It took three years before the last encounter of the Avengers against a complex, cosmic entity that sought to obliterate the world. Ultron, a form of artificial intelligence, aptly embodied the cynical villain in Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015). This was the second film in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, after Guardians of the Galaxy (2014), that revealed details about the Infinity Stones to the viewers. At the time, though, there were barely any fans to take his side and think: ‘Hey, he’s right’. In spite of the fact that Ultron, like Thanos, contemplated having a noble cause. To save the planet.
But Thanos is not such a villain – some would say. He did nothing wrong. His idea, to eradicate half the living beings to tackle overpopulation in a universe with finite resources, appears to have significant resonance. More than it should, actually. And it was such, that it triggered a lengthy public discussion that transposes the psychological alibi of a demigod sprung out of a science fiction movie into the real world.
It is not a joke – the discussion is live. A glimpse on the internet delivers impressive and unsettling results. The fans of the film ‘wonder if Thanos was right all along‘; in fact, a quick online poll showed over half of them think he was right indeed. To an extent, some authors also admitted ‘he has a point‘ or pondered whether ‘he is actually right‘. Others, writing on prominent outlets such as Forbes and Vice, simply but explicitly remind that ‘he is a mass murderer‘ and that he is definitely not right.
In social media, the users’ views seem less reasonable. As a matter of fact, trying two relevant hashtags with the analytics tool developed by BRAND24, offers intriguing results:
- #ThanosDidNothingWrong. As if there is nothing wrong (but nothing?) with wiping out half beings of the universe, this hashtag counts already more than 900 mentions on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook, reaching almost 200 thousand users in a period of just two months. More than 32 thousand users even clicked ‘like’…
- #ThanosIsRight. The affirmative hashtag supporting Thanos had much fewer mentions, about 120, which reached approximately 24 thousand users and received 1,600 likes.
Notably, these figures rise every day that passes, while in several occasions, the very same posts include the #overpopulation hashtag, the notorious plague of modernity.
At the same time, in platforms like Quora and Reddit, a campaign has been unfolded by fans and non-fans in defence of Thanos’s narrative. They seem to discover anew the issue of overpopulation and finite resources of Earth and sympathise with his quest. They are attracted by the quick, simple and allegedly fair – since he makes no distinction between rich and poor – solution. Despite the arguments acknowledging how exorbitant the extinction of half humanity is, their posts almost absolve Thanos of any wrongdoing. Because, as they would say, he foresees the danger and misery to come and has the guts to do something about it.
Unluckily for those viewers who believe they are cool because they picked the villain’s side in this story, it must be noted that the real Thanos (the one made by Jim Starlin in the comic book) is not so infatuated with saving the galaxy from overpopulation. On the contrary, he needs to kill half the living beings in order to impress his greatest love; death. Death is actually a woman bearing the alias ‘Mistress Death’. As the original comic book reads:
‘Apparently Death has long thought the fact that there are more people alive today than ever died was a type of cosmic imbalance. This was an irregularity she sought to right using the dark powers at her disposal’ 1.
This is essentially why she resurrected Thanos. Besides, he openly admits it:
‘Death is with me every second of the day! My every moment is spent in either dealing out death or worshipping it’ and – truly – ‘if proof of my depravity is what is needed.. so be it!’ 2.
Then why the cinematic Thanos is a fairly embellished, misunderstood and fatherly figure? The truth is that Thanos-in-film, graciously played by Josh Brolin, is deliberately different because that was the concept of Anthony and Joe Russo. As the two directors explained in an interview, the Titan’s fetish for Mistress Death was omitted, mainly for practical reasons: ‘“You’re spending two-and-a-half hours with this many characters, so then adding in some character that the audience has no relationship to, having to explain the backstory of that character, making you care about that character, making Thanos care about that character, making that character interesting to the other characters… ” He trailed off, shaking his head’.
To put it simply – and fairly – the Russo brothers wished to render their main character less rigid and more interesting. They did not aspire to send a particular message about overpopulation, neither would they probably imagine that a portion of their audience would take Thanos’s ruminations so literally.
Thanos, as in Thomas
This obsession of MCU’s villain, to save half the population from… the other half, ghastly resembles an 18th-century socioeconomic theory. According to this theory, Earth’s population increases exponentially, while its resources increase only arithmetically. It was introduced by the English priest Thomas Malthus, in his notorious essay on overpopulation. Among others, he suggested that:
‘The power of population is so superior to the power in the earth to produce subsistence for man, that, unless arrested by the preventive check, premature death must in some shape or other visit the human race 3.
And what kind of check does Malthus mean?
‘…moral restraint, vice and misery’.
For Malthus and his supporters throughout the ages, the decimation of humanity due to overpopulation is the deterministic result of natural law. This view had spurred a political debate because it circumvented the major issue of social stratification and conditions of production, in a society that had begun to experience the industrial revolution.
Moreover, Malthus did not present tangible data to explain how the available amount of food in a society remains the same for several years, but mainly he didn’t explain why offering part of that food to the poor necessarily means – as he said – other people will be deprived of it.
There is no point, here, nor enough space, to analyse the malthusian doctrine afresh. After all, this task has been carried out very efficiently a very long time ago by others. Such as Karl Marx, who pointed out the far more sensible notion that the rise of the population depends on the social conditions of production and not on some natural inevitability. Obviously irked, he wrote:
‘Malthus’s theory, which incidentally not his invention, but whose fame he appropriated through the clerical fanaticism with which he propounded it – actually only through the weight he placed on it – is significant in two respects: (1) because he gives brutal expression to the brutal viewpoint of capital; (2) because he asserted the fact of overpopulation in all forms of society. Proved it he has not, for there is nothing more uncritical than his motley compilations from historians and travelers’ descriptions. His conception is altogether false and childish (1) because he regards overpopulation as being of the same kind in all the different historic phases of economic development; does not understand their specific difference, and hence stupidly reduces these very complicated and varying relations to a single relation, two equations, in which the natural reproduction of humanity appears on the one side, and the natural reproduction of edible plants (or means of subsistence) on the other, as two natural series, the former geometric and the latter arithmetic in progression. In this way he transforms the historically distinct relations into an abstract numerical relation, which he has fished purely out of thin air, and which rests neither on natural nor on historical laws’ 4.
Marx continued, less tactfully:
‘This baboon thereby implies that the increase of humanity is a purely natural process, which requires external restraints, checks, to prevent it from proceeding in geometrical progression. […]
He stupidly relates a specific quantity of people to a specific quantity of necessaries. Ricardo [British classical economist of the 18th century – Ed.] immediately and correctly confronted him with the fact that the quantity of grain available is completely irrelevant to the worker if he has no employment; that it is therefore the means of employment and not of subsistence which put him into the category of surplus population’ 5.
In other words, overpopulation is a term referring to those people who do not have access to the resources created and distributed, without this proving that the latter are not enough.
A crowded planet
There are always people who believe that the ends justify the means. This, however, requires the ends to exist. And if the ends mean to solve a problem, this requires the problem to exist. Has really our planet too many human beings to feed, in the near or farther future?
It is worth a glance at the figures of the most qualified organisation:
- According to the Department of Economic and Social Affairs of the United Nations, the Earth’s population reached 7.6 billion people in 2017 and it is estimated to reach 9.8 billion in 2050 and 11.2 billion in 2100. Yet, the rate of this growth doesn’t strike as exponential at all. To be precise, the annual growth rate is around 1.25 per cent today and drops every year. In 2050 it is estimated to decline to 0.7 per cent and to 0.3 per cent in 2100 6.
- The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) has repeatedly noted that humanity produces more than enough food to preserve itself. In fact, the average dietary energy supply adequacy (3 year averages) increased from 113 per cent in 1990 to 124 per cent in 2015 7. Nevertheless, around 815 million people today suffer from malnutrition and hunger. Why? Because they simply ‘do not have sufficient access to the abundance of food produced’ 8.
- Every year, 1.3 billion tons of food produced for human consumption is lost or wasted, during the whole chain of production, processing, storage, transportation, distribution and consumption 9.
Unquestionably, the world can produce enough food for all and in a sustainable manner, with respect to environmental ecosystems. If so, what is the cause of hunger? What are the factors causing food insecurity or food crises in a country or area of the planet?
In 2017, the World Food Programme of the United Nations identified food crises in 61 countries, from Yemen and Syria to Congo and Eritrea. These were instigated mostly by conflict and war, ‘chronic poverty’, agricultural underdevelopment, natural disasters and climate change 10.
Coming to a point talking about food insecurity in terms of countries and not generally or randomly on the planet makes some sense. Since, as Marx reminded above, conditions of production differ from society to society.
But no. Neo-Malthusian ecologists would insist that population must be checked. And quite harshly, as the American author and ecologist, Garret Hardin, conveyed in his essay ‘Lifeboat Ethics: the Case Against Helping the Poor’ 11. An alleged country – the lifeboat – should, according to Hardin, let everyone in the sea drown not to reproduce, in order to save its passengers…
Self-evident but so unimaginable
It is quite sad, 70 plus years after the end of the most bloody war, that the struggles and sacrifices against totalitarianism and humiliation of human life must be reminded of. That it can be easily forgotten that mass murder is a crime, inasmuch as the murder of one person, let alone genocide, in times of war or peace. Since 1948, exactly 148 nations have acknowledged as a crime of international law any act ‘committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group’ 12. Poor Benin did not think about the problem of overpopulation when it joined the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide, in 2017. Neither Tajikistan in 2015, nor Malta or Palestine in 2014, nor San Marino or Guinea-Bissau in 2013.
Clearly, the annihilation of half the world, targeting the human species in general, does not involve the destruction of only one group, but multiple national, ethnical, racial and religious groups. It is an act that, in its abstraction and agonising simplicity, falls effectively into the category of crimes against humanity. This includes both ‘a) murder’ and ‘b) extermination;’ (which does not exclude non-violent practices, such as deprivation of access to food and medicine), among other ‘acts when committed as part of a widespread or systematic attack directed against any civilian population, with knowledge of the attack’ 13. Needless to say, those crimes remain crimes whether committed in time of peace or in time of war.
These are the basics. The self-evident.
Or not? Shall more elementary principles be invoked? Such as everyone’s fundamental ‘right to life, liberty and security of person’ 14? Can this also be violated in favour of a utilitarian mentality of a perverse powerful man (or demigod)?
‘Since we have to feed them anyway, it would be senseless to have them loaf about […] as useless eaters’.
Who talks about useless eaters? And whom does the term refer to? On first impression, it may refer to several slothful people of the First World, who overconsume, squandering the money of their family or the state’s, i.e. the taxpayers’. It may also refer to refugees or migrants, or citizens of a Third World country living off foreign humanitarian aid…
In any case, the quotation is an acclamation of a purely utilitarian attitude towards human life: They are worth living, and thus eating, those who are useful, who can work. Those who can contribute; none else.
But the sentence has been detached from its original context, some readers would complain. Obviously. Yet how much would its meaning change if read in context? Here is a more complete version:
‘It is necessary, said he, to get this very cheap labour force working as soon as possible. Since we have to feed them anyway, it would be senseless to have them loaf about in camps as useless eaters’ 15.
These words are attributed to Adolf Hitler himself, by his right-hand man and Reichsleiter (one of the Reich leaders) Martin Bormann. As a record in the Federal Archives of Berlin show, on 15 October 1941 Bormann was informing minister Hans Lammers about how the Führer wished them to handle the prisoners of war (Soviet prisoners, in this case).
Of course, when the PoW numbers grew, the Nazis would not bother to subsist them. They had to find a solution to the problem of… prisoner overpopulation. Referring to the eastern front, the Canadian scholar and journalist Adam Jones notes in his book on genocide:
‘All men between the ages of 15 and 65 were deemed to be prisoners-of-war, and liable to be “sent to the rear.” Given that the Germans, though predicting victory by such epic encirclements, had deliberately avoided making provisions for sheltering and feeding millions of prisoners, “sent to the rear” became a euphemism for mass murder’ 16.
In other words, instead of wasting bullets to execute the prisoners, the Nazis intentionally let them starve to death.
By the way, in a cynical attempt to justify themselves, ‘some [Nazi] generals at Nuremberg tried to argue that it was difficult unexpectedly to have to feed so many p.o.w.’s’ 17…
…to scientific racism
The utilitarian precept, firmly associated with the question of available resources, has similarly manifested in more recent regimes. In 1994 for instance, North Korea experienced ‘one of the worst famines in recent history, killing two to three million North Koreans. As international aid flooded in, the regime conducted a brutal “triage,” denying food to those “not seen as critical to the survival of the state”’ 18.
Nevertheless, it was the Nazis who, in the process of cementing and actualising their ideology, had truly made advances in standardising social darwinism, drawing on the instruments of science. Medicine, for example, was one of the most expedient fields for them to apply their utilitarian approach. As it evolved into scientific racism, it gradually diffused in the daily practice of medical care.
Attitudes towards patients and hence people in general had to follow a socially cost-effective principle. A very indicative and interesting account of this was illustrated by Dr Leo Alexander, psychiatrist and chief medical advisor in the Nuremberg Trials.
‘Whatever proportions these crimes finally assumed, it became evident to all who investigated them that they had started from small beginnings. The beginnings at first were merely a subtle shift in emphasis in the basic attitude of the physicians. It started with the acceptance of the attitude, basic in the euthanasia movement, that there is such a thing as life not worthy to be lived. This attitude in its early stages concerned itself merely with the severely and chronically sick. Gradually the sphere of those to be included in this category was enlarged to encompass the socially unproductive, the ideologically unwanted, the racially unwanted and finally all non-Germans’ 19.
Thereupon, approximately 275,000 people were put to death, until the end of 1939, i.e. before the war even began, in Nazi euthanasia programmes: people diagnosed with mental illness, psychiatric disorders or distress, adults and children with disabilities, epileptics, amputees, patients with chronic and/or incurable diseases. But also communists, homosexuals and petty criminals. All those were, for the regime, lives that were not ‘worthy to be lived’.
Perhaps, none of the above is intrinsically related to Thanos’s cinematic debut; an imaginative character contrived in an imaginative universe of heroes and villains. It has, however, to do with how easily and rashly a simplistic idea can massively be reproduced, but mostly with how arduous its deconstruction can be, in the real universe. Luckily, on the big screen things are more simple: Against the grandiose purple figure, by whom so many have been seduced, there was someone who stood up, refusing to accept the loss of human life. Humble Captain Steve Rogers, who reminded that even a single one ‘should’ count.
Published originally in Greek (InTownPost), 24 May 2018
1. Marvel Comics, Infinity Gauntlet #1, 1991, p. 9.
2. Ibid. p. 27.
3. Malthus, T. R., ‘An Essay on the Principle of Population”, London: J. Johnson, 1803, p. 350.
4. Marx, Karl, ‘Outlines of the Critique of Political Economy 1857-1861’, Penguin 1973, p. 539.
5. Ibid., p. 540.
6. United Nations, Department of Economic and Social Affairs, Population Division (2017). World Population Prospects: The 2017 Revision, Key Findings and Advance Tables. ESA/P/WP/248, p. 4.
7. Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (2015). Statistical Pocketbook – World food and agriculture, p. 16, chart 24.
8. Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (2017). SOFI 2017: Questions & Answers (2).
9. Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (2011). Global Food Losses and Food Waste, p. 4-5
10. Food Security Information Network (2018). Global Report on Food Crises, p. 31-35.
11. Hardin, Garrett, ‘Lifeboat Ethics: the Case Against Helping the Poor’, Psychology Today, 1974.
12. United Nations (1948), Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide, Article II.
13. Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court (1998), Article 7.
14. Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948), Article 3.
15. Overmans, Rüdiger, ‘The Treatment of Prisoners of War in the Eastern European Theatre of Operations, 1941-56’ in S. Scheipers (ed.), ‘Prisoners of War’, New York, Oxford University Press 2010, p. 136.
16. Jones, Adam, ‘Genocide: A Comprehensive Introduction’, New York, Routledge, Second Edition, 2011, p. 272.
17. Werth, Alexander, ‘Russia at War: 1941-1945’, New York, Carrol & Graf Publishers, 1964, p. 706.
18. Jones A., Ibid. p. 215.
19. Alexander, Leo, ‘Medical science under dictatorship’. New England Journal of Medicine, 14 July 1949, p. 6.