Say what you want about the tenets of Thanos’ Snap, at least it’s an ethos. It’s just a really terribly designed one that immediately falls to pieces the moment a proper understanding of political economy is applied to it.
To put the article in its proper framing: it is repeatedly stated by Thanos and others in the know that his goal is wiping out fifty percent of life in the universe. This is not hyperbole, as it is literally demonstrated in background scenes of previous wars in which he separates the population randomly into two groups and executes one of the groups. In addition, he is quite clear on his logic for doing so. He argues that the universe is finite, with finite resources, and that the current population of the universe is twice that of the carrying capacity of this resources.
This article does not address the ethics of this action, as it is obviously at face value incredibly evil. However, the sort of mouthbreathing pseudo-fascists who believe it’s clever to bring up trains running on time when the subject of concentration camps comes up, have at length trumpeted all over the Internet that Thanos was, in fact, right, and that the ends justified the means. There’s something about omelets and breaking eggs. But really, strange women distributing brunch is no basis for economic policy.
Rather, this article argues that regardless of the ethics of the policy, Thanos’ Snap was ineffective policy. It was ill-designed, lacked any basis in understanding of demographic trends, was distributed haphazardly to the detriment of the policy, and its proposed effectiveness was based on woefully inaccurate economic assumptions. In fact, even assuming his diagnosis of the problem was accurate, the solution as implemented would exacerbate said problem. Finally, this article concludes with a simple proposal for how Thanos could have used similar resource investment to accomplish his stated goals without the so-called “broken eggs” of trillions of deaths.
First, at no point does Thanos provide any citation or summary of his analysis in his determination that fifty percent of the current population of the universe is the appropriate one for the available resources. The roundness of this figure, and the complete lack of methodological transparency suggests that this number was arrived at not through rigorous analysis of the data, but due to ideological factors.
Second, even if this fifty percent figure were accepted as valid at some point, any such figure should be presented as a function of time rather than as a static figure. The reason is simple: population grows over time. Indeed, this is exactly the problem Thanos insists he has identified: unconstrained population growth causes economic catastrophe. But if that growth is indeed happening it means that the proportion of the population that needs culled should be changing over time. That is, the longer it takes for him to gather the infinity stones, the higher a proportion of the population needs culled. But he has been quite clear in decades-old flashbacks to Gamora’s youth to the present that the proportion is 50 percent. This again points very strongly to a figure that was arrived at through ideological rationale rather than science.
Third, the Snap as documented in Russo & Russo (2018) indeed causes a random fifty percent selection of sentient life to disappear. But this statistically random disappearing makes no sense for solving the legitimate economic problem of resource constraints that he has identified unless one makes the assumption that the entire Marvel universe is uniformly populated across space. Consider a well-managed planet with a population of a billion, and an out of control one with twenty billion. Both have identical resource endowments that support a carrying capacity of two billion individuals. Both lose half their population. The overpopulated one is still overpopulated, the well-managed one has been punished for their very responsibility.
Fourth, and related, the Snap’s strategy assumes uniform resource distribution through the universe. The cull is randomly distributed, but resources are not. Killing half the population of a planet with an abundance of resources that are well-managed is counter the alleged goals of the Snap.
Fifth, and again with a related assumption, the Snap’s strategy assumes that there is a uniform and non-improvable efficiency of resource usage across the universe. Consider an isolated planet that utilizes its resource endowment at half the efficiency of more advanced civilizations. It will have an actual carrying capacity of half the population that it would have with more efficient technology.
Sixth, even if these previous assumptions were accounted for at a later date in the model, it assumes that all populations are equally weighted towards resource consumption at a biological level. Similar to the previous point, smaller and more resource efficient populations will have a higher carrying capacity than others if we take the individual sentient being as the unit of analysis. Our documentation of the Marvel universe supports the hypothesis that there is great variation in the biological baseline of resource usage from species to species. Take for instance the small species of rabbit typified by Mr. Rocket in comparison to the Titan species as conveniently typified by Mr. Thanos. As energy requirements scale with the square of height, an individual of the Titan species would have approximately thirty times the expected resource consumption as space rabbits. Thus, culling would need to be intelligently distributed rather than randomly so.
Seventh, and perhaps most problematically, the Snap does not contain any policy of communication or outreach in order to communicate the logic of the culling. It assumes that all populations will adjust their behavior based on an unexplained and unaccounted for mass die off. However, since this is not communicated to any of the affected populations, with perhaps the exception of Earth, there is absolutely no reason to believe that any of them will adjust their societal behavior according to the Snap’s stated purpose. Even if we discount every other flaw in the plan, and accept Thanos’ evidence of worlds he has conquered adjusting their behavior, that empirical evidence is based on the biased sample of worlds Thanos explained the cull’s logic to.
If we expand our empirical examination to populations experiencing an unexpected die off, we find that overwhelmingly they do not throttle their population growth, but in fact go in the other direction. From the perspective of the population, they have - through the most tragic mechanism possible - experienced a relative net gain in resources compared to what they had prior to the culling. Both biologically, and economically rationally, the most common result of die out is a subsequent population explosion. Earth’s own history provides a plethora of ready examples. For instance, the Black Death killed approximately 50 percent of Europe’s population on Earth (a fitting number for comparison to the Thanos policy) and yet the population reached its pre-plague level in a mere eighty years.
Based on overwhelmingly faulty assumptions, implemented with complete disregard for political economic attributes of the universe, and woefully uninformed on basic historical evidence, the Thanos Snap is just badly designed policy.
That said, it is possible to acknowledge that Thanos has identified a key problem in the economic development of the universe, even if his proposed solution is utterly inadequate. We do have a preponderance of evidence for how to solve that problem of overpopulation stretching resource endowments to the breaking point and causing enormous societal and individual suffering. Historically speaking, population growth levels off cross-culturally with the availability of cheap and universally available birth control.
Surely if Thanos could disintegrate half the universe, the Infinity Stones could just as easily have provided birth control to the half the universe that bears children. One simple mechanism would perhaps be through hooking fertility into an autonomic reflex similar to breathing. That is, a biological impulse that can be consciously overridden just as we can override the breath reflex temporarily in order to hold our breaths under water.
While it would certainly take several generations for populations to level off appropriately, that is within the time frame by which populations would have recovered from the mass culling in any case, and so would end up having in the long run the same net effect on resources as the Snap, but would be a permanent solution and one that did not involve mass murder.
The Snap was so atrociously considered from a scientific perspective that it is as unforgivable a policy as it was an ethical act.
Dr. Steven Lloyd Wilson is a hopeless romantic and the last scion of Norse warriors and the forbidden elder gods. His novel, ramblings, and assorted fictions coalesce at www.burningviolin.com. You can email him here.
Header Image Source: Marvel