Charlton Heston: Prophet of the Eco-Apocalypse?

Justin McBrien

April 23, 2018

When the first Earth Day was held forty-eight years ago, a call to "save the earth" rang out across the United States. Earth Day had marked the culmination of a decade of environmental activism leading to remarkable political successes. But if humanity was earth's savior, it was only because it appeared to be its destroyer. Robert Oppenheimer's apocryphal utterance while beholding the first atomic explosion on July 16, 1945, "Now I am become death, destroyer of worlds," was the reverse coin of Earth Day's salvationist sloganeering. No popular avatar at the time better captured this tension between humanity as savior and humanity as destroyer than the actor Charlton Heston, whose films, Planet of the Apes (1968), The Omega Man (1971), and Soylent Green (1973), pioneered the genre of post-apocalyptic eco-catastrophe.

While Heston did not write these screenplays (two of which were based on novels), he is the embodiment of a transition in the public imagination of the late '60s and early '70s from nuclear to environmental catastrophe. More importantly, these films get to the heart of a debate that still rages today concerning anthropogenic impacts on the environment: Is nature vulnerable or resilient in the face of wide-scale destruction and alteration by human beings?

Planet of the Apes (1968) is not yet "environmental" – it is a straight nuclear disaster film. Heston plays Colonel George Taylor, an astronaut who crashes onto an unknown planet where intelligent apes have enslaved Paleolithic-like humans, keeping them in zoos for their amusement. The discovery that Taylor can speak (" get your stinking paws off me you damn dirty ape!") prompts a crisis in their simian civilization. The Minister of Science, Dr. Zaius, finally confesses to Taylor that humans once had a civilization even more advanced than their own, "a paradise" that Taylor's "breed made a desert of." With the aid of two sympathetic apes, Zira and Cornelius, he escapes from captivity to find what lies in the "forbidden zone."

“You maniacs! You blew it up! Damn you!” Planet of the Apes (1968).

Once he arrives, Taylor discovers a half-submerged Statue of Liberty, destroyed as the result of nuclear conflagration. Kneeling and sobbing in its shadow, he delivers his legendary end line, "You maniacs! You blew it up! Damn you! Damn you all to hell!" That Taylor was an astronaut represented the contradiction of the rocket as both the triumph of humanity's ingenuity and the agent of its total destruction. But the movie implies life's capacity to continue its evolution onward, repeating a cycle of civilizational development that reflected the modernization paradigm popular with western policy makers and sociologists at the time –"civilization" moved through "tribal, agricultural, and industrial " stages of growth," finally culminating in a consumer society that just happened to look like America in the 1960s.

The Omega Man (1971) is a cautionary tale of weaponizing nature. In this case, it is a plague released as a result of a war between China and Russia – a disease so virulent it kills "in minutes" seemingly every human on the planet save the scientist Colonel Robert Neville (Charlton Heston), who only survived by using an experimental vaccine of his own creation. The theme of biological warfare presaged a change away from fears of nuclear war to that of " arming mother nature," resulting in the 1977 Environmental Modification Convention (ENMOD) treaty, which outlawed use of "exotic weapons" such as " weather warfare." While most of these weapons were only in the nightmarish imaginations of military scientists, the 1972 New York Times article, revealed that the U.S. had in fact engaged in " Operation Popeye," a five year campaign to extend the monsoon season in Southeast Asia through a weather modification technique known as "cloud seeding" in order to drown out the Ho Chi Minh trail in a deluge of mudslides.

The movie begins with Neville driving around an abandoned Los Angeles (set to a fabulous score by Ron Grainer), paying a visit to a dilapidated movie theater in order to watch a footage reel of Woodstock. The sarongs of the hippies on the screen are contrasted with Neville's outfit – aviator glasses and a safari jacket that mimicked the style of Hunter S. Thompson. Indeed, the car Neville drives to the theater, a red 1971 Ford LTD convertible, is nearly identical to the 1971 "red shark" Chevy Impala Raoul Duke drives in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, that deranged elegy to the death of sixties idealism. While Neville might wax nostalgic for the days of flower power, he spends most of his time stalking and killing members of The Family, a Luddite cult of mutant human survivors who look like vampires and whose activities involve mostly the destruction of relics of that technological civilization that precipitated their deformation.

“Well, let’s move kids, we’ve got a long way to go.” Back to the wilderness in The Omega Man (1971).

When Neville discovers there are uninfected survivors living in the countryside, including Lisa, with whom he will become romantically involved (and share one of the first interracial kisses on the big screen), he attempts to replicate his vaccine. But The Family captures and infects Lisa, who in turn betrays him. The movie ends with Neville dying a martyr at the hands of The Family, falling into a fountain with his arms splayed in a cruciate position as young survivors of the plague take his vaccine and leave for the wilderness. It's a deep ecology fantasy of a return to the Garden of Eden and a second chance for humans to get things right.

The environmental history of the United States, according to Soylent Green (1973).

In Soylent Green (1973), though, there is no hope for a second chance. The film represents the apotheosis of the movement toward eco-apocalypse. The year 2022 finds New York City with a population of nearly 40 million destitute people living under constant sweltering heat. The environment has been nearly destroyed, technological expertise is fading away, the only time people can behold nature is on a screen they watch before being euthanized, and women's only means of an above-subsistence life is working as "furniture" for rich clients from the Soylent Corporation. The omniscient Soylent Corporation is responsible for nearly all food production via high nutrition wafers made from plankton.

“I see that orange is your favorite color.” A man is euthanized while nature on a screen in Soylent Green (1973).

Heston plays the detective Frank Thorn, who stumbles upon a ghastly secret while investigating the murder of one of its board members. The oceans are dying from acidification by pollution, and Soylent wafers are not what they appear. " Soylent Green is people!" Thorn screams as he dies, also a martyr, urging his police sergeant to tell the world before "they'll be breeding us like cattle for food."

“The ocean’s dying, the plankton’s dying. It’s people. Soylent green is made out of people.” Soylent Green (1973).

In Soylent Green, the military is absent entirely. The agent of catastrophe is no longer intentional warfare, but the long, slow violence born of corporate profit seeking. People seem to not be aware of what they've destroyed– instead of the flashy bang of a nuclear weapon or the rapid spread of a biological agent, it is the normalization of a long duration of decline that people accept as the facts of life. Soylent Green shows that, as capitalism destroys nature in search of continued profit, it will inevitably lead to a point where the only profit left to harvest is through literally eating one another.

Soylent Green was one of the first films to deal with global warming (and in fact ahead of its time when it came to its effects on the ocean). In the 1950s, a debate raged over whether nuclear weapons testing could create extreme weather events and climate changes. Meteorologists working with the Atomic Energy Commission vehemently denied the possibility, arguing that the earth had near infinite capacity to withstand our attacks and absorb our wastes. But as meteorological experts migrated from tracking radioactive carbon-14 fallout from nuclear weapons to the effects of carbon dioxide from industrial pollution in the 1960s, they began to think otherwise.

By the 1970s, what was called " inadvertent climate modification" became the central focus of a new era of international environmentalism, such as U.N Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization's (UNESCO) " Man and the Biosphere Programme," which sought to put aside " biosphere reserves" across the globe as a means to head-off the coming " limits to growth" of industrialization. And it was, in fact, at a 1969 UNESCO meeting in San Francisco where "Earth Day" was first proposed. On the heels of UNESCO's ambitious enterprise was the 1972 landmark Stockholm Conference on the Human Environment, which placed the long-term consequences of rising greenhouse gas pollution, as well as ozone depletion by CFCs, nitrogen oxides from fertilizer, and even jet contrails, one of the primary threats to "civilization."

But there are disquieting political implications in Soylent Green. On the one hand, it is the destructive nature of capitalism, not humanity, that has precipitated the film's crisis — a crisis that has not yet arrived. On the other hand, Soylent Green uses as its model contemporary descriptions of a supposedly overpopulated Global South that threatens ecological stability, indulging in Western orientalist chauvinism about the collapse of "civilization" and fears of "regression" into conditions of the " Third World." Hence the film looked to its dystopian present to warn Westerners that this might be their own potential dystopic future.

Soylent Green seems to take a page from Paul Ehrlich's 1968 The Population Bomb, which directly translated nuclear fear into that of environmental disaster. Ehrlich begins with an account of a drive through Calcutta, describing the experience as akin to wading through a cesspool of swarming people yelling, fighting, and excreting. By the 1970s, a debate between scientists and policy makers arose over whether the driver behind eco-catastrophe was a "developed world" problem of industrial pollution and consumption, or a "developing world" problem of the reproduction of humanity itself outpacing resource availability – a "population bomb" that needed defusing. The latter side won. The shift toward "population" as the main variable of eco-catastrophe, rather than nuclear weapons or industrial emissions, completed the circle begun nearly thirty years before on that stormy July day in the New Mexican desert—humanity had literally become death, the destroyer of worlds.

Discourse on the Anthropocene today—the idea that "humanity" has become a geological agent—frequently evokes this specter of an undifferentiated humanity that has subsumed the earth under its power, refusing to acknowledge the vastly unequal distribution of who is to blame for the present situation. Often this discourse lapses into a pessimistic resignation about an innately destructive human nature, yet identifies this nature solely with " Western Civilization," as if the only problem of today's ecological crisis is its supposedly imminent "collapse."

But the proliferation of dystopian narratives today reveals the problem of a future-oriented perspective in climate change discourse that mostly captivates those who have been insulated from the full force of climatic and ecological upheaval. The Global South has born the brunt of climate displacement, and indigenous peoples, and particularly indigenous women, suffer far disproportionately from environmental instability past, present, and future. As Kyle Powys Whyte writes, indigenous peoples have long lived in a dystopian Anthropocene – this is not some future crisis as often evoked in the Western imagination – it is here, now, a process going back some five hundred years, a process of intensifying destruction of peoples, cultures, and ecologies. In fact, the first Earth Day itself was not without its controversies, as when indigenous protesters indicted conservationist appropriation of sacred sites for national parks.

In response, critics have converged on another neologism – the Capitalocene. They argue that it is capitalism that has provoked this crisis due to its rapacious appropriation of "cheap natures" to commodify, leading today to a resource crisis similar to the collapse of the ocean's plankton in Soylent Green, the last "cheap thing" on its planet.

But today, even some of those who warn of the dire consequences of global warming have begun to push back against an eco-catastrophist perspective they believe leads to fatalism. The idea of nature's "vulnerability" to human or capitalist destruction is perhaps overstated – the earth's capacity for resilience ensures, as the chaos theorist Dr. Ian Malcolm said in Michael Crichton's novel Jurassic Park, that " life finds a way."

But mobilizing resilience, even if well intentioned, can hew dangerously toward the naturalization of capitalist environmental destruction, climate denialism, or even sanguine assurances about having a " Good Anthropocene." In 1995, Heston gave a surprise call-in to the Rush Limbaugh Show, where he chose to read an excerpt from Jurassic Park to counter those global warming alarmists whose "intoxicating vanity" blinded them from the truth that 'man' could never really destroy the planet. In biblical tenor, Heston exclaimed that even if nuclear weapons killed off all plants and animal life on the surface, "somewhere, under the soil, frozen in arctic ice…life would spread again."

Charlton Heston on the The Rush Limbaugh Show, (1995).

It seems Heston had transformed from prophet of eco-catastrophe to prophet of eco-resilience. This tracked the transformation in his political inclinations from New Deal liberal to the musket-brandishing conservative of the 2000 Republican Convention. It also denoted the spread of a ten-year doubt science campaign led by Exxon, Shell, and BP. Exxon not only knew about climate change by the early 1980s, it even used one of its own research vessels to investigate its potential effects.

Coupled with the technocratic ecoomodernist discourse of "resilience" reacting against the supposedly relentless doomsaying of the tree huggers, the era of consensus on the existence of climate change was at an end. It was the moment when capitalism became fully cannibalistic, acknowledging the plankton was dying but keeping hope that it could still survive by feasting upon the corpses of its victims.

It's true that only an errant planet à la Melancholia, or the expanding helium shell of the dying sun could actually "destroy the planet" – in that sense, Heston and Critchton (a global warming "doubter" himself) were right. But even if life has survived five mass extinctions and still rebounded, why must it suffer a sixth one at our hands? The atrocity being perpetrated upon living beings today is a useless suffering. In terms of political work, it is much more important to focus on that aspect of the violence being inflicted upon life today rather than life's ability to withstand such gratuitous violence.

There may be the possibility of life in capitalist ruins, but as Soylent Green teaches us, there is also the possibility of capital in life's ruins. The future of environmental thought must move beyond discussions of vulnerability/resilience – capitalism uses both when it's convenient to its ends. It is rather the urgent obligation to stop the growing global Eco-Apartheid it has created, what David Quammen describes as a " planet of weeds" – a world without biological diversity, where those without "ecological privilege" suffer more and more while the rich "drink bottled water and breath bottled air."

So let us be done with the discourse of resilience – life has had to find its way through our wreckage long enough.

Justin McBrien is a PhD candidate in history at the University of Virginia. He is currently completing his dissertation on the historical relationship between climate change, nuclear weapons and the concept of the Anthropocene.


Justin McBrien, "Charlton Heston: Prophet of the Eco-Apocalypse?," Enviro-History.com, April 23, 2018, http://Enviro-History.com/heston.html.