In thinking about film and the environment I have been considering the symbolism of cannibalism in The Road and Soylent Green and what it reveals about human-nature relationships.
Both show the desolation of a world robbed of natural ecosystems and the resulting collapse of western civilisation. The collapse is a necessary conclusion in both films to the impact of humanity on natural processes. Both films deal with what present audiences would deem a post-apocalyptic scenario, at least one in which the apocalypse, or end of the world, is synonymous with the end of western civilisation if not the entire globe (hard to say from the films, as they both hold a US-centric perspective, itself symbolic of the overall irony of western development and its natural conclusions).
In lieu of natural processes providing vegetation, both plant life and animal life become extinct. As a result, food chains and food webs become unsustainable and soon enough there is no longer anything left to eat.
What results is cannibalism.
This works on two important levels as a literary device and a fact of nature, in that 1.) it signifies the necessity of energy transfer for life; and 2.) it highlights the intractable imbrication and co-muddling of humanity and nature.
This is to say that we are a part of nature and that nature is based on energy transfer from sunlight to plants, from plants to animals, and from both plants and animals to other animals in food chains and webs.
If you take out the plants, all that is left is the animals. Without the plants, animals can only eat each other, and if humans were to be able to stay on top of the food chain, eventually after we hunt with the same mentality of consumption we have now, the only way to survive would be cannibalism.
Seeing as both films deal with the ecological, existential threat of humanity’s impact on nature and its life sustaining ecosystems, then we can see a natural conclusion to our relationship with nature that has great importance for our own identity. Namely, that our consumption of nature results in the consumption of ourselves, as we too are a part of nature.
The fact that we can even get close to destroying ourselves through our destruction of nature only serves to highlight our gross alienation from our true identity - we no longer appreciate that we are a part of the universe, of the milky way, of the solar system, of the planet earth, and of biological life. When in fact we are dependent upon nature in a crucial physical sense, and not just an economic one.
Our economy maybe dependent on the environment as a resource to commodify, but we are interdependent with it as a resource to live, breathe and reproduce within. Therefore, the irony of its destruction highlights the hypocrisy of humanity’s seeking of salvation and growth via the commodification and destruction of that which makes life possible in the first place. Its a paradoxical double-movement in which we sell the means for life in order to sustain life. Once it is gone all we are left with is the money.
This invisible concept is at the heart of our common culture and civilisation, and as such it is no surprise that its memes, even if distorted by fictional allegory, are visible in post-apocalyptic films. Such films project our own insecurities into the comfortable space of the distant future, circumventing our immediate reflection so that we can think about them instead of us and lament their fate instead of our own.
However, in the end, our consumption of nature makes cannibals of us all, as we too are a part of nature and in destroying it, we destroy ourselves both then and now, in fiction and in reality.
I haven’t touched upon the same themes in zombie style post-apocalypse movies here as I intend to write another post on this later.