The Return of Malthusianism

By Charlie Carr

The blockbuster film ‘Avengers: Infinity War’ has taken the world by storm. Not only does it have a shocking twist at the end, which left many fans crying or angry, but its villain, Thanos, poses an interesting moral dilemma. He acknowledges all the suffering in the world of people going without food, water and other resources, and in order to alleviate this suffering, Thanos decides to cull half the planet’s population so that the remaining half can live comfortably. This attitude has prompted widespread interest in this idea, with websites telling people whether they would or wouldn’t be saved by Thanos. However, this sentiment is nothing new.

Thomas Malthus was an 18th Century clergyman and academic. His father, Daniel Malthus, introduced him to the ideas of William Godwin, husband of proto-feminist Mary Wollstonecraft and father of Frankenstein author Mary Shelley. Godwin argued that human advancement will be so great that they will transcend the need for government and political institutions. Thomas Malthus disagreed with this belief, arguing that population growth meant that it was very difficult for this to be achieved. Writing in a time of huge population increase, Malthus, also a parish priest, noticed that he was baptizing more people than he was burying. He believed that population growth was increasing geometrically, with one couple having 4 children, who would then each go on to have 4 children each, etc. He also observed that food was increasing arithmetically, with food increasing by a set amount each year. This led to his belief that the population would outstrip the amount of resources available. Consequences of this would be famine and disease, which would then reduce the population to a level where people then had enough resources to live comfortably and restart the cycle. This became known as the Malthusian Trap.

For example, imagine a small village with access to berry bushes and a spring. The earliest inhabitants would live comfortably, only having to share the berries and water with those around them. However, whilst they are living comfortably, they feel as if they have enough resources to be able to support children. Thus, the population increases and the amount of berries and water available per person drops. This drop means that competition goes up, and so others end up going without any food. Then they either contract diseases due to malnutrition or die of starvation. The overall population drops, meaning the resources per person increases again and the cycle restarts.

Of course, this was not how things ended up, as Malthus’ predictions would have meant that the population of the UK would be in hundreds of millions. With advances in science leading to an increased food yield, the ideas of Malthus seemed to have been dispelled ages ago. Of course, it was an influential idea at the time, forming part of the logic behind Charles Darwin’s theory of natural selection. Some may even argue that the one-child policy in China was an example of Malthusianism, but the fact that it was state sponsored rather than natural means that it was a different kettle of fish.

So looking back at Infinity War, Thanos’ motivation is nothing new, but instead the rebirth of an idea that plays on our fears of overpopulation. It differs, however, from Malthusianism in that Thanos takes things into his own hands to solve the problem of overpopulation, rather then letting it solve itself naturally.