that partially defined my childhood—Jell-O and the Malthusian ideals behind the ‘70s movement for Zero Population (first stated in 1967 as a policy goal)[4]—weave throughout Soylent Green. While the population concerns are obvious, with the movie’s visual background of an endless, often interchangeable, stream of excess humanity, you may think the tie-in with Jell-O may be less so. I’d like to take the next little bit to convince you otherwise.

Let’s take a step back in time. People have been trying to figure out how to not be hungry for all of human existence. The nineteenth and twentieth centuries, however, witnessed a drastic shift in how we went about trying to not be hungry. Rather than simply relying on the centuries-honed skills of fermenting or drying things, figuring out how to not be hungry started to include foods preserved through new techniques and technologies. Canning, developed in the early 1800s, made it possible to radically extend a food’s shelf-life. But it would take an additional 150 years or so before the promises of industrialized food production—that it could minimize seasonal variations and maximize access to food—started to become reality for folks in places like the United States.[5]   

That change started with the discovery that food carried specific energetic components. When Wilbur Atwater first started evaluating the energy held in foods, he set in place the foundation for upending the dietary morality of Sylvester Graham and other 19th century food reformers.[6] The calorie set in place a new food citizenship, one where the metabolic economy of the body overlapped with national responsibility for “eating right”.[7] Subsequent discoveries of micronutrients led, by the 1940s, to an understanding of food as a substance that could be broken down and rebuilt from the ground up, a nutritional reductionism that still defines how we think about foods today.[8]

Enter Jell-O. As I’ve noted elsewhere, gelatin desserts once required the tedious work of extracting gelatin from bones, removing as much of the animal flavor as possible, and then adding in fruits and naturally occurring flavorings. This made gelatin a dessert of the elites, not the masses. By the middle of the twentieth century, however, things had changed. Building on an innovative technique first developed in the mid-1800s, by the early 1900s General Foods had started adding flavorings and colorings, making gelatin dessert increasingly accessible to people of all ages.

As World War II wrapped up, scientific, technological, and marketing attention shifted towards Cold War competition, refashioning consumers at home and abroad to increasingly accept—and embrace—the technological innovations being churned out by twenty-first century food scientists:[9] Encapsulation. Freeze-drying. Spray-draying. High-pressure processing. Modified atmosphere packaging. Lost in the process? For Jell-O, at least, the cow. But also colors, flavors, and the links to where a food came from, or the ingredients that even made such a food possible.

Jell-O is just an older version of the many spectacular foods that emerged post World War II. As the writers for Saturday’s Warrior and Soylent Green (and the movie’s base material, Make Room! Make Room!) were absorbing and transforming popular culture and contemporary scientific concerns into mass entertainment, food scientists were reimagining orange juice into its shelf-stable facsimile, Tang (1957); potatoes into dehydrated powder and back again into perfectly formed crisps that could fit into a cylinder, Pringles (1968); and ice cream into something that could travel to space (1969). All fall into the category of what I consider “new” food—food divorced from its original form.

These newfangled foods, the people who made them, and the science and technology behind such endeavors combined in the late ‘60s under the framing of the “science of survival”. Food scientists and technologists in the late ‘60s understood that they were “entering what may well be the crucial decade for humanity”.[10] Like Soylent Green board member William R. Simonson, the scientists and technologists working to attend to the problems of hunger, famine, and malnutrition in the 1960s and 1970s (and today, to be frank) depended on the spectacular colors and flavors of twenty-first century invention[11] in their efforts to take the basics of nutrition and transform them into something palatable enough that no one cared where they came from.

So even though critics panned Soylent Green for its overt focus on food, tonight I invite you to pay especially close attention to the reds, yellows, and greens that made soylent possible. Listen as Hatcher bites down on his soylent, and then when Thorne and Sol eat their apples. And then, as you wander out into the starry night afterwords, marvel that it is the same food science and technology critiqued in Soylent Green that makes our twenty-first century dreams of moving to Mars even plausible.

[1] For more on how members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints have drawn on the genres of popular culture to have internal conversations, see Jake Johnson, Mormons, Musical Theater and Belonging in America, University of Illinois Press, 2019.  https://www.press.uillinois.edu/books/?id=p084331

[2] I strongly prefer the original soundtrack over more recent versions. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=znkFwCrvLsA

[3] For more on the implications of population management policies from the ’70s and how they patterned which lives have been seen as valuable, see Michelle Murphy, The Economization of Life (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2017).

[4] Kingsley Davis, “Zero Population Growth: The Goal and the Means,” Daedalus 102, no. 4 (1973): 15–30.

[5] c.f. Gabriella M. Petrick, “Feeding the Masses: H.J. Heinz and the Creation of Industrial Food,” Endeavour 33, no. 1 (2009): 29–34; Anna Zeide, Canned: The Rise and Fall of Consumer Confidence in the American Food Industry (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2018); Cohen, Benjamin R., Pure Adulteration: Cheating on Nature in the Age of Manufactured Food (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 2020).

[6] For more, c.f. Nicholas Bauch, A Geography of Digestion: Biotechnology and the Kellogg Cereal Enterprise (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2017).

[7] Charlotte Biltekoff, Eating Right in America: The Cultural Politics of Food and Health (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2013). Jessica Mudry, Measured Meals: Nutrition in America (Albany, NY: SUNY Press, 2009).

[8] For more on nutritional reductionism, see Gyorgy Scrinis, “On the Ideology of Nutritionism,” Gastronomica 8, no. 1 (Winter 2008): 39–48, https://doi.org/10.1525/gfc.2008.8.1.39.

[9] Harriet Friedmann, “The Political Economy of Food: The Rise and Fall of the Postwar International Food Order,” American Journal of Sociology 88 (January 1982): S248–86, https://doi.org/10.1086/649258.Amy Bentley, Inventing Baby Food: Taste, Health, and the Industrialization of the American Diet (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2014). Tanfer Emin Tunc and Annessa Ann Babic, “Food on the Home Front, Food on the Warfront: World War II and the American Diet,” Food and Foodways 25, no. 2 (April 3, 2017): 101–6, https://doi.org/10.1080/07409710.2017.1311159. Shane Hamilton, Supermarket USA: Food and Power in the Cold War Farms Race (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2018).

[10] “Succeed or Succumb? The Seventies May Tell,” Advertisemetn for the 3rd International Congress of Food Science and Technology, Food Technology 23 (August 1969): 13.

Dr. Christy Spackman is an assistant professor in the School for the Future of Innovation in Society and the Herberger Institute for Design and the Arts who studies the environmental and social impact of scientific and technological efforts to manipulate sensory experiences of smelling and tasting.

History of the Future is examining gripping cinematic visions of the future emanating from different moments in recent history. In partnership with Majestic Neighborhood Cinemas, experts from ASU faculty and abroad introduce films that have shaped the reality we know today. Connecting past depictions of the future to the present and seeing how the hopes and anxieties of the last five decades have influenced how we tackle the problems of tomorrow.