How Thanos Fits Into Real-World Myths of Overpopulation and Scarcity
The Marvel Cinematic Universe may be a fantasy, but it is always worth it to analyze the ways in which media narratives align with, highlight, and bring into question the dynamics of our reality.
“Overpopulation is a convenient smokescreen that obscures the voracious appetites and power grabs of the super rich.” – Betsy Hartmann, “Reproductive Rights and Wrongs”
As we impatiently wait for “Avengers: Endgame” to emotionally devastate us all in the best way, it feels like the opportune time to remind everyone of why Thanos is the fucking worst so that we may properly nourish our anger. Because of who I am as a person, I feel the need to do so while also ranting about white supremacy, patriarchy, and capitalism, because I cannot divorce my burning hatred for Marvel’s biggest villain from my contempt for these real-world oppressive systems. Here’s why.
First and foremost, Thanos is an abusive, manipulative, gaslighting, cult leader devoid of empathy whose cruelty knows no bounds. His only goal is to gain absolute control and ultimately wield the most extreme form of power he can fathom in response to his own trauma. This is all evident in his fantasy of looking out over a “grateful universe” when his work is finally done, believing that people would actually be thankful for him destroying an untold number of lives by turning half of all life in existence to ash and ultimately causing the deaths of even more in the fiery aftermath. As a narcissistic megalomaniac, he has deluded himself into believing that he is doing everyone a favor even though he is disrupting countless ecosystems. Even worse, Thanos follows a flawed Malthusian logic fueled by apocalyptic panic in his reasoning for why half of the universe must die. In his mind, he has a moral responsibility to commit mass murder in order to prevent more people from dying because the universe will eventually run out of resources, replicating the starvation and loss he witnessed on Titan, his home planet.
Malthusian refers to the work of conservative English political economist and clergyman Thomas Malthus and his popular 1798 book, “An Essay on the Principle of Population.” In it, he argues essentially the same thing as Thanos — albeit limited to our insignificant little planet — that the world we know will inherently become overpopulated and there will not be enough resources to sustain everyone, resulting in an explosion of the death rate due to food shortage. It’s important to understand Malthus’ use of the concepts Positive Checks, Natural Checks, and Preventative Checks in his theories concerning population growth and food supply. He sees all of these as potential solutions, able to halt the population boom and prevent widespread untimely death. Natural Checks would come in the form of natural disasters, whereas Positive Checks would be brought about by man-made phenomena, like war. Preventative Checks, however, would be active measures used by humans to curb population growth, such as family planning and celibacy. He writes in chapter seven, “The power of population is so superior to the power of the earth to produce subsistence for man, that premature death must in some shape or other visit the human race.”
Thanos presents a far more cruel form of Preventative Checks than Malthus imagined in his writing, and on a much larger scale, but it is arguably no more cruel than the methods white supremacy has thought up following Malthus’ work. Both Malthus and Thanos assume that all people have equal access to resources and that we are all equally responsible for consumption, environmental devastation, and pollution. Both are wrong. Scarcity is a myth. There is enough to go around. The problem is not and has never been a lack of resources, it is the unequal distribution of those resources and the greed of the wealthy which causes conditions that make it difficult for certain people to thrive.
The world’s farmers already grow enough food to feed 10 billion people. World hunger should not exist, and yet it does. On average, Americans waste around 150,000 tons of food per day and 85% of unused food in American restaurants gets thrown away rather than donated. People should never have to die of starvation, and yet they do. There are more empty houses in America than there are people experiencing homelessness and fashion lines destroy unsold clothes rather than donating them. No one should die on the streets of exposure because they lack shelter and proper clothing, and yet they do. In order to uphold the myth of scarcity, capitalists must convince us that there is no way to solve these problems without society inevitably suffering greater loss or disparity. “If we raise the minimum wage, unemployment rates will rise,” they warn. “Forgiving student loan debt would be unfair to those who already paid off their loans,” they gripe. And it’s all a smokescreen. The truth is that these things can be fixed, just not in a way that ensures the already wealthy can turn a profit.
In our world, governed by white supremacy, patriarchy, and capitalism, if we begin with the notion that overpopulation is our biggest problem that will result in the demise of humanity, then we inevitably end up with the rationalization that certain populations must be suppressed so humanity can survive, and the ones who should be suppressed are the ones considered less human in the first place, the already undesirable and “unfit.” Moreover, the blame for high birth rates falls on those with the ability to give birth, even though, globally, policies and belief systems overwhelmingly prevent these people from having autonomy over their own wombs, with family planning decisions being left instead to those who impregnated them and/or out of touch conservative legislators. Eugenics, forced sterilization, and genocide are all products of these kinds of ideals. White society’s panic about the Other taking up resources has long been used to justify various inequalities and violences, largely fueled by government propaganda about low-income families, people of color, welfare programs, immigration, and (as-yet gentrified) urban spaces.
Modern concerns about overpopulation seem to most often find their footing in racist xenophobia, especially in the U.S. and the U.K., which write off immigrants and refugees as greedy and lazy wanderers from “shithole countries.” In fact, it would be more accurate to say that the Western white world harbors a fear of overpopulation in poor Black, brown, and indigenous countries and communities, but a fear of underpopulation among white demographics. When looking at the racial breakdown of the data often referenced to show that Americans are apparently not reproducing enough to replace our current population in the near future, it becomes evident that the true concern is about the prospect of not having enough white American babies, as the fertility rates for Black, Latinx, and Asian people continue to grow.
Ultimately, these fears of too many Black and brown people place much of the onus of overpopulation on poorer “developing” or “undeveloped” nations, painting the people within them as rampant consumers of resources, environmental polluters, and irresponsible procreators. Thomas Malthus begat Paul Ehrlich, who wrote “The Population Bomb” in 1968 — completed in just three weeks and co-authored by his wife, Anne, who was never properly credited — with hopes to somehow influence the presidential election. The book argues, more or less, that high birth rates in poor Black and brown countries are essentially killing the planet and therefore its inhabitants. His book helped to further cement already unequal systems.
The reality is that the poorest half of the global population is responsible for approximately 10% of global emissions, while the wealthiest 10% bare responsibility for close to 50%. And because of the insidiousness of capitalism and colonialism, the poorest countries are disproportionately vulnerable to the detrimental effects of climate change, while the wealth gap between rich and poor nations increases each year. In what we call “developed” countries, the vast majority of environmental damage and carbon emissions are due to industrialization, corporate and military pollution, and consumption by the wealthiest citizens. There are direct links between white supremacy, colonialism, environmental racism, and climate change, and their effects always impact the poor and people of color more than anyone else. Not only that, but veganism and hipster “foodie” trends in Western white nations cause shortages of foods integral to the economic systems of Black, brown, and indigenous countries and communities, who often produce and export these foods under horrible conditions. There have been shortages of avocados in Mexico and hazelnuts in Turkey. Poor communities in Peru and Bolivia can no longer afford quinoa, once a staple grain, due to the Western demands, and the high demand for palm oil has created devastation in Malaysia and Indonesia that is now spreading to Africa as well.
Efforts to save the planet with direct action, awareness campaigns, and observances like Earth Day are noble, but many who participate in and observe them often continue to ignore larger truths about how things like colonialism, race, class, and even gender factor into both environmental impact and conservation. “Climate change is a gendered crisis. The decisions to pump too much carbon [into] the atmosphere, while knowing the risks of doing so, were mostly made by men. What’s worse is that those decisions end up hurting women more than men,” writes Akshat Rathi for Quartz. “Sadly, even if men understand this, they are doing nothing to help. Past research has shown that, across ages and countries, men have a bigger carbon footprint and feel less guilty about environmentally unfriendly choices than women.” Not only do men bare more responsibility for climate change, but they also do less to help combat it. A 2016 study found that men, on average, avoid “green behaviors” due to patriarchal gendered stereotypes and misogynistic attitudes about the “femininity” attached to caring about the planet. In short, they’d rather preserve their “masculinity” than the environment.
And all of this is just the tip of the iceberg.
The question of access to resources is not a matter of too many people, but rather a matter of too much greed and systemic inequality. Malthus and Thanos assume wrong in their respective claims about overpopulation and resource scarcity, because they begin with the fallacy that everyone consumes an equal amount and has the same environmental impact in the first place. Perhaps the most frustrating thing is that Thanos wielded so much power with the Infinity Gauntlet that he could have simply snapped his fingers to create more resources for all living things to prosper or equally distribute resources to everyone, just as better systems of production and distribution could be created in our world, albeit with a lot more work than a single snap. And yet, here we are.
The Marvel Cinematic Universe may be a fantasy, but it is always worth it to analyze the ways in which media narratives align with, highlight, and bring into question the dynamics of our reality. What Thanos does and his reasons for why he does it are significant, especially because the Malthusian overpopulation and resource scarcity ideology he mirrors has been at work in various societies for hundreds of years and continue to show up as white ethno-nationalism finds more and more public acceptance throughout the world alongside the growing myth of white genocide.
A white supremacist, patriarchal, capitalist way of thinking about scarcity leads to efforts to quell the population, rather than interrogating modes of production, the capitalist system that benefits whiteness, and how gender, race, class, and discriminations based on these identities factor into the equation. Thanos follows this vein of irrational logic, using violence and death to conquer others and exert dominance under the guise of saving a fraction of the population, and the devastation he causes reaches to the furthest ends of the universe. And like those who perpetuate the myths of overpopulation and scarcity in reality, he does so to serve his own selfish interests.
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