Malthusianism suggests population growth should be tightly controlled—some of its advocates going as far as to sympathize with Thanos-like projects, perhaps. But it's not that simple.
By Alonso Martínez
Thanos existed in real life.
Okay… not really. But there was indeed a man who had a similar idea.
19th-century England saw the rise of the Industrial Revolution, a time of change and progress when several nations began to increase their production of goods and services thanks to unprecedented technological developments. At the same time, enclosure laws and the boom of factories led to the separation of land and products from their original workers in favor of landowners for the first time in history, causing poverty to rise exponentially.
Facing such issues, an English cleric and demographer by the name of Thomas Malthus gathered population data and looked into the rate of production of goods and services, and reached the conclusion that poverty was the result of both overpopulation and lack of resources accessible for all.
Malthus' view Vs Thanos' radical solution
Malthus observed that world population grew exponentially (1, 2, 4, 8, 32, 64, etc), while agricultural production and food supply increased arithmetically (1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, etc), meaning that at some point, there would be far more living beings to feed than food to feed them with. Specifically, Malthus calculated that by the end of two hundred years,
“population would be to the means of subsistence as 259 to 9; in three centuries as 4,096 to 13, and in two thousand years the difference would be incalculable.”
This would eventually lead to the collapse of civilization as we know it, if nothing were done about it. As economist Henri Denis explains when synthesizing Malthus' view,
"A population in which nothing regulates the marital and sexual behavior of individuals is a population that will remain forever miserable. In it, there would never be enough food for everyone and misery would annihilate those who cannot be fed."
Thus, many who follow this line of reasoning come to the conclusion that, in order to thrive, a good portion of an overpopulated society must be naturally eliminated through disease, natural disasters, and war. If population growth is not naturally—or artificially—kept in check by such means, overpopulation would lead to unsustainability in the long term.
This hypothesis also suggests that, naturally, those who perish are those who lack the means to otherwise sustain their needs—i.e. the poor and the least fit, appealing to Darwin's theory of natural selection in which only the fit survive.
Thanos, on the other hand, offers a more "practical" solution. He seeks annihilation, sure, but, in his mind, annihilation of a fairer kind. Rich and poor, healthy and sick, warriors and civilians—no matter their condition and their circumstances, blind chance will determine who lives and who dies, rather than undeserved pre-existing privilege. Would this actually help humankind, though?
Would we be better off if half the population suddenly disappeared?
The idea that population growth alone will inevitably lead to the total collapse of civilization is simply false.
But the idea is nonetheless pervasive. We've come to believe that one of the world's biggest problems is lack of food, which in turn is caused by overpopulation. In fact, China keeps imposing policies that restrict the amount of children any given family can have—reinforcing the fear of a Malthusian scenario.
In reality, global food production is 1.5 times higher than population levels
This means that the total food production of today's world is more than enough to feed each and every single human on earth. Likewise, virtually all relevant goods and resources could be reasonably shared among the population without any conflict—if individual greed weren't such a ubiquitous factor.
The problem lies in resource distribution
Since we actually have enough for everyone, the problem isn't lack of resources, but how we distribute them and how much each of us expects to get. While there are nations that produce excessive amounts of food, there are other regions that, because of unfavorable climate or lack of infrastructure, cannot feed its inhabitants at all. More than 165 billion dollars worth of food are wasted each year in the United States alone—food that could otherwise be consumed in other parts of the world that actually need it. Though in China this is also a problem, it's due more to economic factors and population distribution (concentrated mostly in urban areas) than to overpopulation as such.
Similarly, our current economic systems favor over-accumulation of wealth in a strikingly small portion of the population, which means that a vast amount of people will lack the means to acquire desperately-needed goods and services. As the wealthy get wealthier and hoard products, the poor get poorer and it gets harder for them to secure the minimum it takes to survive.
Eliminating half the population would not solve that problem. It would only reduce the amount of people in the world, while retaining the infrastructure, mechanisms, and ineffective distribution that are actually at the root of the issue.
More ideally, governments should ensure that more people have access to basic resources in order to live with dignity. Though that's the basic premise of socialism, there are still far too many problems with that system to implement effectively. Yet, a middle ground between radical socialism and unrestricted capitalism has proven advantageous in many countries, and that's a much better approach both morally and pragmatically than simply wiping out a portion of the population—which wouldn't solve anything at all, as long as everything else remained the same.
Climate change is also not best tackled with fewer people around if factories and industries operate under the same principles as today. An actual long-term solution would be changing social infrastructure and organization at its roots. Killing half the population doesn't lead necessarily to that change, and that change does not necessitate killing half the population.
All in all, Thanos had the wrong approach. If he had the power of the Infinity Stones in his hands, maybe he should have chosen another solution for the universe's problems, instead of genocide. In other words, Thanos had a poor, deeply flawed, and fundamentally implausible justification in the Infinity War saga, which utterly undermines the writers' attempt to provide at least a semblance of reason behind the villain's motives.
Translated by Oliver G. Alvar
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