When the heroes win, everybody loses

Human overpopulation is real; it’s serious and needs to be humanely handled by conscientious and charitable individuals. Thanos from the Avengers movies is neither one of those things. He recognized the problem but acted viciously on his “solution,” phasing out of existence 50% of all intelligent life in the Universe. What Thanos ended up doing right was starting a meaningful conversation, even though many have taken the opportunity to bury their heads deeper.

By João Abegão

If you are like me, you’re probably a fan of the successful and popular Marvel franchise that has spawned close to 20 movies leading to last year’s Avengers: Infinity War, which is set to be followed by its sequel, Avengers: Endgame this Friday. If you aren’t that big of an admirer, don’t worry because this piece isn’t an examination of either one of the movies, but of the interim that separated them and the discussions the first movie originated.

For many years Marvel had been held for questioning by fans as to why they couldn’t create an unforgettable and meaningful antagonist. That all went away when Thanos (pictured above) arrived on the scene and purposely said:

“Dread it, run from it, destiny arrives all the same. And now it’s here. Or should I say, I am.”

Thanos befittingly delivered on this promise. He came bearing the ultimate villainous project of snuffing out of existence fifty percent of all living beings in the Universe, with a literal snap of his fingers. His ratiocination?

“This Universe is finite. Its resources finite. If life is left unchecked, life will cease to exist. It needs correction.”

Thanos is, of course, talking about overpopulation and how the exponential growth of a species (such as us humans) ends up outstripping available resources and inducing devastation. It should also go without saying that the genocidal path taken by Thanos is excoriated by people who worry about human overpopulation and our impact on this Earth, so that’s it for our moral analysis.

Thanos, the main antagonist. Courtesy Walt Disney Studios

Even though his actions are wicked, the discussions that ensued were not. Let’s look at some of the publications about Thanos’ resolve in the mainstream media. The majority of these editorials were inconceivably depreciative of the population issue, using the opportunity to disparage individuals such as Reverend Thomas Malthus and Professor Paul Ehrlich for raising awareness about the subject. Nonetheless, I still want to argue that – in spite of their attempts – this past year has been a favorable epoch in the contentious discussion of our numbers. Sadly, it might be coming to an end.

In a Yale Climate Connections piece, Michael Svodoba asserts that the examinations of the environmental concerns raised by Thanos will probably crumble to dust after the villain is taken care of. Svodoba argues that this means there is a limited time-window for the franchise to vindicate the cliché affinity of environmentalists with mass murder solutions. I also share his anxiety and take it a step further.

My guess is that the massive enthusiasm (e.g. Reddit’s Thanos did nothing wrong) surrounding the issue of overpopulation was made possible not just because Thanos was the ultimate ‘utilitarian’ but because the heroes lost. For an entire year, fans were left in limbo wondering about the fate of their noble champions, which produced a barrage of scrutiny over Thanos’ motivations and a nuanced take on his character. For example, consider this interview with Josh Brolin on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert. Brolin is the voice behind our antagonist and speaks his mind about Thanos’ popularity:

– “People saw the movie, and they felt sympathetic towards him, they had a multitude of reactions to him, and it wasn’t just ‘he is the worst guy in the Universe.’”

Through the process of creating this character, he appears to have become conscious of the obstacles facing unlimited growth. Brolin explains Thanos’ convictions:

– “His intention, if you think about it was, there is an overabundance of population, and there are limited resources. So what he is doing is actually right.”

Colbert intervenes and asks Brolin why didn’t Thanos just double the resources with a snap of his fingers? This was a recurring point in many publications: Thanos ought to have multiplied the available resources instead of resorting to mass genocide. Indubitably, genocide was an unacceptable option, but the alternative of doubling/tripling/quadrupling and so forth is defective just the same.  With rapidly growing populations with short doubling times, you are quickly right back where you started, bumping up against limits—as the late physics professor Albert Bartlett and environmentalist David Suzuki explain.  How long would Thanos have to keep it up?

On the positive side, one levelheaded publication arising from Infinity War is a very popular YouTube video by content creator Joe Scott. Likewise, a video by another You tuber, Mr. Sinn, looks at historical events, specifically the Black Death, and discusses if halving a given population – as Thanos has done – would produce any beneficial results for those that would survive. Relying on the work from medieval economics expert A.R. Bridbury (1977), Mr. Sinn explains how the steep decline in population induced land, homes and food prices to substantially decrease. Simultaneously, wages went up as much as 40%, according to David Routt from the University of Richmond, whose research is also featured in the video (more on the Black Death here).

On the other hand, one sober piece by Steven L. Wilson in Pajiba did a ‘rigorous’ thought experiment of the scientific merit of Thanos’ Snap, and found it “atrocious considered from a scientific perspective … as unforgivable a policy as it was an ethical act.” In detail, Wilson asserts that population die-offs such as the one experienced in 14th century Europe don’t halt population growth for long since in a mere eighty years the population attained its pre-plague level. This is exactly the point poignantly argued by Svoboda in Yale Climate Connections:

“If a society somehow managed to survive the shock, its population would likely again grow past the point of sustainability – unless it chose to manage its affairs differently.”

Phil Newell in Nexus Media correctly adds:

“Contraception and education offer a more sustainable solution than anything Thanos might suggest.”

Writing for Forbes, JV Chamary outlines the issue while also introducing an ample range of topics, but brushes off concerns over limited resources as possibly “irrelevant” since humans can engineer and employ artificial means to sustain populations beyond natural limits. Similarly, he correctly points out that the proportion of undernourished people on earth has dwindled from 37% (between 1969-71) to 11% in (2017), but neglects to recognize that in terms of absolute numbers there was less of a discernible achievement to be celebrated (875 million in 1969-71 and 820.8 in 2017, with this number on the rise since 2014). In reality, the UN highlighted in early April 2019 that population growth is undermining the achievement of some SDGs such as reducing poverty, child marriage and people living in improvised slums. UN Deputy Secretary-General, Amina Mohammed summarized:

“While the percentage of affected persons may be declining, their number is still rising. It is time for the world to show greater ambition and urgency around SDG implementation…”

Sadly, if we follow publications on Thanos, such as those from the following media platforms Forbes; Foundation for Economic Education; Mashable; Vice; Reason; The Federalist; Wall Street Journal; Medium; Zero Hedge it certainly isn’t looking like we are displaying this “greater ambition and urgency around SDG implementation,” since most of these pieces belittle, discredit or oversimplify worries about human population. A telling example from the Vice piece titled I Asked an Expert if Thanos is Right:

“I called up an economics researcher specializing in population issues. Let’s start off with a simple one: Are there too many people in the world right now? No.”

Instead of examining issues such as the societal and psychological burdens of overpopulation; the current overshoot of our global ecological footprint; or how the need to feed, clothe and provide dignified lives to each and every one of us is having profound environmental consequences, the authors and experts cited throughout the pieces prefer to deposit all hope in human ingenuity, regardless of their results.

Fortunately, articles such as Is Thanos Right? by James O’Malley give a more refined take on the link between our growing numbers and the overconsumption which inevitably harms the environment. O’Malley was even considerate enough to interview Alistair Currie from Population Matters to get to the bottom of this story. Alistair adverts to the criticalness of the situation but also concentrates on our best set of strategies to ameliorate some of the damage, such as providing modern family planning, good education, empowerment of girls and women and the challenge of pro-natalist views. For more information on the solutions to overpopulation at various levels of action, The Overpopulation Project compiled an extensive and excellent list.

In any event, I am delighted by the fictional artwork that the franchise has brought into existence, even though it is regrettable that this ‘Golden Age’ of renewed interest in human overpopulation might be coming to an end as soon as the heroes correct the narrative and reinstate the status quo of blissful ignorance. I for one would wish for this hiatus to last a while longer, as I am sure everyone would benefit from the rational deliberations arising from Thanos’ actions.

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6 thoughts on “When the heroes win, everybody loses

  1. Thanks for this thoughtful summary of the issues raised by Thanos in Avengers: Infinity War, and for sharing the Al Bartlett “Bacteria in a Bottle” segment of my documentary, GrowthBusters: Hooked on Growth. I’m anxious to see where the new film goes, but I don’t share your pessimism about this being a closing window of opportunity to direct the world’s attention to solving human overpopulation.

    There’s been much more at work in recent years than just this superhero movie – fortunately. Projects like this one – The Overpopulation Project, the excellent work being done by organizations like Population Matters, Having Kids, Population Institute Canada, Population Media Center, GrowthBusters, World Population Balance (check out The Overpopulation Podcast https://www.worldpopulationbalance.org/podcasts), and activists like you, João Abegão, have all been informing and extending the conversation and raising the volume.

    But you’re right, João, we don’t have the volume cranked up to eleven just yet, so we must maintain effort and look for ways to capture the attention of the public and policymakers. This film series helps, but it’s far from enough, and this is far from the end of the opportunity.

    Let’s keep it up!

    P.S. The GrowthBusters podcast explored Avengers: Infinity War in episode 15, find it at https://www.worldpopulationbalance.org/podcasts

    1. Dave – I noticed you particularly left out ALL the U.S.-based immigration organizations, which all talk about population, in your list! 🙂 Federation for American Immigration Reform, Progressives for Immigration Reform, NumbersUSA, Californians for Population Stabilization …

    2. Thank you for the feedback Mr Gardner, it was as always is instructional and straight to the point.

      Of course, I agree that there are reasons to be hopeful and the movement has been making great strides. My pessimism was solely directed to the immersion of huge audiences on the theme of overpopulation and carrying capacity that was generated by this movie. Reddit’s “Thanos did nothing wrong” amassed at some point almost one million users, before they did an intentional culling of their members and reduced the number to half.

      This and many other publications that generate scrutiny in audiences that come for the superhero stuff and stay for the philosophical questions that Thanos’ resolve spawned are the reason for my pessimism, since last year, before Infinite War was released, we could certainly argue that there was much less attention on this topic in mainstream mediums. My pessimism is brought about by an eventual return to such a stage when the Heroes win the day, and people stop asking questions.
      That means it is all left to us to carry that torch to educate the masses about what the problem and its “real” solutions.
      As you say, “Let’s keep it up”.

      Kind regards.

  2. Sad to see that people with logical (and researched) concerns about population growth, especially in the context of accelerating climate change, are branded Eco-Fascists now.
    I am happy to have a discussion about it, and can explain my reasoning very well. But in this current political landscape, the moment you mention population control or migration, you are instantly literal Hitler.

    It’s frustrating because the people pushing back hardest to this discussion will be the same ones who actively criticise all humanitarian crises in future, while the adults are left to fix it.
    It really is exactly the same as Stray Cat populations, with people putting food out but taking no other responsibility, and creating a situation with far more suffering at the end. What is the opposite of a utilitarian?

  3. One reason for optimism is the proliferation, in recent years, of smart young researchers looking into the population/environment nexus. This includes Jenna Dodson and Patrícia Dérer here at the Overpopulation Project.

    Also, Addison Phillips, with his recent masters thesis titled “Immigration Ethics: Creating Flourishing, Just, and Sustainable Societies in a World of Limits,” downloadable at https://overpopulation-project.com/wp-content/uploads/2018/09/phillips_addison.pdf

    And of course, João himself! whose recent “Human Overpopulation Atlas” can be found at https://www.overpopulationatlas.com/

    Good to see young people and new perspectives on these issues!

  4. Great column, thanks. I don’t know how anybody can deny that overpopulation is the biggest ecological threat facing humans. In the early 1970s this was common sense, now it is an elephant in the room that our so called “best and brightest” fail to acknowledge.

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