Warning: spoilers ahead for Avengers: Infinity War
For someone who claims he just wants to help the whole Universe, Thanos certainly is out to destroy a lot of it. In Avengers: Infinity War, the villain’s helpful strategy is genocide. As soon as he collects all the Infinity Stones and becomes omnipotent, he kills half the people in the Universe. Suddenly, bystanders in New York — and half the movie’s superheroes — turn into gray mush and disappear. But why is Thanos so convinced this is necessary?
In one of the very few scenes where superheroes aren’t blowing things up, Thanos’ adopted daughter Gamora tells him that his plan is madness. But Thanos says it’s “salvation,” that the only way to free up resources in the overpopulated cosmos is to randomly disintegrate half of all intelligent life. The plan has many holes in it, but Thanos isn’t the first to concern himself with overpopulation and the depletion of resources. It’s just that the way he goes about fixing the Universe’s problems is obviously wrong.
Thanos’ philosophy recalls the theories of the British political economist Thomas Malthus, who, in 1798, published his influential Essay on the Principle of Population. His argument, based on the observation that population was increasing in England in the 1700s, was that if people keep pumping out children, there will come a point when we won’t be able to produce enough food to feed all of them. That, he said, would lead to famine, disease, and poverty. The solution for Malthus, a minister for the Church of England, was to preach abstinence and delayed marriage to keep population growth in check — especially among the poor.
“That’s the Malthusian model, and that ended,” says David Weil, professor and chair of economics at Brown University. “That’s not the world we live in anymore.”
What Malthus failed to predict was the Industrial Revolution and the incredible technological advancements that brought us to a world of 7.5 billion people and counting. Malthus worried about the fixed amount of land we could farm to sustain growing populations, but today, we use fertilizers, machines, and engineered crops to get more out of that land. (Whether you agree with that approach or not is another story.) Malthus was simply not that visionary. “His timing was awful,” says Aaron Jonas Stutz, associate professor of anthropology at Oxford College of Emory University. His doomsday prophecy, Stutz explains, came right on the cusp of industrialization, modern sanitation, and the era of vaccines. “He saw storm clouds, but humanity did manage to find a way through that fog.”
Unlike Thanos, Malthus didn’t call for mass murder to deal with dwindling resources. But his theories did inspire questionable policies. In 1834, lawmakers in Britain amended a law designed to give money to the poor “based on Malthusian reasoning that helping the poor only encourages them to have more children and thereby exacerbate poverty,” Michael Shermer, an author and publisher of Skeptic magazine, writes in Scientific American. The same reasoning was used by some British politicians in the 1840s to justify not giving food aid to the Irish during the potato famine, says Alan Fernihough, a lecturer in economics at Queen’s University Management School. In the 19th and 20th centuries, the Malthusian theories also provided a philosophical underpinning for racist beliefs and eugenics programs. His legacy lingers to this day.
In Avengers: Infinity War, Thanos clearly twists Malthusian teachings for his own blinkered purposes. Randomly disintegrating people resembles the strategies of dictators across history, says Jeff Nekola, a biologist at the University of New Mexico, who’s written about Malthus and economic growth. The examples abound: the Holocaust during World War II, the Khmer Rouge mass killings in Cambodia in the 1970s, the genocide in Rwanda in 1994. “It’s the same evil solution that humans have been coming up with since the dawn of time. I don’t think it’s Malthus,” Nekola says of Thanos’ plan. “I think it speaks more of humanity.”
We can see a real-world example of Thanos’ plan in action by looking back at Europe during the Middle Ages, when 30 to 50 percent of the European population was wiped out, says Fernihough. The culprit in this case was disease: the plague killed millions between 1347 and 1351. The survivors did fare better: wages went up, food prices went down, and standards of living improved. But such a scenario wouldn’t work in today’s industrialized societies, where technology allows us to live exponentially better lives, Fernihough says — we’re far less burdened by finite resources. (For those same reasons, that goes for a technologically advanced Marvel Universe with spaceships and vibranium-backed super-tech, as well.) A society with lots of people can be beneficial in itself. For example, working together and exchanging ideas can foster innovation. “It forces people to think about the box,” Fernihough says. “If there was no such thing as population pressure in cities, no one would be looking at building skyscrapers.”
Random disintegration can have unintended consequences in that department. “There are actually very few geniuses out there, and if you have half of the population gone, your chances of getting an Einstein are essentially halved,” Fernihough says. “It doesn’t have to be the next Einstein,” says Weil. “It could be the next Jerry Seinfeld!”
Jokes aside, what Thanos is worried about — overpopulation and resource scarcity — is very much a concern outside of the Marvel Universe as well. The world’s population is expected to reach almost 10 billion by 2050, and climate change is going to cause essential resources like water to dwindle. Some economists are optimistic. Instating carbon taxes can reduce pollution, Weil says, and the world’s population isn’t projected to rise unchecked. Fertility has gone down almost everywhere in the world, according to the UN. But some scientists are worried. As populations grow and expand, animal and plant species are going extinct faster than ever. And if we keep exploiting our planet, at some point, something’s got to give. In a paper published in 2011, Nekola calculated that if we keep consuming as much energy as we do today and the world’s population hits 10 billion by 2050, our standards of living will equal on average those of Uganda today, where about 20 percent of the population live below poverty line.
“The point is, if there are 10 billion people, we know that there are a finite amount of resources on the planet. What is the standard of living you want to live at?” Nekola says.
So while Thanos’ plan is absurd and pure evil, movies like Avengers: Infinity War can start conversations and make viewers think about these real issues that don’t touch superheroes (they’ll mostly be fine when the next Avengers movie comes out in 2019), but do have significant effects on us poor mortals. “When you come out of the theater and really think about, ‘Okay, this is a mad evil villain’s idea of a way to solve the problem,’” says Stutz. “How do we actually try to solve it?”