After an 18 film wait, with Avengers: Infinity War, we finally got to see what made Thanos get out of bed in the morning. In the film, he reveals to Gamora what troubled him: that the universe has a finite amount of resources, and it can’t sustain the population it currently has. In his view, the universe is unbalanced - and order must be restored.
So what does he intend to do about? Umm, hunt down all of the Infinity Stones and use them to kill exactly half of all beings in the universe, of course.
People could live much more prosperously if they didn’t have to stretch resources to quite so many people, Thanos explains to his adopted daughter as he attempts to justify his atrocities. (We’ve paraphrased as the film is still in cinemas, so we can’t check the exact way he puts it, but that’s the gist.)
Now, on the surface this obviously sounds like a comically evil plan. Something so simple and obviously beyond the pale that it enables the filmmakers to paint with a broad brush and get to the wise-cracking super-powered action. While the dispute between T’Challa and Killmonger in Black Panther had some fascinating nuance, Thanos’ plan is just big, dumb and obviously, indisputably evil, right?
But, here’s a thing… is it though?
What if... Thanos is actually right?
Mo People, Mo Problems
There’s actually a rich tradition of intellectual thought underpinning Thanos’s world view - mostly the overpopulation part, rather than the killing part.
Perhaps the most famous early exponent of this was Thomas Malthus, who in 1798 wrote An Essay on the Principle of Population. In essence, he argues that when population growth outpaces increases in agricultural production, it means that more people have to make less food go around. Which… seems logical.
Since, there has been near endless debate amongst academics on whether Malthus is right. One common critique is that thanks to the industrial revolution and advances in technology, we have successfully managed to beat the “Malthusian trap” by increasing agricultural production more quickly than we’ve been spawning more humans.
But there are still some people who believe that managing population is important. Alistair Currie is the Head of Campaigns and Communication at Population Matters, a group which campaigns for a “sustainable future”, and which is supported by the likes of Sir David Attenborough. And amazingly, he was kind enough to answer some questions for me, even after I explained the ludicrous framing device for this piece.
“London is a wealthy city but many of its inhabitants find their quality of life suffers from population pressure, as anyone standing on the platform at Old Street Underground station at 5.15pm knows very well,” Alistair says. “If you just look at wealth, there's no simple correlation - small countries can be poor and large countries can be rich.”
But is there a link between prosperity and population? Alistair says “When it comes to becoming prosperous, high population growth can act as a powerful brake on economic development”.
He points to recent comments by Malawi’s Finance Minister as a case in point, who recently said: “The high population is exerting a lot of pressure on our economy. As a country we have made tremendous gains over the years but the impact is not reflected on our economy because the gains have been dissipated by population growth”.
Perhaps the biggest problem though caused by over-population is in terms of damage to the environment. According to one analysis, 1.7 planet Earths would be needed for us to live sustainably. And Alistair believes that cutting the number of people is an important part of fixing this. “It's important to cut our astronomical consumption in the developed world but trying to do that while adding more consumers is running to stand still”, he says.
“You can map population growth against pretty much every significant indicator of environmental degradation, from deforestation to extinctions to climate change. The more of us there are, the more fresh water we demand, the harder we work our agricultural soils, the more plastic we use, the more of other species' habitats we invade and the greater our carbon emissions. All of these really critical problems become easier to solve with less population pressure.”
Population Matters clearly isn’t the only group worried about this too. Alistair points to a scary warning letter, co-signed by 20,000 scientists which identifies population growth as a “primary driver” of the environmental crisis.
So what can we do? One major thing Population Matters campaigns on is family planning, in order to reduce fertility rates.
“A population bulge of young people, such as you'll find in many African states, can in theory be a good thing by boosting the number of workers and reducing the proportion of dependent children but if there aren't jobs for those people, you end up with a large number of people of childbearing age making even more babies, leaving the economy struggling to cope,” Alistair explains.
“Thailand's a great example,” he says. “An active family planning programme cut its fertility rate by more than half between 1970 and 1990 (5.3 to 2.1) and as a result its population curve started to flatten in the 1990s and its economy really took off. In contrast, the Philippines had an almost identical population in 1970 but didn't address family planning - its population is now about a third more than Thailand's and its economy has grown much more slowly. Of course, there are multiple factors in countries gaining affluence but time and again you see the same pattern - low income countries which reduce their fertility rates see economic development.”
Sensible Policy Solutions, Assemble!
So what can we do? Do we really need to go down the Thanos route and attempt to cut populations in half by murdering, superpowered means? Luckily for residents of Earth-1218 (that’s us), we don’t need to do anything quite as dramatic.
In fact, Alistair believes there are some much simpler solutions than collecting six all-powerful stones capable of manipulating space and time, that were forged in the Big Bang and scattered around the universe.
“We don't need massive changes. The UN projects a population of 11.2bn by 2100 but it also projects that if the average family size was just half-a-child less than that projection assumes, we would have 7.3bn by 2100 - a smaller global population than we have now.”
“Get people out of poverty, give them access to high quality modern family planning (and, crucially, good education about it), and educate and empower people, especially women and girls. Not only is it simple, but it benefits people in multiple other ways. It's win-win!”, he says.
“If you want to bring population to sustainable levels as quickly as you can, you also have to challenge pro-natalist views, which are very often patriarchal in origin. The value of women (and men, for that matter) isn't defined by the number of children they have and choosing a smaller family (or to have no children at all) is a positive choice that benefits other people. We need to empower people to control their family size where they don't have that power, and exercise the choice to have smaller families where we do. We need to be reinforcing the message that our kids will have a better life if there are fewer of them.”
So perhaps in some senses, Thanos is a feminist. And perhaps… just perhaps… he’s actually right?