Thanos Was Wrong: Environmentalists Should Reject Malthusianism
This post contains spoilers for Avengers: Infinity War. You’ve been warned!
Pop Quiz: Do you think that overpopulation is one of the greatest environmental threats facing Planet Earth today? Are human beings an inherently destructive species whose growth needs to be kept in check? Do we just need to have fewer humans on this planet in order to restore balance and live more sustainably?
If you answered yes, congratulations. You’ve just helped Thanos wipe out half of all sentient life in the universe.
Thanos, the unstoppable (so far!) villain of the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU), is driven by a Malthusian philosophy inspired by the fate of his home world, Titan. On Titan, population growth and overconsumption of limited resources led to a catastrophic civilization-ending collapse. Shortly before the collapse, Thanos proposed a simple but brutal solution: kill half of the population, selected at random, and the survivors will have abundant resources left over with which to survive and flourish. Unsurprisingly, the people of Titan rejected his plan. Their civilization collapsed, and Thanos became convinced that his “kill half of all life” solution needed to be applied on a cosmic scale.
Thanos’ unthinkably brutal mission to extinguish half of all life in the universe is driven by a mad philosophy that will seem very familiar to students of real-world philosophy, history, economics, and environmental policy. It’s rare for a major motion picture to have such an explicit conversation about any philosophy, much less environmental philosophy. Let’s take a closer look at what Thanos is talking about and what the implications are in the real world.
Thanos is a Cosmic Malthusian
Thomas Robert Malthus was a cleric and scholar who wrote a highly influential essay on population growth. In his 1798 book, An Essay on the Principle of Population, Malthus argued that population would increase exponentially while food production increased arithmetically, leading to mass starvation and social upheaval. Basically, people who are well-fed live long enough to have as many kids as they want — and we can’t grow new food quickly enough to feed all of those new kids. According to Malthus, the only “virtuous” way to avert the mass suffering associated with population growth is for large numbers of people to practice celibacy (abstinence).
Malthusian thinking on population was rekindled in 1968 by Paul and Anne Ehrlich’s famous book, The Population Bomb. This book picked up where Malthus left off, offering new projections about population in the coming decades, dire predictions about what would happen as a result of this explosive population growth, and proposed solutions for this emerging overpopulation crisis.
The Population Bomb was a widely read and discussed book whose effects on environmental discourse and population discourse are still felt to this day. Modern real-world Malthusians who read The Population Bomb were almost certainly the inspiration for the particular Malthusian spin that the writers put on Thanos in the MCU.
Malthusianism Has a Bad History
Malthusian philosophy and practice has a bad history. From its inception, Malthusian thinking has perpetuated racist, classist, misogynist, and generally misanthropic public policies. When deciding how to keep population growth in check, those who society already treats as “inferior” — people of low or no income, immigrants, people of color, etc. — have generally been the first targets of Malthusian policies. This means that people who are already disenfranchised are deprived of food and medical care, subjected to involuntary or coerced sterilizations, etc. in the hopes that this will decrease their numbers and rate of reproduction.
Given how long ago Malthus wrote his famous essay, are these problems with the application of his philosophy just a sign of the times rather than a problem with the philosophy itself?
In a word, no. They’re natural consequences of the foundations of Malthusianism — and they’re virtually inescapable without rejecting the entire philosophy.
Once you decide that the biggest problem you’re facing is “too many humans,” then “fewer humans” becomes the obvious solution. And most if not all propositions for how to achieve the goal of “fewer humans” end up being highly problematic in the real world. Even the Malthusians who reject blatantly heinous policies like involuntary sterilization find themselves contributing to various forms of racism, classism, and misogyny in other ways. Coerced sterilization (offering financial incentives or legal benefits in exchange for sterilization) and austerity (cutting public assistance to people in need of food, shelter, and medical care) are just two examples of modern policies that aren’t explicitly discriminatory on paper, but are effectively discriminatory in practice. Those groups which are most disenfranchised are ultimately the hardest hit by such policies. The only Malthusian policy that tends to avoid this pitfall is improved access to completely voluntary birth control and family planning, which can in fact benefit the lives of those affected while also serving to slow the rate of population growth. But there’s nothing inherently Malthusian about birth control and family planning. Any non-Malthusian perspective that embraces reproductive justice will support those policies too.
Avengers: Infinity War slips in a reference to the troubled history of real-life Malthusian policies. When Thanos describes his original plan to eliminate half of all sentient life on his home world, Titan, he points out that his proposal included a purely random selection process in order to ensure a degree of fairness. Rich or poor, minority or majority, all people would be equally at risk of being culled. This aspect of Thanos’ plan was surely a nod to the fact that real-world Malthusianism has at times been anything but impartial — specifically targeting the poor and disenfranchised for “population reduction” while the rich and powerful are free to have as many children as they like.
Of course, few if any real-world advocates of a Malthusian perspective would publicly embrace Thanos’ proposal to use random selection to cull half of the population in one fell swoop. They would probably dismiss Thanos as a villainous caricature of their philosophy. But in a certain sense, the suggestions Malthusians do propose are even more dystopian than Thanos’ vision of a cosmos kept in balance through a single mass culling. Real-world Malthusians are cutting off aid to the hungry and homeless so that they slowly starve, forcing or incentivizing sterilization (usually for the poor rather than the general population), etc. These approaches include much of the same inhumane suffering and deprivation of basic human rights that they purport to prevent, opting to embrace “corrective” suffering that supposedly averts a greater disaster.
Thanos’ solution, at least, is quick and relatively painless. It’s horrific and unacceptable, but it’s over in an instant. Its real-world equivalents can’t say the same. Malthusian thinking and Malthusian policy leads to generations of human suffering — replacing a catastrophic collapse with a permanent divide between the few who live in comfortable abundance and the many whose lives are characterized by poverty, hunger, and involuntary or coerced sterilization. This supposedly staves off a future collapse, but does nothing to correct the underlying imbalances and injustices.
Malthusianism is Wrong
Malthusianism is just plain wrong — not just from an ethical perspective, but also from an empirical perspective.
The population crisis that Malthus predicted simply hasn’t happened. Even the more recent Malthusian predictions of The Population Bomb have also failed to materialize. Population has increased dramatically since the days of Malthus — but not exponentially, and not with the degree of mass starvation and social upheaval that Malthus predicted. In fact, while there is still tremendous poverty in the world, percentage-wise, people are more well-fed today than they were in Malthus’ time. The food shortages that do exist are due to political and economic instability, inefficiencies, and injustices rather than an actual lack of sufficient food. So far, there’s still plenty of food; we’re just not feeding everyone with it.
Does this mean that we’re off the hook entirely and can just populate the Earth with as many humans as we want?
Not necessarily. The ecological concept of “carrying capacity” describes how big of a population of a given species a given environment can sustain indefinitely. Figuring out the Earth’s carrying capacity for humans is an incredibly complex task, and opinions on the subject vary widely. However, most people agree that since the Earth itself is finite, there must be some finite limit to the planet’s carrying capacity. The only question is what exactly it is, and what actions we need to take to avoid surpassing (and diminishing!) that carrying capacity.
But a complete understanding of carrying capacity for human beings in a given environment must reflect the complex and variable relationship that humans have with their environment. When studying the carrying capacity of a forest for deer, for example, you can estimate how much each deer eats, how much food is available, how many deer can practically subsist on that amount of food, how quickly they reproduce, etc. With humans, however, the analysis becomes more complex.
How much energy and natural resources does each human consume? This varies tremendously from person to person, city to city, region to region, nation to nation. It’s also something that we can intentionally (or unintentionally) alter about our individual and collective behavior. We can choose to rely on cleaner or dirtier energy sources; we can choose transportation solutions with a lower or higher carbon footprint; we can choose to eat foods with a lower or higher carbon footprint; etc. We can also take actions that increase the planet’s carrying capacity, regardless of what our current consumption patterns are. We can reforest areas that have been deforested; we can adopt forms of regenerative agriculture that feed us while also promoting biodiversity and sequestering carbon; etc. All of this affects how much carrying capacity the Earth has for us, and how much of it we’re currently using.
Having some degree of interest in just how many humans there are on the planet isn’t necessarily a bad thing. We can take into consideration the potential benefits of long-term decreases in population growth, and we can encourage reproductive justice approaches to that end. But letting the fear of overpopulation dominate our approach to environmental and social problems is a Malthusian way of thinking that leads almost inevitably to destructive public policies.
In other words, Thanos was wrong. Don’t be Thanos.
There Are Better Alternatives to Malthusianism
Malthusianism tries to provide a simple explanation for some very real and serious problems that exist in the world. There really are millions of people living in extreme hunger and poverty; human population has ballooned and is in fact still increasing to an extent; the sheer number of human beings on the planet right now does seem to be contributing to a variety of environmental and social problems.
But presenting this problem as a problem with “humanity” and a problem of “too many humans” lets the real culprits off the hook. There are particular policies, and particular political and economic institutions, that are contributing heavily to the interrelated problems of poverty, war, social upheaval, and environmental degradation. If we blame it all on “humanity” as a whole, then we’re blaming the victims of these institutions and policies right along with the perpetrators. That approach is not only cruel and unjust, but also ineffectual. We’re only going to solve these problems if we actually identify the specific sources of the problems and take action to interrupt the destruction they’re perpetuating. Collectively blaming the whole species does nothing to point us in the direction of actionable solutions.
Fortunately, there are solutions that empower us to take a serious look at environmental problems through a more productive, solutions-oriented, humanity-affirming lens.
The first step is to realize that the ecological footprint of our species isn’t determined solely by the size of our population. A simple but powerful way to step beyond that one-dimensional way of thinking is to consider that our ecological footprint is in fact a result of population times consumption. In other words, total population times the average consumption per person equals the total ecological footprint of a society. This formula acknowledges that population does have an impact on environmental degradation, but only in the context of our decisions about energy and resource consumption. For example, a single wealthy person in the United States consumes far more energy and resources than an entire uncontacted tribe in the Amazon. Similarly, two neighbors who live in identical homes next door to each other may have vastly different ecological footprints depending on their choices in transportation, energy, diet, etc. Some of the best solutions we have available to us involve altering our consumption patterns, or engaging in restorative agricultural and ecological practices, rather than doing anything whatsoever about the rate of population growth.
Environmental justice is another framework for addressing problems of environmental degradation. It takes into account the all-important details of who is most responsible for environmental degradation and who is most harmed by it. This is important on both an ethical level and on a practical level. Knowing who’s responsible allows us to hold them accountable and reduce the amount of harm they’re causing. Knowing who’s harmed allows us to help them directly and ensure that they won’t be harmed again. This approach turns the injustice of the Malthusian approach on its head, actively helping some of the most disenfranchised people in our society by helping them to free themselves of the burden of environmental harm in their individual lives and in their communities.
Climate justice is environmental justice applied to the climate crisis. Human-caused climate change is arguably the greatest environmental and social crisis we face today — but blaming it all on “humans” and “population growth,” as the Malthusians would do, misses the point. Fossil fuel consumption has caused a tremendous increase in greenhouse gases in our atmosphere. There are particular humans who have profited greatly from the extraction and combustion of these fossil fuels, knowing full well the likely consequences of their actions. There are also particular humans who are suffering disproportionately due to the climate disruptions caused by these emissions. Understanding climate justice offers a way for us to take effective and just action on climate solutions.
Rather than blaming all humans, environmental justice and climate justice approaches empower us to take action in a way that helps those most harmed by the problem AND holds the people who are most responsible for the problem accountable for their actions. We can create a more just society, and a more sustainable society, by taking a long look at these details and doing the hard work of implementing a wide variety of solutions informed by the principles of environmental justice and climate justice.
If you’re concerned about environmental problems, but you don’t want to be a supervillain like Thanos, there’s an easy way to get started on a better path. Talk to people in your community about environmental justice and climate justice. Find solutions that you can work on individually and collectively. You and your friends and neighbors can serve as the real-life equivalent of the Avengers, each doing your part in your own unique way to make a difference and protect the world from the threat of environmental destruction.
In the meantime, here’s some free advice: if you ever find yourself in possession of an Infinity Gauntlet and all of the Infinity Stones, please stop and think it through before you turn half of all sentient life to dust with a snap of your fingers. Maybe, just maybe, you could have used the tremendous power at your fingertips to provide for those in need, and to accelerate the transition to sustainable forms of energy and agriculture, rather than blaming everyone else for the problem.