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The Avengers—Infinity Stones, finite resources and populations

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WARNING: Contains spoilers for the film Avengers: Infinity War

Our story thus far: In many of the Marvel Studios films over the past decade, stories have brought characters into contact with, or in some case been driven by, objects known as “Infinity Stones,” powerful artifacts from the creation of the universe.

Starting with the first Avengers film in 2012, audiences have also been aware of the “Mad Titan” Thanos, who’s on a quest to gather all six Infinity Stones, which, when affixed together onto the Infinity Gauntlet, will give him incredible power—enough power that with a mere snap of the fingers, he could destroy half of all life in the universe. 

And that’s literally his goal. Despite being known as the Mad Titan, he actually offers a rationale for this mass slaughter—overpopulation.

He argues that the population keeps increasing and depleting resources, causing starvation and suffering, so if half of everyone were dead, there would be plenty of resources to go around, and life would be much better for the other half. Thanos’ inspiration, in his telling, comes from his own homeworld’s problems, but he’s an unreliable narrator. Nevertheless, he has real counterparts on Earth, albeit less murderous.

In the late 18th and early 19th centuries, Robert Malthus argued that “The power of population is indefinitely greater than the power in the earth to produce subsistence for man.” We can never aspire to a great society because people will reproduce more rapidly than we can extract adequate resources. In the 20th century, Paul Ehrlich made a similar argument—that population increases would definitely and soon outstrip our ability to produce sufficient resources, predicting mass starvation.

Lacking an Infinity Gauntlet, Ehrlich suggested “We must have population control at home, hopefully through a system of incentives and penalties, but by compulsion if voluntary methods fail. We must use our political power to push other countries into programs which combine agricultural development and population control.”

There are a couple of different angles for arguing against Thanos, although as you might guess, he’s not interested in arguments, so it’s The Avengers, not The Professors, who must rise to the occasion and fight Thanos and his minions. But we all play our part, so let’s examine some of the ways in which Thanos is wrong.

For one thing, even if the Malthus/Ehrlich argument was correct for Earth (or Titan), it wouldn’t follow that the entire universe would run out of resources. Even if every other planet with sentient life were following the logic of overpopulation-leads-to-catastrophic-resource-depletion, there are plenty of other planets. The people of the overpopulated worlds could take advantage of entirely unpopulated worlds. The limitless power of the Infinity Gauntlet could actually help both with transferring resources or transferring people. (For that matter, couldn’t one just use the Infinity Gauntlet to make more resources? Let’s ignore that.)

But the main problem is, the Malthus/Ehrlich argument isn’t even true for this world.

As critics of this line of thinking have argued for ages, including most recently Julian Simon, the argument overlooks the role of human creativity in problem-solving. One way to sum up the anti-Malthusian position is to say that humans are themselves resources, not in the Soylent Green sense, but in the sense that we are clever and adaptable, and tend to discover new resources, new and more efficient ways to use existing resources, and institutions that incentivize greater husbandry and conservation. Where incentives are bad, of course, for example in common-pool resource situations, we do see overuse of resources. But it’s a hallmark of human ingenuity that many societies did evolve institutions such as property rights that help avoid those problems.

As our population has grown, we have developed more efficient agriculture and related technology. Where there’s hunger, it’s typically due to politics, not because the global food supply is depleted. We have abundance, not shortage. If human ingenuity can generally be counted on to solve these problems, you’d think that the more-advanced civilizations such as Xandar and Asgard could also.

So just as we now have no reason to be persuaded by Malthus and Ehrlich’s predictions of doom, and a good understanding of why they were mistaken, Thanos, knowing about the many worlds even more advanced than Earth, should have even less reason to see things this way. Unfortunately, Thanos is insane, so reason- and evidence-based arguments about Malthusianism have little effect.

There’s another approach one might take, which several characters mention, namely that even if we did need to take the Malthusian fear seriously, it would nevertheless be immoral to kill half of everyone. Only on the crudest version of utilitarianism could this be justified, and even then, wouldn’t the population just increase again, and the problem would repeat?

But most ethical systems are more sophisticated than the sophomoric version of utilitarianism. A more sophisticated consequentialism would be moved by the anti-Malthusian argument about human creativity in innovation and institutional design. And non-consequentialist theories tend to hold each individual as having intrinsic worth, not to be sacrificed for the greater good—“we don’t trade lives,” as Captain America puts it.

That each person has a right to live and strive trumps a utilitarian desire to cull the population. Again, though, a madman like Thanos is not likely to be any more receptive to moral philosophy than to economics or history. So it’s a good thing the Avengers and the Guardians of the Galaxy and the Sorcerers of Kamar-Taj are around to fight Thanos.

In the real world, of course, we don’t have Mad Titans with Infinity Gauntlets literally trying to murder half the population—although we do have ordinary humans who are sufficiently alarmed by Malthusian fears as to propose serious harm to large segments of the population, people who fail to take seriously either the fundamental dignity and right to liberty of all persons, or the lessons of economic history.

And while we also don’t have those superheroes, we do have some heavy intellectual firepower from heroes such as Julian Simon, Deirdre McCloskey, David Ricardo, Friedrich Hayek, John Locke and Adam Smith. If the name weren’t already taken, I’d be tempted to suggest “Justice League.”


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