The Universe According to Thanos

If you’re a fan of the superhero comic book genre of cinema, then you should run as fast as you can, not merely walk, to the latest installment of the Marvel Comics franchise, The Avengers: Infinity War. If these loud, action-packed movies are not your cup of tea, then you should probably take a pass. But if you don’t care what the film snobs think and you enjoy them immensely, then go for it. You’ll be glad you did. The directing brothers Anthony and Joseph Russo have pulled off no small feat here. While the movie is not without its flaws, they successfully juggled a long parade of characters and intertwining plot lines to pull off one highly entertaining thrill ride of a flick.

But that’s not what I want to talk about.

At the center of this movie–it is in fact, his story, told mostly from his perspective–is its formidable villain, Thanos. Thanos is a “titan,” or he’s from Titan–I forget which. He is a mighty big badass, but he fancies himself a thinking badass. He has reached the conclusion that the universe is out of balance, which is to say it’s becoming much too populous. He’s certain that he sees the future, and that future consists of many worlds becoming so crowded that their inhabitants are on the verge of overconsuming precious scarce resources, causing much famine, suffering, and misery. He seeks out the complete set of magical “infinity stones” that, once collected in full by his big fisted metal gauntlet, will grant him immense power to do whatever the hell he wants–so he wants to  wipe out half the population of the universe in order to avoid all that suffering and death and misery. It’s kind of funny, though–in the peculiar sense, anyways–that he doesn’t think to use those magic rocks to create a superabundance of resources on all the worlds whose populations he seeks to halve, so that the halving wouldn’t be so necessary. Thanos seems a bit too eager to employ genocide as a solution.

Thanos’ zero-sum theory of humanity isn’t just a comic book trope, however. It is widely shared by people who actually have some influence on public policy, as frightening as that sounds.

Thanos’ rather stark and brutal perspective is somewhat reminiscent of the Reverend Thomas Robert Malthus, the 18th century English economist. While the majority of middle-class Europeans rejoiced at the terrific gains being made at the time by the proliferation of new technology that brought on the Industrial Revolution, Malthus preferred to rain all over their prosperity parade with a lot of gloom-and-doom predictions. He claimed that all that newly created wealth was merely subsidizing the increased reproduction of the poor, who would eventually become so numerous that they would be confronted with famine and disease, what has since become known in the popular usage as a “Malthusian trap.” Such crises would inevitably kill off a great many people, thus regressing society back to the preceding economic state.

“It is an evident truth that, whatever may be the rate of increase in the means of subsistence, the increase of population must be limited by it, at least after the food has once been divided into the smallest shares that will support life,” wrote the rather grim and pessimistic Malthus in his Essay on the Principle of Population. “All the children born, beyond what would be required to keep up the population to this level, must necessarily perish, unless room be made for them by the deaths of grown persons.”

Malthus supplied absolutely no evidence for his stark thesis; he simply stated it as a given fact. But his theory was spectacularly wrong. Contrary to what it implied, the food supply at any given time isn’t fixed. The more people come into existence, the more people do continue, thank goodness, to develop methods for increasing the available sustenance as the population grows. The entire population of Europe was approximately 127 million in 1700. It steadily increased to 224 million by 1820 when Malthus was in his mid-fifties, and then eventually reached 498 million by 1913. And yet the massive crises of starvation and want that Malthus predicted never came to pass. Europe’s biggest disasters occurred during the first half of the 20th century, and they were caused not by overpopulation, but by blundering statesmen who condemned the continent to two horrific wars that slaughtered millions.

Indeed, paleoanthropologists estimate that there was all of 10,000-30,000 homo sapiens around 200,000 years ago, and everything we know about human life in that period indicates that it was pretty nasty, brutish, and short. The “Toba catastrophe,” a massive volcanic eruption that occurred in Indonesia about 70,000 years ago, is believed to have caused a “population bottleneck,” that is, a sudden and sharp reduction in the human population to as few as 1,000 -10,000 people. Today, there are billions of people walking the planet. By Malthus’ logic, we should never have become so numerous and prosperous at the same time. Living standards and quality of life today are not worse than they were during the paleolithic era, but far, far better. Malthus had it exactly backwards.

His skewed theory that a growing population inevitably meant greater scarcity of food and resources led him and those who believed in his expertise on the matter to some deeply flawed preferences in public policy. He was intensely supportive of England’s Corn Laws, for example, which imposed steep tariffs on imported grain. His reasoning was that this would incentivize greater self-sufficiency for food in England at a time when other countries taxed their own grain exports whenever they experienced economic hardship. But the increased food prices caused by the Corn Laws simply ended up increasing the wealth of England’s landowners at the expense of everyone else. The higher food prices imposed on the general population reduced their ability to purchase manufactured goods, thus hampering the country’s industry. It doesn’t take a Ph.D. in economics to understand how much the increased prices of food and other goods, along with the reduction in employment opportunities, arrested the living standards of anyone who wasn’t an aristocrat.

But the Malthusian delusion persists–among highly learned scholars, no less–no matter how many times it’s discredited by both logic and experience.

The American biologist Paul Ehrlich provides one example of the stubborn persistence of this thesis. In his 1968 book, The Population Bomb, Ehrlich predicted that due to the growing population, the 1970s would be a decade of mass starvation, misery, and death…hundreds of millions would perish as the result of food shortages, stated Ehrlich.

Obviously, this had not come to pass. (At one point in 1980, Ehrlich even predicted that England would cease to exist by the year 2000.) Some famines had occurred subsequent to Ehrlich’s predictions, such as Ethiopia’s catastrophic famine of the early 1980s, but they were the result of deeply misguided government policies that prevented the populations of those countries from accessing food supplies when they needed them most, not global overpopulation.

Of course, that’s not to say that there’s an eternally guaranteed progression of advancing technology and growing prosperity. If one were to chart the evolution of man’s quality of life throughout the ages on a graph, the line would look like more like a zig-zag, sometimes inclining upwards, at other times declining downwards, and then back up again, down yet again, and so forth.

It’s knowledge and what man does with it that is the real determining factor of progress or regression, not population growth. It’s certainly true that it’s not necessarily a given that human knowledge will always advance to the overall improvement of living conditions indefinitely, but it’s been pretty much on a roll for quite awhile now.

Incredibly, Ehrlich’s erroneous prophecies of mass starvation hasn’t kept academia and policy makers from falling into the Malthusian trap any more than Malthus’ own errors have. The British journalist Brendan O’Neill has been tracking this trend among the world’s intelligentsia for some years now. In this 2012 piece he reports that at that year’s UN Rio+20 Earth summit, over a hundred venerable institutions, including England’s own Royal Society, chillingly urged those in power throughout the world to look past “ethical sensitivities” and “confront rising global population.”

I’m not quite sure what they meant by that, but something tells me that the rest of us should make sure they don’t get their hands on any infinity stones.