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  • On the Cultural Projection of Population Crisis:The Case of The Omega Man
  • Justin Sully (bio)

In 1974, Kurt Waldheim, then secretary-general of the United Nations (UN), declared the year to come “World Population Year” (1974).1 Coming less than a month after the divisive and widely publicized World Population Conference in Bucharest the same year, the UN’s agenda reflected an already charged and unprecedentedly global circulation of population alarm.2 The briefest historical overview of industrial capitalist culture suggests a consistent coincidence of moments of systemic economic crisis with the proliferation of alarmist discourses of population. The Malthusian problem of population, for example, was born in the context of industrialization in Britain in 1830s, whereas the eugenics movement reaches the height of its influence in the wake of the Great Depression (1929–39) (and the 1917 October Revolution), during the volatile inter-war years. In this sense, the popular alarm about overpopulation that reemerges in the late 1960s can be read as a simple reflex response to the systemic crisis that is dated to these years. Yet, as the significant periodizing claims rooted in these years suggest (articulated by the now familiar terms of deindustrialization, post-Fordism, globalization, and neoliberalism), there is room consider the possibility of a more complex shift at work in the idea of population itself. In other words, it is worth asking how the discourse of population-as-threat, which was (and remains) such a powerful reactionary discourse when articulated through the lenses of nationalism, industrial class antagonisms, and biological racisms, adapts to the transformations of scale (global), production (post-Fordist) and so-called “cultural” racism.

This essay explores the relevance and consequence of this question from the standpoint of popular film culture. I first situate the crisis discourse of population within the volatile political-economic conjuncture of the late 1960s and early 1970s, the period during which the idea of a [End Page 87] “population bomb” takes hold in the popular imagination. I turn to film and the problem of crowd photography to theorize a framework for reading the media aesthetics of population alarm. I finally look to American science fiction cinema—perhaps the most concentrated archive of “demo-grafictions” of any historical period—and, in particular, The Omega Man (dir. Boris Sagal, 1971). Situating these cinematic imaginings of apocalyptic demographic futures within a longer history of a crisis discourse of population and its ideological function during moments of capitalist system failure exposes an internally conflicted field of political investments and points to a deeper conceptual crisis, apparent in the 1970s, of the modern, industrial imaginary of population.3

The Crisis Discourse of Population

By the 1970s, a discourse of crisis focusing on population dynamics had already undergone a series of transformations. What appears as the threat of a global population bomb in the popular culture at the very end of the 1960s builds upon a discourse of disaster that had been shaped and reshaped, over the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, in relation to the concentration of urban populations, wage labor, and the development of statistical management and medical rationalities of reproduction. Popular cultural expressions of population alarm in the 1970s can be usefully read as emerging from within a polarized discursive field that was a constant characteristic of earlier imaginings of population crisis. At one pole, there is the threat of overpopulation: the alarmist prognostications of a global population bomb revitalize the logic of the Malthusian problem of population, extrapolating their environmental and political catastrophes from the assumption of the “natural inequity of two powers of population and the production of the earth.”4 At the other extreme and less evident in the dominant 1970s’ rhetorics of population bombs is the threat of population decline. Exemplary here is the eugenics movements that exerted such widespread influence across Europe and North America during the first half of the twentieth century. A certain fear of overpopulation certainly motivates Euro-American eugenicist thought, but it is the overriding emphasis on the differential decline of a genetically “fit” population that comes to replace absolute population growth as the site of crisis. Though expressed in significantly different terms, the variegated historical discourse of population crisis...


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