I expected Avengers: Infinity War to be very fun. I did not expect Thanos, the film’s central villain, to be a nuanced character driven by a cold, Malthusian logic any environmentalist will be uncomfortably familiar with.
Mild spoilers for Avengers: Infinity War ahead.
For the uninitiated, Infinity War is the audacious culmination of a decade’s worth of Marvel movies that pits the franchise’s many heroes—including the Avengers, Black Panther, Dr. Strange, Thor, and the Guardians of the Galaxy—against Thanos, a giant purple warlord on a quest to collect all six Infinity Stones, which will grant him the power to rule the entire universe. If you’re already deeply confused, this movie probably isn’t for you.
Still! Whether or not you’re a devotee of the franchise, Infinity War bears a message—or, perhaps, a warning—for all who care about the environment. As the film unfolds, it becomes clear Thanos’ quest for omnipotence isn’t driven by greed, hunger for power, or lust for revenge. He merely wants the ability to kill half the lifeforms in the galaxy in one fell swoop. Ostensibly, he’s motivated by a desire to allay suffering and ensure there are enough resources for future generations to thrive.
In other words, Thanos embodies the classic fear that unchecked population growth is a march toward destruction.
More than the movie’s heart-wrenching conclusion, this revelation is what left me troubled long after the end credits had rolled. To me at least, it came across as a clear denouncement of a certain breed of solutions-oriented environmentalism that centers planetary “balance” over people.
The early history of environmentalism is festooned with warnings of a population apocalypse, beginning with 18th century scholar Thomas Malthus’ An Essay on the Principle of Population, which concluded that rising human numbers would inevitably lead to widespread poverty and famine. As Malthus’ pessimistic predictions failed to materialize, he was declared a false prophet. But his ideas stuck around, re-emerging with force in the mid-20th century following the viral popularity of works like Paul Ehrlich’s The Population Bomb (1968), which predicted “hundreds of millions of people are going to starve to death” in the 1970s, and The Limits to Growth (1972), an MIT research report that concluded “The basic behavior of the world system is exponential growth of population and capital, followed by collapse.”
So yeah, Thanos’ concern about galactic population control? Definitely something we’ve thought about here on Earth. And while the most dire doomsday predictions haven’t come true—thanks largely to industrialization and the green revolution in agriculture—this school of thinking has had real-world consequences, including racist campaigns to sterilize millions of women in the developing world, and China’s fraught one-child policy.
Social consequences aside, the central problem with the population bomb theory is that we’re now well past 7 billion humans, on our way to perhaps 10 billion by mid-century, and still, nobody’s sure if it’s right. As Charles Mann lays out in his recent book The Wizard and the Prophet, the link between growth and mass starvation turned out to be wildly oversold, and even the connection between human numbers and environmental harm isn’t as clear-cut as overpopulation doomsdayers expected it would be. More people doesn’t necessarily mean more pollution.
At the same time, many scientists and environmentalists are still very worried about the consequences of unchecked growth. In the age of climate change, not having a kid is considered the biggest thing you can do to reduce your lifetime carbon footprint. It’s complicated.
All of which is to say, the problem with Thanos’ plan to wipe out half of all life—aside from it being evil as fuck—is that he can’t possibly know it’ll restore “balance” to the universe. But when Tony Stark rightly points out this inconvenient truth during their confrontation, Thanos has no interest in debate, asserting that he’s the only one ballsy enough to do what’s needed.
Is he, though? Our own history of attempts to “fix” overpopulation suggests otherwise. So does our eagerness to debate quick tech-solutions to climate change that could have unintended consequences for hundreds of millions of people in the developing world.
Thanos-like powers may be pure fantasy, but the motivation to use them is as real—and terrifying—as ever.