A week ago New York City has officially removed its last public payphone. For many New Yorkers, as well as outside observers, it represented the end of an era and a natural and rather expected result of a technological progress and ubiquitousness of mobile phones.
However, for one very small segment of people – hard core cinephiles, especially those enthusiastic about classic science fiction films – this story was particularly interesting and, in a way, quite amusing. The reason is Soylent Green, 1973 film directed by Richard Fleischer and starring Charlton Heston in one of the most famous roles of his career. The film is interesting because its plot is set in New York in year 2022, which allows for all kinds of intriguing comparisons between film makers’ vision and what is reality today.
While many can argue that the Big Apple is today in bad shape, it is definitely not as bad as depicted in the film. The film presents New York as victim of overpopulation that turned it into dystopian hellhole, with most people forced to live on overcrowded street, subjected to pollution, malnutrition, unstoppable crime and food riots. Running water and electricity is a luxury affordable only to the wealthiest and the most influential elite.
What remains of law and order is maintained by police, with protagonist being one of its members. It is depicted as undermanned, undergunned and not particularly efficient force that lives on vulture-like plunder of former belongings of murder victims. The civilisational decay that affected the rest of society is reflected in police technology and, instead of radios, like 20th Century policemen, protagonist is forced to rely special public street phones for communication.
So, it is quite clear that the film makers missed their mark. Technology today is much better and widely available, while the general state of affairs is far better than 1973 apocalyptic vision.
Why the film makers made such error? The reason is in the book which influenced them more than Make Room, Make Room, Harry Harrison’s novel which served as official basis. That book was The Population Bomb by American Paul R. Ehrlich. The main thesis of the book was the overpopulation represented greatest danger for modern civilisation and humanity; if the rising demographic trend on Earth remained unchecked, masses of newly born people would quickly gobble up all the food, minerals and other resources and pollute the environment in a way that would make planet uninhabitable for humanity.
Ehrlich’s apocalyptic vision, so vividly displayed in the film, became immensely popular not only among regular people, resulting in increased strength of environmentalist movement, but also influenced governments and their policies. Efforts to promote birth control, sustainable development, conversation and recycling stem from the politicians who took Ehrlich’s warning seriously.
Whether they should have, however, remains a matter of debate. Ehrlich’s ideas, actually, weren’t exactly new. They were just adaptation of ideas of Thomas Robert Malthus, 18th Century English cleric and economist who claimed that even with technological progress, population would rise so fast guaranteeing endemic famine and perpetual poverty. For the next two centuries Malthusians, including Ehrlich, would argue that only the population control by the government, including some brutal and extreme methods, can prevent the upcoming cataclysm. Those ideas were, unsurprisingly, adopted by authoritarian governments in some populous countries, resulting in infamous 1970s mass sterilisation campaign in India under Indira Gandhi and, later, One Child Policy in China.
Needless to say, both Malthus and Ehrlich were wrong. Modern technology, including new breakthroughs in agronomy, made food more available in the past. Famine, except for the most backward and the most unfortunate parts of the world, became thing of the past.
Furthermore, the main demographic trend in the world is not overpopulation, but underpopulation. Technology that demands less manual labour, advances in medicine and lifestyle changes have made raising large numbers of children impractical and undesirable not only in modern Western countries, but also in the Third World. Even countries that had enthusiastically adopted Ehrlich’s views, like China, are now reversing their policies and try to stimulate their citizens to have more babies, fearing that they would otherwise experience demographic death spiral like Japan.
The idea of the world in danger of being underpopulated and modern civilisation collapsing because of too few instead of too many people have begun to creep into modern discourse. One of the persons responsible is Elon Musk, who recently tweeted about Ehrlich’s book, calling it evil.
Yet, Ehrlich’s book remained influential for half a century, even after some of its predictions (like those about global famine in 1970s and 1980s) proved wrong. Changes in technology are much easier to obtain that changes in ideology.
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