Roughly a year ago, many were left shocked at the end of Avengers: Infinity War, with only one question on their minds: Is Thanos super dumb? As cinematically satisfying as the “Snapture” was, some wondered if Thanos could have wished for a better solution. Suggestions varied from increasing resources, to reducing fertility rates, to even “human hunting seasons.”
That last one doesn’t even require Infinity Stones, but it does tee up my response to these sorts of concerns. When we fully understand the issue Thanos is trying to solve, it proves difficult to present an alternative solution that isn’t equally horrifying.
Thanos is an advocate of neo-Malthusianism, the view that exponential population growth will lead to disastrous collapse unless it’s constrained in some way, dreamt up by Thomas Malthus in 1798. Shortly thereafter, Charles Darwin presented his famous theory of natural selection, which explained both how species evolved and why we’re not knee deep in rabbits.
It wasn’t until later, with the work of Garrett Hardin, a white supremacist sympathetic, pro-eugenics philosopher, that overpopulation concerns re-emerged with a vengeance. Hardin took a classic problem for society, the “tragedy of the commons” — in which a group of people act out of their own self-interest, bringing about the collapse of a shared, social good — and applied it to population growth. Quintessential examples of the tragedy of the commons include collapses of fish populations and shared grazing areas for animal herds, and the exponential proliferation of Marvel movies leading to super-hero fatigue.
Hardin/Thanos’ argument is brutally simple: The universe is finite, growth is not. Either we let things go on unabated and accept the suffering that causes, or we actively constrain it somehow, and accept the suffering that causes. No amount of stones can take the problem away.
Are there really no ethical solutions? Nothing better than going halvesies on the universe? Thanos’ snap is clearly not a solution; all it does is wind the clock some, and it makes a lot of people sad in the process. The random loss of key figures across the universe will likely lead to widespread instability and suffering at least on par with its slow filling up.
Let’s consider some alternatives. The suggestion I hear most often is “why not just double all the resources,” as if the universe is a real time strategy game and all we need is some more vespene gas. What does “resources” even include? All the plants and animals that higher organisms rely on? If you’re just doubling the biomass and I guess some gold deposits and stuff, you’re actually accelerating the problem. A massive surplus in resources is also likely to destabilize current markets, creating disorder and conflict.
Resource duplication also in no way addresses how to better distribute those resources in a way that effectively addresses the overpopulation problem. You’re just as likely to see a free-for-all on the vastly expanded commons, followed by an even steeper crash.
So why not try a more passive solution, like lowering fertility rates? No one has to hug their surrogate son while he turns to confetti, and that means no one will be trying to avenge all up in your business. The problem is that a restriction on fertility rates would also distribute the harm of the snap in morally problematic ways. Imagine you make it so that infertility sets in after having two children. That could be a death sentence for species that rely on high birth rates for survival.
It would make all species highly susceptible to disasters that can massively reduce the population. It could also disproportionately harm individuals at the lowest socioeconomic levels, as they often rely on higher birthrates to overcome higher infant mortality and maintain familial stability.
It’s also highly likely that species across the universe would develop technological and biological workarounds, making it merely another stopgap. Also notice, we’re now seriously considering nonconsensual birth control, an idea that Hardin was pilloried for proposing, and not just because of who he wanted to sterilize.
There is at least one other option. Hardin believed there was no technological solution to the problem of overpopulation, but some might argue that the Infinity Stones could be easily used to resolve a variety of problems simultaneously through the advancement of various technologies. The Reality and Power stones alone seem sufficient to eliminate the need for fossil fuels and the problem of food scarcity.
If it’s true, as some liberal technocrats believe, that increased stability and quality of life leads to stabilizing population size, then it’s possible the right mix of sudden technological advances could create a stable system without leading to something like environmental collapse. The only issue here is that the next step will inevitably be intergalactic expansion, and so the problem would still creep along, perhaps even exacerbated down the line if the newly developed technologies make it easier to overpopulate, for those who feel so inclined.
It may be that life is merely doomed to always grow beyond sustainable limits. If that’s the case, then the universe will always need individuals (some might even say heroes) like Thanos, who come along and lay down some snaps in the most impartial, humane way available. It would be better if the Avengers gave up their Endgame and left him be, instead using their prodigious resources to try to address the problem he’s given them more time to solve. But I guess that wouldn’t really make for a thrilling cinematic conclusion.
Aaron Rabinowitz currently serves as the Philosopher in Residence for the Rutgers Honors College, and teaches ethics through the Rutgers philosophy department. Much of what’s discussed here was originally presented in the “Infinity Wars and Overpopulation” episode of his Philosophers in Space podcast.