Internet history was made on Monday as Reddit, one of the most popular websites in the United States, banned half the members of a discussion group dedicated to Thanos, the villain of Avengers: Infinity War. In one fell swoop, some 300,000 users got the boot, and they were excited about it. Josh Brolin, who played Thanos, even made a short video to commemorate the event.
In the film, Thanos aquires the power to eliminate half the population of the universe by snapping his fingers. Like any good villain, he considers his actions just and noble. He’s knows what happens when a civilization exhausts its natural resources, having watched his home planet of Titan suffer environmental collapse. Thanos offers the most extreme solution to this problem — kill half of all people — but his thinking is hardly novel.
The debate over how to manage limited resources dates back centuries.
In 1798, economist Thomas Malthus wrote An Essay on the Principle of Population, which posited that the human population would grow faster than the supply of food, leading to mass starvation among the lower classes. The answer, wrote Malthus, was for people to have fewer children. Challenging Malthus and his acolytes were the cornucopians, who believed that technological progress would allow food production to keep pace with population growth.
This debate raged anew in the late 20th century. In his 1968 bestseller, The Population Bomb, Paul Erlich took a decidedly Malthusian stance, warning of mass starvation as population growth outstripped the available resources. He was wrong in thinking a population boom would lead to immediate catastrophe. The global population has roughly doubled since the publication of his book, thanks to fertilizers, pesticides and other technologies that, while damaging to the environment, have supported the planet’s growing population.
However, Erlich was right that population growth would strain resources, namely the ability of the planet to absorb pollution generated by humans. Climate change offers a case in point. A growing population means that more people will consume more fossil fuels, worsening the carbon crisis in the decades to come.
Malthus and Erlich both advocated for reining in population growth through celibacy, sterilization or other draconian means. Those ideas are shortsighted. We now know that same thing can be achieved by making birth control available to those who want it, and by making sure women and girls are able to get an education. Of course, any of the aforementioned approaches are decidedly more humane than what Thanos proposed.
By attempting to “restore balance” to nature and the universe, Thanos has once again brought the Malthusian debate to the fore, leading some conservative writers to cast environmentalists as Thanos wannabes, while prompting others to push back on that characterization. What would it even mean to restore balance to nature?
The balance-of-nature metaphor is just that — a metaphor. In reality, ecosystems are complex webs of interactions between predator and prey. These relationships change slowly, over time through natural selection and evolution. They are always in flux and and easily shaped by human activity — sometimes for the better, often for the worse. Technology has allowed humans to consume natural resources at a decidedly unnatural pace, wreaking havoc on the ecosystems on which we depend. Simply eliminating half of all humans won’t repair nature.
Moreover, if a genocidal alien overlord were to cut the population in half, it would only be a matter of time before that population grew just as large and would need to be cut in half again — which is why contraception and education offer a more sustainable solution than anything Thanos might suggest.
Monday’s mass banning on Reddit makes this clear. As one user noted, after the banning, the Thanos discussion group will have more subscribers than it did before anyone thought to carry out this experiment. Originally, a user proposed half of users be banned when the group reached 100,000 followers. Many catchy memes later, that number has reached 700,000, meaning that, even after the balancing, the group has three times as many members as it did before.
So, what’s the answer to overpopulation? Cornucopians argue that the more people there are around, the more bright minds there will be to find solutions. Technology, they say, will allow humans to find new ways to use our resources more efficiently. Perhaps that is true, that our destiny lies with technology.
As Thanos said, “Dread it. Run from it. Destiny still arrives.”
Phil Newell writes for Nexus Media, a syndicated newswire covering climate, energy, policy, art and culture. Having been banned, he now respects the Mad Titan’s desire for balance.