Why Marvel's Malthusian Might be Misleading Millions
If you have already read some of my articles I have this thing sometimes when people who don’t understand economic growth and development start extrapolating bad or debunked ideas of the past into today’s world and kind of base their entire worldview upon bad science. (Yeah it is incredibly specific but those are the things I like to write about)
And I’ve seen that a negative outlook is spreading far and wide like this sluggish malaise that infects people with an outlook on life and on the future of humanity that quite frankly is kinda of lame and also boring. Expect things to get worse while we are probably living in the most exciting time for humanity we have ever seen. That’s not a good outlook for life, and also not based on the reality of how the world works.
Thanos was NOT right
Do you remember when Marvel ended phase 3 of their cinematic universe with Infinity Wars introducing Thanos as the big bad villain of the entire universe of heroes? Well, Thanos in the comic books is a character driven by a very weird motivation he kind of wants to kill everyone because he is in love with death ( the embodiment of death is an actual person not just the nothingness we have in the real world) Which it can be a little bit of a hard sell and not the best for when your multibillion dollar entertainment empire is betting on your villain to have an entertaining motivation. So instead the writers of the MCU gave him the motivation of wanting to kill half of the universe's sentient life to “save up on resources” because “there's just too many of us for the resources we have on our worlds”
Anyone with a little bit of economic history awareness will know where I'm going with this because Thanos’ argument is just a roundabout way to bring back to the XXI century the Malthusian fallacy of a “lack” of resources for the almost-endless need for more which is a part of our human nature. (Of course, there are billions of aliens on millions of planets who are also killed in Thanos Snap genocide, but they behave pretty much the same way as us because if not Thanos wouldn’t consider genociding them as well) And I think it is interesting to think how this slight decision could alter the pathway of humanity in not a very decisive manner but it could give a small nudge into the wrong direction.
I know it sounds like a lot of attribution that much for just a movie, but I think it is interesting to see the bigger picture when you consider that the film garnered over 4.79 billion dollars at the box office which means that with an average price rounding to $10USD per ticket, it would give us that around 479 Million people watched the film worldwide, if it were a country it would be the third largest country on the planet. Now just assume 30% of people agreed with the ideas (though not the means) of Thanos’ Malthusian Snap That is still over 100 million people who think in some ways the big purple man was right. It is a dangerous world where 100 million people believe in a dangerous idea such as “we should reduce the number of people” or another ecofascist mindset like “humanity is this world’s cancer” or some other dangerous meme floating around humanity’s zeitgeist. It’s a feeding cycle into humanity’s unfounded fears of overpopulation and scarcity of resources. Especially if you consider the large percentage of viewers who were probably young impressionable teens and children when they first saw the film and were infected with those ideas.
From Malthus to Marvel
This faulty mindset is based on real economic data of the past mainly on the work of economist Thomas Robert Malthus who studied population growth and agricultural yield. He devised a growth model (a thing that macroeconomists love doing and, oh god! Do I hate/love them) and according to his measurements population growth was exponential while agricultural yield grew in a linear fashion so for him eventually humanity would grow too fast and too much and there wouldn’t be enough food (and other resources) for everyone else leading to what is now called a Malthusian Catastrophe
And this outdated idea that population growth will eventually outstrip our resource capacity has been floating around even though it has been debunked. Food Production is as abundant as it has ever been before. Population growth did rise indeed but never to levels of global hunger and collapse. And The historical evidence is NOT on the purple genocide’s side. Though to have some credibility Humanity indeed WAS living for most of its history under the curse of the Malthusian Trap and in a lot of places throughout history when the population grew over the limits of growth of the land they had available it led to poverty because a limited number of resources had to be spread out among a rising and growing population.
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But just like the bubonic plague, polio, witch-hunting, and the fear of miasmas a lot of that was lost thanks to humanity’s progress moving forward, the industrial revolution, the fritz haber method and many other innovations that compiled and were built upon each other thanks to the progress of science and technology helped humanity increase our food capacity and the efficiency for our manufacturing methods across practically all areas of human’s interaction with the physical world. Now we benefit from the era of better human quality of life overall as a species than we have ever experienced ( and yes we are facing global catastrophic risks but we’ll talk about them further down)
So it's kind of funny when you think about it that after centuries of progress and advances, debunking time and time again whenever some economist dusts off Malthus and makes a bold claim that we are on the edge of a Malthusian collapse and how they fail under the weight of humanity’s march forward. And now we are seeing an entire generation being enticed by ideas from, the 18th century making the rounds in different political circles, by activists, and also by purple CG Josh Brolin.
The 'Limits to Growth' Fallacy
Probably on of the most popular attempts to dust off Malthus’ fallacy has been what is known as the Club of Rome, a group of academic thinkers and some business leaders who started in the 80s to develop concerns about humanity’s path forward a little bit similar to Malthus concerns but adapted to the world in the XX Century.
This group developed a very influential nontechnical guidebook called “The Limits to Growth” in which it boldly laid the claim that our current system of industrial production wasn’t going to be able to withstand until the year 2100 and eventually a huge collapse was going to come because of the strain we would put on our resources. This book has had a deep impact on humanity’s perception and mindset, and personally, I don’t think it is all that bad a greater concern for the development of green technologies and the focus on increasing the efficiency of manufacturing processes for less environmentally tolling processes is always a good thing.
But I do believe there is a dark side to this logic and we can see more and more examples of it because when faced with this scenario of the potential collapse of human civilization due to a lack of resources we can innovate improve, and elevate humanity beyond our current limits or we can go to the dangerous path of wanting to stifle innovation, stop the growth and reduce humanity and take steps backward towards some idealized vision of a “noble” past where people lived better than today (which is nonsense unless you’re comparing some extreme wealthy king of the past and some extremely poor subsistence farmer in today’s world)
Degrowth or any other similar ideas are dangerous because they propose pathways to stifle and deaccelerate the rate of innovation and change that could bring about new cures for diseases, better and more efficient methods of manufacturing/recycling/distribution and so many other things. Also, it is a very privileged and egotistical perspective to draw an arbitrary line in human history and claim “this is as far as we should go” and try to take a step backward. Because probably people saying this are enjoying a level of comfort and privilege that most of humanity is currently striving greatly to achieve and then someone who’s “already there” comes and tells them how they should live and how their economy should grow less… is kinda ridiculous.
The Way Forward: Innovation, Not Annihilation
I know the title of this section might seem a bit too radical but it is a slippery slope we need to avoid. There have been a lot of claims that eventually we will reach a point called “peak oil” when the capacity of extracting oil from the earth will get to the highest we could possibly do and eventually, it will fizzle out which would be disastrous for human civilization and energy production(don’t forget energy is the lifeblood of civilization so without it we’re pretty much doomed) But time and time again predictions for this moment of peak oil have been pushed forward and forward time and time again. Now I’m not saying this is a clear sign that we will have infinite oil no, that's ridiculous and we should phase out of fossil fuels ASAFP.
Now this divergence between prediction and reality is not only a clear indication of the folly of trying to predict future results, but also of our capacity for improving our methods and innovating to make more stuff with less. This brings us to an argument that we can use physicist Richard Feynamn’s series of lectures during the 1960s called “There’s Plenty of Room at the Bottom” to elucidate. In them, Feynman talks which talk about the capacity of miniaturization and the potential room there is still for improvement in our capacity to develop machinery that works on a tinier and tinier scale. For some this series of lecturers set off the field of nanotechnology alongside K. Eric Drexler’s book “Engines of Creation”. Both of these are great examples of how we’re still so far away from any limit to growth.
We are working with matter and the resources around us on a giant scale we are not able still to modify most of the world around us at the scales proposed by Feynman and Drexler. So we are carving away like cavemen with blunt tools cutting so much and losing a lot of unnecessary resources as a byproduct.
Feynman’s views showed us how we are so far from utilizing the potential of the nano-scale for so many things and that once we breach into that space our efficiency and capacity for creation and innovation would explode almost like a new dimension had been discovered and how we view the world and how we utilize our resources would change drastically. Because it is innovation, the explosion of our creativity and ideas and not trying to control and restrict ourselves that will eventually bring forth the much-needed solutions for the crises that are troubling our species.
Where do we go from here?
I do believe the way forward is through these troublesome times, the crises we are living through are part of the growing pains of our young civilization. The universe is vast and it is calling to us so we need to work together and continue our advances and our progress toward the stars and continue to expand and increase our chances for creativity and our opportunities for all of our species.
Now I don’t believe all Malthusian thought is useless and has no weight nor repercussion, Humanity is indeed paying a price tag (environmental and stuff) for our progress forward. There are risks of Malthus eventually coming true? Maybe who knows… But, I think that it is very different to be concerned about our current troubles and ailments and develop solutions to overcome them through science and technology. What I find disturbing is that ideas such as degrowth, population control, and other ecofascist ideas are being normalized and seen as real solutions to these problems, especially in environmental circles. How many times have we heard different versions of claims that humanity is the problem or stuff like that? The view of humanity as the problem instead of a solution is a dangerous one. And I think that we should be on the lookout for the pervasiveness and how these ideals could be infiltrating our political dialogues before it is too late. Because then who is in power might be the person that determines who is on what side of a “Snap”. Or by slowing down innovation and driving people away from areas of high impact and seducing young minds with the allures of ecofascist ideals and performance activism over innovation and development we might be facing a rough ride and decreasing chances of survival for most of us humans.