Lessons from a bad movie

Would it ruin your long weekend barbecue plans if I mentioned that 35 years have passed since we were warned that "Soylent Green is people"? I'm not so much worried about giving away the plot as spoiling your appetite with memories of the phrase "starring Charlton Heston," one of many things that could never happen and yet was frequently discussed in the 1970s. Like that we were all going to starve and choke amid general gloom. Some younger readers may be perplexed by the foregoing since Soylent Green was a truly bad science fiction film without attaining the exquisite awfulness that makes Attack of the Killer Tomatoes a classic.

Today it's just unwatchable. Nevertheless, as you head for the cottage or the backyard, it is worth scraping up memories of the dark side of the 1970s. Or rather the insufficiently lit side; the truly dark side had to do with the Khmer Rouge and the descent of 1960s hippie idealism into drug overdoses and Charles Manson. I'm thinking instead of the "Limits to Growth."

The pinnacle of this intellectual movement, such as it was, came with the election of Jimmy Carter. Again he may be familiar to younger readers primarily as an ex-president who, in James Taranto's excellent phrase, has become "an international nuisance who aspires to be a menace."

But in those days he radiated boring, dismal decline. With him, we'd all just turn the thermostat down, don frumpy cardigans and fade glumly away.

Now contrast him with Barack Obama. While the expectations of his partisans are almost as daffily over-the-top as his rhetoric, he cannot be accused of fostering or exploiting a mood of depressed resignation.

I don't know what to make of "People of Berlin, people of the world, this is our moment. This is our time." But when he talks about the environment he enthuses so goofily about alternative technology he could be a Canadian premier. "It's a strategy that will create millions of new jobs that pay well and cannot be outsourced, and one that will leave our children a world that is cleaner and safer."

That sounds more like a 1939 commercial break featuring Popsicle Pete, winner of the "typical American boy contest," than a '70s dystopia like Logan's Run or Soylent Green.

I'm not saying go out and rent the latter. It is so unredeemably, drably bad that it stands as a monument to what Doonesbury once called a kidney stone of a decade. But kidney stones are better to read about than have.

So all I'm saying is, if you check out one of the excerpts readily available online, you'll realize that what was meant to happen to New York City by the early 21st century has entirely failed to materialize there, or in Seattle or Dallas, but it is very much in evidence in Beijing, where pollution is so bad they're thinking of rescheduling Olympic events involving endurance. Such as breathing. And in Hong Kong, in Chinese hands since 1997, the Citizen reported on Wednesday that you could barely see across the harbour for all the smog.

Of course the Chinese regime does not literally use humans for food (something that is central to the plot of Soylent Green).

But the metaphor fits because China certainly has no compunctions about sacrificing them to a ghastly parody of economic "growth" that impoverishes people and ruins the environment. Exactly like the old Soviet Union. Whereas in the free societies, a term never employed without quotation marks by the 1970s smart set, citizens, corporations and even politicians have found amazingly creative ways to stop trashing the environment without sinking into the swamp of malaise toward which Mr. Carter beckoned us. It is elsewhere that the dystopian predictions came true and people's views have changed as a result.

I know there is a residual anti-human ethos among some Western "Deep Ecologists" who would refuse to eat Soylent Green primarily because it contains meat. And yes, global warming is meant to kill us all eventually. But even among most childless Malthusian liberals, the despair of the 1970s has given way to a hedonism that, while shallow, possesses at least a veneer of cheerfulness. There weren't spas in the world of Soylent Green and the phenomenon of liberal cities like Seattle and San Francisco having more dogs than children would also not have happened for reasons animal-lovers won't want me to specify.

We shouldn't become complacent. So don't let that barbecue smoke too much. But do derive comfort from the fact that even environmental alarmists like Al Gore now clearly endorse the view that free societies are creative, while the cheery way Barack Obama summons us to environmental combat makes you forget you ever saw a Charlton Heston movie.

Whereas over in China, they have to live in one. This weekend, be grateful we don't.

[First published in the Ottawa Citizen]