In Marvel’s “Avengers: Infinity War,” the Avengers battle their most powerful antagonist yet: Thanos. Surprisingly, many Marvel fans admire and agree with Thanos for seemingly making the tough but necessary decision. Those who disagree with Thanos, like Iron Man, ask whether the titan’s means disqualify the ends.
However, Marvel takes Thanos’ logic for granted, never once questioning the idea that overpopulation is a worsening issue, which requires a population reduction in order to improve the quality of life for civilization, particularly in terms of providing more food for people.
But it’s time to ask: Would “the snap” actually save the survivors and improve the quality of life?
“Too Many Mouths. Not Enough to Go Around.”
Thanos says this to Dr. Strange in the third act of “Infinity War,” summarizing briefly the core tenets of Malthusianism, the school of thought to which the purple being belongs.
Malthusianism views the cause of overpopulation to be uncontrolled fertility, meaning that, if people are given the freedom to do so, they will produce children at a more rapid rate than the resources needed to support them can be generated.
As Thanos says to Gamora: “It’s a simple calculus. The universe is finite, its resources finite. If life is left unchecked, life will cease to exist. It needs correcting.” Correcting, in our universe, has meant policies such as restricting the number of children women can have and forced sterilizations.
So, if Thanos is Marvel’s defining antagonist, then why do so many fans of the films agree with him? Betsy Hartmann explains Malthusianism is convincing due to its simplicity, or “simple calculus” as Thanos would say. More people equals fewer available resources, which means greater hunger and poverty.
Hartmann however concludes Malthusianism makes the wrong diagnosis for the population problem, and, therefore, not only prescribes the wrong cure but worsens overpopulation. Overpopulation worsens because Malthusian policies and Thanos ignore the underlying question of why populations have risen and why resources are becoming scarce.
“Too Many Mouths …”
A more complex view of overpopulation, theorized by Barry Commoner, asserts that the birthrate is affected by powerful social forces as opposed to biological factors, such as fertility.
The idea that a reduction in the death rate — often due to the advancement of medical technology — can lead to a higher population is tempting to believe because of the simple calculus Thanos describes.
However, studies show that a reduction in the death rate, meaning more people are living longer, actually reduces total population over time. A lower infant mortality rate compels couples to have fewer children, as they do not need to compensate for potentially dead offspring.
According to Commoner, the powerful social force determining population size, reducing the death rate and leading people to voluntarily have fewer children is the quality of life, which means a higher standard of living with future security.
Commoner states that, in human societies, there is a built-in control for population size. If the standard of living continues to rise, then population eventually levels off. Commoner’s correlation is supported by the flatlined, or in some cases declining, populations of people in wealthy countries, especially among natural-born citizens of European nations.
The main reason that the population has rapidly increased in the developing world, or the Global South, is that many don’t have the means for a basic, decent standard of living.
While Thanos and other Malthusians blame people’s impoverishment on their unchecked freedoms, Commoner points out the overpopulated nations happen to be the same nations colonized by Europe, a process which destroyed the pre-existing developments within the occupied society.
Nathan Keyfitz concludes that the growth of industrial capitalism in the West from 1800-1850 resulted in an excess population of one billion people, mostly in the developing world.
Hartmann explains how colonialism and poverty led to a decline in the quality of life, which increased population in three key ways.
One is a higher fertility rate, which might seem to lower population since children are dying; yet, studies show that it leads to higher birthrates as parents overcompensate, having more children to ensure some survive.
A third factor is economic security within the household. Vulnerable families in the Global South have more children as a survival strategy because children’s labor is vital to the familial economy in many regions, both in terms of wages and childcare of their siblings. Unlike in the West, other cultures see more children as a boon rather than a burden, such as the Indian village Commoner cites.
Thanos does not consider this history whatsoever, instead focusing on a much simpler calculus, leading to him to his conclusion that overpopulation is inevitable.
“… Not Enough to Go Around”
There is more than enough food to feed every human being in the world, making hunger an issue of access rather than quantity. Starvation, according to economist Amatrya Sen, is the characteristic of some people not having enough to eat, not of there being food scarcity on a global scale. A food-focused view of hunger informs us little about starvation.
Nicholas Hildyard, frames hunger in terms of access to food defined by power relations, explaining that as long as one person has the power to deny food to another, the global population could be halved and, yet, hunger would remain.
Historically, control over and distribution of land has always been vital to providing people livelihood. A lack of access to land, caused by its concentration into the hands of a few large-scale farmers, restricts people’s ability to grow and gather food, excluding them from a source of power. Sen explains that when a community loses their land, its members lose their control of their food source.
High concentration of land in most nations has caused land scarcity and, therefore, hunger. In Brazil, for example, large agricultural estates make up 1% of all farmers but half of all farmland within the nation.
Land concentration among elite landholders is happening worldwide, as small farmers’ land ownership rights are being attacked by governments and international corporations.
Concentration of land happens most of the time as a result of colonial or neocolonial policies. Because people no longer have land and are often unemployed or have low paying jobs in the cities they are forced to migrate to, they are hungry.
Thanos’ method of focusing on food or quantity when examining hunger or scarcity does little because it does not explain why some groups starve while others have enough. Instead, one needs to ask why people do not have enough food.
In many cases, many people do not have enough to eat because institutions have structurally pushed people off of their land, displacing them from their source of food and power.
Overpopulation is not the result of more advanced medical technology, a higher standard of living and unchecked freedoms. Instead, overpopulation is the result of colonial-based poverty, caused by land seizures, which compels families to have more children to survive.
Discussions of population and food supply that leave out power relations and colonialism mask the true nature of food security — who gets to eat and who does not. Our world is more complex than simple calculus, so Thanos’ snap would do nothing other than murder trillions.
While the snap would decrease the population, Thanos’ plan would not undo uneven power relations, redistribute land or remove people from circumstances where they are compelled to overpopulate.
Thanos is not going with the hard but necessary choice. The titan is making an uninformed and genocidal decision. Maybe he should snap to end poverty and oppression worldwide, but he does not and neither can the humans with power on Earth.