Overpopulation and Ecological Damage
in Film and Literature
in Film and Literature
The dystopian setting we see in the film Soylent Green is a concept that is continuously portrayed in film and literature. This 1973 movie paints the picture of America as being overpopulated, polluted, impoverished, and with little to no resources other than “soylent green," a processed food ration controlled by the government (which actually turns out to be the recycled matter from the dead bodies of humans). While the events of the movie might seem exaggerated and far-fetched, at the root of it we can find some relevance and take instruction from it so we don’t find ourselves suffering a similar fate. Science Fiction as a genre has taken great interest in the ideals of overpopulation and ecological damage to the planet; although these films and literature might seem to take these concepts to the point of impossibility, they can also be seen as a warning for viewers and readers of what could possibly come in the future.
One film that explores the threat which humans pose to the planet is M. Night Shyamalan’s 2008 film titled The Happening. Like Soylent Green, the movie is also set in New York, a similarity that can be traced to the fact that it is easily recognized and associated with the quintessential American, metropolitan, and progressive city. In the opening scene, people in Central Park begin suddenly and creatively finding ways to commit suicide, an event which is found to be caused by a neurotoxin released by plants. In the end of the movie, where it seems that this neurotoxin attack has ceased, we see that the event was simply of a warning sign of another impending attack because humans have become a threat to the planet. We see here that the risk of overpopulation to the planet is not so much in numbers, but by the overall impact that humans have to the planet when believing that it is theirs to use as they please.
Overpopulation, and the modes to control it is a concept which is also evident in Margaret Atwood’s “Oryx and Crake” with the creation of BlyssPluss. Crake explains:
“War, which is to say misplaced energy, which we consider to be a larger factor than the economic, racial, and religious causes often cited. Contagious diseases, especially sexually transmitted ones. Overpopulation, leading---as we’ve seen in spades---to environmental degradation and poor nutrition.” (Margaret Atwood, “Oryx and Crake, page 293)
BlyssPluss was marketed as a tool to protect its users from sexually transmitted diseases, to increase libido and sexual prowess and to prolong youth, but the fourth and not advertised effect was a birth control pill which would lower the population level. Here we see how science fiction tries to solve the problem of human detriment and ecological damage to the planet by controlling population, but we know that it cannot be solved simply by eliminating human growth and needs to be further explored in controlling how the population treats the planet
The same kind of revenge exacted by plants which was seen in The Happening is portrayed in Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds, where birds wage an all out attack on humans and try to kill them. Much like The Happening, in the end the main characters escape death but the radio reports of other many other attacks in the country. In the end, a huge flock of birds is seen crowing and flapping their wings ambiguously as the sun rises. Although this doesn’t completely depict overpopulation and human damage to the planet; it is an early example (the film was made in 1963) of the natural world, (in this case, birds) suddenly making their existence known through violence perhaps as a warning to humans. Like in The Happening, it serves as foreshadowing for the future of humans who view the planet as a commodity to be abused and controlled.
While these examples seen in film and literature are arguably exaggerated and might seem impossible; the fact that they seem so ridiculous serves to highlight the problems which arise when the human population abuses the earth and causes ecological damage to it. Whether it be plants releasing neurotoxins that cause human death, or Atwood’s BlyssPluss which tries to solve environmental degradation by controlling population, or Hitchcock’s birds attacking humans in an ominous revenge plot; the constant idea which transcends genre and time is that we should all be more aware of the ecological damage that we pose to the earth and try to create a future where this relationship is more balanced.