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Thanos and the Great Malthusian Imperative

What everyone's favorite purple maniac has in common with a controversial English preacher.

***This post contains major Infinity War spoilers. No joke: Stop RIGHT HERE if you haven’t seen the movie yet. You have been warned!***

Marvel’s latest extravaganza, Avengers: Infinity War, ends with the most gut-wrenching twist since The Empire Strikes Back. Thanos, the Mad Titan, destroys half of all life in the universe, including most of the Guardians of the Galaxy, Nick Fury, Spider-Man, Black Panther, and Doctor Strange.

With a snap of his fingers, Thanos throws the universe—and most of the norms moviegoers have grown to expect over the past decade of Marvel films—into chaos, all for the sake of balance.

Thanos’ idea of dropping the hammer.

Balance, according to Thanos, involves removing half of all life in the universe. Our heroes—the various Avengers outfits, the Guardians of the Galaxy, Black Panther and the warriors of Wakanda—are horrified by Thanos’ pursuit of death at any cost. At one point in the film Gamora, arguing with her adoptive father over his cruel methods, reminds Thanos that he took her from her home planet and eradicated half the population in the process.

Scoffing at her nostalgia, Thanos replies, “Going to bed hungry, scrounging for scraps? Your planet was on the brink of collapse. I was the one who stopped that. You know what’s happened since then? The children born since have known nothing but full bellies and clear skies. It’s a paradise.”

Thanos is cut from a different cloth than other villains in the Marvel films. Most of them desire power, control, wealth, revenge, or some other selfish goal. They are easy to hate, easy to root against, and easy to forget. But Thanos is seemingly untouched by such base emotions, moving through the film and cutting down superheroes to achieve his stated goal of bringing the universe into his idea of “balance.” Life requires resources (food, water, fuel, and the like), but these resources are finite; in the words of the Mad Titan, “It’s a simple calculus…if life is left unchecked, life will cease to exist. It needs correcting.”

Thanos and the Great Malthusian Imperative

This is terrible, mind-boggling arithmetic to play with life itself, especially considering that Thanos could unwittingly destroy himself in the pursuit of his goal. But this isn’t a theory cooked up by the most twisted writers’ room in Hollywood; Thanos’ beliefs come straight from an eighteenth-century Englishman named Thomas Malthus.

In the 1700s scientists, explorers, and philosophers were expanding humanity’s horizons in every direction. Nothing seemed impossible; between the Enlightenment, the first stirrings of the Industrial Revolution, and the gradual rise of democracy, humans seemed to be on a perpetual upward path. Malthus, an Oxford-educated preacher in England, asked a simple and terrible question: What if we can’t go any higher?

Thomas Malthus: Thanos without the chin-stripes. Image: Attribution 4.0 International (CC BY 4.0)

Malthus argued that resources (particularly food) cannot increase beyond a certain rate; once that maximum rate is reached, any population growth that outstrips it will suffer. Given enough time on this track, society will devolve and the planet’s population will plummet precipitously.

He wrote throughout his life on this theory, with the main idea boiled down to this: “By nature human food increases in a slow arithmetical ratio; man himself increases in a quick geometrical ratio unless want and vice stop him. The increase in numbers is necessarily limited by the means of subsistence.”

If humanity’s growth grows unchecked, Malthus predicted that natural disasters would check that growth for us: “Famine seems to be the last, the most dreadful resource of nature…in this war of extermination, sickly seasons, epidemics, pestilence, and plague advance in terrific array, and sweep off their thousands and tens of thousands…gigantic inevitable famine stalks in the rear, and with one mighty blow levels the population with the food of the world.” These Malthusian disasters have loomed large in the collective consciousness of humanity ever since in the forms of dire warnings of “population bombs,” kaiju, disaster movies (2012, The Day After Tomorrow), and Malthus’ most maniacal purple disciple: Barney Thanos.

Scholars and laymen alike have split over Malthus’ theories for over two hundred years. Some still argue that the inherently pessimistic view is correct; as Thanos says, it’s “a simple calculus” to see that resources are finite and can’t be magically manufactured out of thin air. Taking that line of thought to its logical, awful conclusion, population must be controlled through natural or artificial means. For Thanos, the only way to save the universe is with the deadliest, Infinity Gauntleted finger snap in history.

The prevailing opinion rejects these dire predictions, however, and I believe Infinity War 2: Electric Bugaloo will too. Malthus didn’t live to see the incredible fruits of the Industrial Revolution and all its by-blows (the Medical Revolution, Green Revolution, etc.); he didn’t see that humanity in fact can create solutions for resource management and other problems.

That’s where Thanos and the real-life Thomas Malthus got it all wrong: they account for humanity’s stomachs and bodies but fail to consider our most potent tools—our brains. I doubt that next year’s Avengers film will feature a lengthy debate on Malthusianism, but I’ll bet my bag of popcorn that one of Earth’s Mightiest Heroes (my bet’s on Tony Stark) will make a great speech along those lines to Thanos at some point.

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