It’s a simple premise: The world has finite resources. Human population, and thus consumption of those resources, cannot increase forever. Eventually, demand will outpace Earth’s supply of food, water, fuel, and land, and mass-extinction will ensue — for us, and possibly for all life. We will literally eat ourselves to death.
This simple premise and its intuitive conclusion are at the heart of a branch of economics founded by eighteenth-century English scholar, Thomas Malthus, who wrote “An Essay on the Principle of Population.” They’re also at the heart of Disney and Marvel’s most successful comic book flick to date, “Avengers: Infinity War.” But it’s not beloved heroes like Iron-Man, Captain America, Thor, or The Incredible Hulk delivering Malthusian monologues.
It’s Marvel’s meanest, mightiest, mauvest bad guy yet: Thanos, “the Mad Titan.” We can take this as a virtual guarantee that Malthusian theory in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, just as in the real world, will be devastatingly discredited.
Marvel’s Conservative Turn
It’s not the first time the studio has Hulk-smashed left-wing orthodoxy. Watching Marvel’s last box-office record-breaker, “Black Panther,” I couldn’t help glancing around the theater to see if anyone else was hearing what I was hearing. Lines we have come to expect from radical race activists about the inherent evil and ancestral guilt of those with light skin and the futility of discussing racism with whites, about the global brotherhood and shared grievance of those with dark skin — about reparations owed, and armed resistance, and revenge — all came from the mouth of the movie’s villain, the aptly-named Killmonger.
The story’s hero (King T’Challa), meanwhile, speaks of forgiveness, of reconciliation, and of moving beyond the past and rising above victimhood. Killmonger dies with a bitter epithet about slavery on his lips, while T’challa opens outreach centers for inner-city kids. In short, “Black Panther” is a repudiation of so much of modern, intersectional thought. Its boils down to the need of black boys — as of all boys — for father-figures. Its moral was almost jarringly conservative.
I thought this might be a fluke, but I was wrong.
Thanos: Mad Titan, Malthusian
“Infinity War” casts its big baddie as a champion of yet another progressive pet cause: Population control. Thanos, who has teased audiences with sinister grins and cryptic statements in years of after-credit scenes, has finally revealed his true motive: He wants to wipe out half the galaxy’s population to make sure the other half has plenty to eat.
We watch during his obligatory villain speech as Thanos explains why he needs the power of the Infinity Stones: to teleport from planet to planet, killing billions in order to defuse the population bomb that desolated his home world. He does so on the assumption that Thomas Malthus first propounded: that each species has limited resources at its disposal, and the only way to keep from exhausting them is to check population growth.
In a particularly poignant scene, the purple alien warlord explains to a kidnapped child (who becomes his adopted daughter, Gamora), why he is determined to cull her race (including her parents): balance. Too much of anything is deadly. Too many people mean too little food to go around. Too much life will inevitably bring death to all. Thanks to his genocidal campaign, Thanos tells Gamora the survivors of her race go to bed with “bellies full.”
Without giving too much away, the final scene of the movie sees Thanos’ goal apparently realized, and Earth’s mightiest heroes in need of a miracle (which will no doubt arrive in next year’s conclusion).
Ehrlich’s Deadly Dud
That “Infinity War” paints Malthusian calculus in such an unflattering light just as a wave of editorials are confessing the unrealized horrors of population panic is one heck of a coincidence. Three years ago, The New York Times ran a spectacular video essay admitting the thorough failure of another oracle of doom, Stanford professor and spiritual-heir-to-Malthus, Paul Ehrlich. Just a few days ago, the Wall Street Journal’s William McGurn said last rites over Ehrlich’s book, “The Population Bomb,” which dropped and failed to explode fifty years ago.
In the bestselling tome, Ehrlich predicted that “the battle to feed humanity” was “over.” Earth had exceeded what he called its “carrying capacity.” Hundreds of millions would die of starvation within a decade, he wrote, India was doomed no matter what, the average American’s lifespan would fall to 42 by 1980, and England would no longer exist by the year 2000.
It hardly needs saying that Ehrlich was wrong — not just wrong like someone who thought Thanos would be defeated by the end of “Infinity War,” but wrong in that spectacular and mortifying way only a carefully-studied and smugly confident scholar can be.
Not only did hundreds of millions not starve in the years following Ehrlich’s prognostication, but thanks to a “green revolution,” worldwide food production tripled while population more than doubled, global absolute poverty fell to its lowest level on record, the average human life expectancy climbed to its highest level ever, and India and England went right on existing.
Tragically, millions did die, not because of the scarcities Ehrlich predicted, but because of world leaders who took his theory seriously. China’s one-child policy led to forced abortions and 30 million missing baby girls. The Indian government surgically sterilized at least four million women, causing countless deaths from injury and infection. And of course, Western intellectuals and activists keep right on claiming that abortion is justified for the sake of the environment. Some even insist having too many kids is immoral, and might need to be outlawed. It’s common to hear progressives even now cite overpopulation as the reason they support the so-called “right to choose.”
The Ultimate Resource: People
What all of these people missed is something Ehrlich’s arch-nemisis, University of Illinois professor Julian Simon, observed in his 1981 book, “The Ultimate Resource.” Besides food, water, fuel, and land, Simon argued that there is another resource Malthusians fail to take into account: human ingenuity. This awesome resource is one that increases with population, and makes it impossible for us to know how far new inventions can stretch or renew existing natural resources.
“It is your mind,” writes Simon, “that matters economically, as much or more than your mouth or hands. In the long run, the most important economic effect of population size and growth is the contribution of additional people to our stock of useful knowledge. And this contribution is large enough in the long run to overcome all the costs of population growth.”
Simon believed so firmly in his thesis that in 1980, he made a wager with Ehrlich: In ten years, he the prices of five key metals would fall. Ehrlich said they would skyrocket. In 1990, Simon won the bet and Ehrlich added another failed prediction to his collection.
Of course, there are other reasons not to be worried about overpopulation. Global population growth is slowing, and many experts predict it will level off or even reverse within a few decades. This is due to the natural dip in fertility that accompanies a transition from subsistence farming (in which children are your employees and retirement plan) to skilled labor and service economies. India’s fertility rate, for example, is less than half what it was forty years ago.
To put it simply, the supervillain schemes of Malthusian population control have killed a lot of people, left others maimed and miserable, and caused decades of panic for no good reason. We are billions of people beyond what the Malthusian masterminds of yesteryear told us the Earth could carry. Yet productivity continues to outpace population, thanks in no small part to human ingenuity, which increases with every new mind that applies itself to the puzzle. Are people a problem? Maybe so. But we’re also the solution.
The latest “Avengers” movie may be a popcorn flick — a multi-million-dollar monument to comic book whimsy meant to entertain, not rebuke Paul Ehrlich, Thomas Malthus, or any other prophet of population doom. But the fact that this film’s genocidal villain is peddling the same panicked theories they did on the fiftieth anniversary of their best-known book is too good to ignore. I expect next year’s conclusion will see Thanos and his theory deposited in the dustbin, alongside the works of Ehrlich, Malthus, and everyone else who failed to grasp the marvel of human ingenuity.