Why Thanos Flunked Sociology

(Spoiler Warning: the following discusses key plot points of Avengers: Infinity War and Avengers: Endgame.)

Avengers: Infinity War gives us something unusual for a super-hero movie: a villain who is not striving to conquer the world or simply fighting the good guys because that’s what villains do. Instead, we have Thanos, who is trying to save the universe. In his mind, he is the good guy, willing to sacrifice everything he loves for the benefit of all. Too bad his plan addresses the wrong problem, won’t work, and only considers part of the issue. Which he would know if he had paid attention in Sociology class.

            Thanos has looked around the entire universe and observed that everywhere, sentient life is expanding too fast, out-stripping the resources of every planet, and teetering on the edge of collapse. So, to save every planet/race from this fate, he has devised a simple solution. He will cut every population in half. Originally, he went about this the old fashion way: invade a planet, divide the population into two equal groups and shoot everyone in one group. This proved rather time consuming and tedious, so in Avengers: Infinity War, he moves on to Plan B: collect the six Infinity Stones, which, when assembled, will allow him to immediately turn half of all sentients into dust more or less instantaneously. Sounds like a rational, if extreme solution. It won’t work, and not just becasue the remaining Avengers will be really mad at him and concoct an elaborate plan to undo his scheme.

            For one thing, Thanos completely misunderstands how populations grow. Fast growing populations are the exception, not the rule here on Earth (and, lacking other examples to consider, we’ll have to assume other sentient populations work like human populations do.) For the most part, death rates and birth rates are more or less in balance, and thus populations remain stable. For much of human history, high birth rates were balanced by high death rates. People had many children, but many of them died young, particularly of disease and famine. The on-going wear and tear of manual labor claimed adults. As a result populations grew very slowly, slowly enough that no one really noticed, and society could adjust to increased numbers over the centuries. Explosive growth only occurred with the coming of the Industrial Revolution, when improved medicine, sanitation, and nutrition dramatically reduced the death rates. More people lived, and especially, more children lived to be adults (and so have children of their own.) However, the various cultural forces that had always encouraged people to have large families (more children means more people working to create the resources and wealth that feed the family, more productive adults supporting those too old to work, and more) continue to operate. Culture changes slowly. Industrialization lowers the death rate, but the birth rate remains high, resulting in rapid population growth. That is what is happening in much of the world today. But this Demographic Transition (as demographers call it) is a temporary state. Eventually the changes from industrialization impact culture. (The fact that most children survive means that you don’t need as many children over all, for example. Add to that the fact that in industrial societies children are expensive to raise.) Birth rates begin to fall, and soon births and deaths come back into balance. Indeed, birth rates may well fall faster than death rates, leading populations to begin to shrink – that’s been the case in the  industrialized countries for the past generation. The process does not take place simultaneously across the entire planet. The West (Western Europe, U.S. and Canada) went through this back in the 18th and 19th century. The underdeveloped world is going through it now at different rates, and some parts of the world still haven’t experienced this growth at all. Thanos assumes explosive growth is universal and permanent, and thus only drastic intervention can prevent collapse. And that is just plain wrong.

            But even if population growth worked the way Thanos assumes, his solution won’t work. True, killing off 50% of the population will reduce the size of the population and the drain on resources. Temporarily. But, if the conditions that led to high births/low deaths remain in place, the population will just start growing rapidly again. Within a couple of generations the universe will be right back where it was and, assuming Thanos somehow survives the whole Thor chopping of his head problem, Thanos will have to do the whole thing over again. And again. And again.

            Even worse, Thanos may be solving the wrong problem. Thanos’ assessment of the entire problem represents only one possible view of population. The idea that growing populations will outstrip available resources and crash is not a new idea. Thomas Malthus first suggested this in his 1798 Essay on the Principle of Population, and it has been reiterated over the centuries. There is a compelling logic to it. We know that we live in a world of finite resources: there is only some much arable land, so many deposits of coal and oil, only so much iron ore and uranium. At some point, those resources will be used up. In a famous exploration of the problem, The Club of Rome published The Limits of Growth in the 1970s, trying to forecast how long/how many people before we hit these limits and world population crashed. Of course, population and civilization haven’t crashed. At least, not yet. That may be due to the fact that we haven’t yet tapped out all the Earth’s resources, but we will at some point. Unless Thanos cuts our population in half, so that we use less. Assuming Thanos and the other Malthusians have correctly diagnosed the problem. But what if they have not?

            What Thanos missed is that there is another side to this debate. Humans are not necessarily at the mercy of our environment. Facing limitations, we can adapt, we can change our behavior and change our environment. Again and again, we hit a crisis and innovate. A hundred years ago, for example, cities were reaching their “natural limits.” Too many people and too many demands on the transportation grid led to incredible traffic. Vehicles clogged every road, bringing transportation to a near halt, while the pollution from those vehicles covered the streets and filled the air. Critics predicted the demise of cities. And then we invented the automobile. Soon the big, slow-moving horse-drawn wagons were replaced with smaller, faster cars and trucks. Horse dung vanished from the streets, and dried, pulverized horse dung vanished from the air. The innovation of the automobile saved the city. Again and again, when faced with a potential collapse, we innovative and change. Not always, of course. Sometimes we don’t change and society does collapse. But often, we innovate and survive. However, it is in nature of invention and innovation that we don’t know where they will come from, who will invent the solution. Population is not just the problem, it is also the source of the solution. For those who take the anti-Malthusian position, more people means more ideas, more points of view, more inventions and innovations, more chances of finding the way out of the problem. People may be the problem, but they are also the solution.

            By killing off half the sentients in the universe, Thanos may have killed off the very scientist who was about to solve the problem of nuclear fusion, or the farmer about to design a new irrigation system, or the artist about to bring key issues to everyone’s attention.

            On the surface, the movie presents Thanos as a thoughtful “villain,” as the one person who sees the truth about the crisis the universe faces, the only entity willing to sacrifice everything, to endure the weight of billions of deaths, the only one who can and will do what it takes to save the universe.

            And yet, he is wrong in his analysis of the problem and even more wrong in his supposed solution.

            If only Thanos had paid attention in sociology class when we discussed population growth, but no, he spent his time sitting in the back of the class, texting about his daughter’s annoying boyfriend…

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