Progressives are worried about Marvel’s Avengers: Infinity War. They think its villain Thanos, whose solution to the overpopulation problem is to wipe out half the planet, gives the wrong impression that environmentalists are evil.
At Yale Climate Connections, Michael Svoboda complains:
By ascribing selfless motives to Thanos, AIW tacitly delivers this toxic message: environmentalism = mass murder.
Solitaire Townsend, co-founder of the environmental PR agency Futerra, also finds the movie’s message too close for comfort. At Forbes, she writes:
The Mad Titan sounds worryingly like some environmentalists. Over the years the need for ‘population control and reduction’ has been widely called for as the necessary solution to our resource and sustainability crisis. Thanos is the ultimate Malthusian. After he fulfills his purpose, crumbling half of life in the universe into dust, he retires to an idyll many environmentalists would enjoy – a simple rural hut set in sunlit dappled fields. He had promised “not suffering, but salvation,” and in the final shot a tiny smile is playing on his face after a job well done. Ouch.
For Svoboda, this is a horrible distortion of the essential goodness with which environmentalists are imbued. Not only is it “repugnant” but it fails to take into account all the many wonderful possibilities that greens are now considering as part of their plan to save the world.
In AIW, no one ever points to a country or world that has learned to live sustainably, even though at least two places in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Asgard and Wakanda, appear to have been moving in that direction.
Neither does anyone point out other ways to solve the problem of environmental degradation, or even other ways to pursue Thanos’s preferred solution. Empowering women, for example, is a peaceful way to constrain and then reverse population growth.
Except, as Maddie Stone argues here, Thanos’s attitude is actually a pretty accurate representation of how many environmentalists think.
To me at least, it came across as a clear denouncement of a certain breed of solutions-oriented environmentalism that centers planetary “balance” over people.
The early history of environmentalism is festooned with warnings of a population apocalypse, beginning with 18th century scholar Thomas Malthus’ An Essay on the Principle of Population, which concluded that rising human numbers would inevitably lead to widespread poverty and famine. As Malthus’ pessimistic predictions failed to materialize, he was declared a false prophet. But his ideas stuck around, re-emerging with force in the mid-20th century following the viral popularity of works like Paul Ehrlich’s The Population Bomb(1968), which predicted “hundreds of millions of people are going to starve to death” in the 1970s, and The Limits to Growth (1972), an MIT research report that concluded “The basic behavior of the world system is exponential growth of population and capital, followed by collapse.”
So yeah, Thanos’ concern about galactic population control? Definitely something we’ve thought about here on Earth. And while the most dire doomsday predictions haven’t come true—thanks largely to industrialization and the green revolution in agriculture—this school of thinking has had real-world consequences, including racist campaigns to sterilize millions of women in the developing world, and China’s fraught one-child policy.
Avengers: Infinity War isn’t the first movie to buck Hollywood’s “environmentalism = fluffy and good” trend. One of the first to do so was Michael Crichton’s State of Fear (2004) in which eco-terrorists plot mass murder to raise awareness of global warming.
The evil mastermind in Kingsman: The Secret Service was also an environmentalist. Richmond Valentine (Samuel L Jackson) is a billionaire philanthropist who believes the only way to save humanity from overpopulation is to wipe out everybody except his favorite celebrities and politicians.
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