We finally watched Avengers: Infinity War. The super villain in that story is Thanos, who has the well-intentioned goal of killing half of all living things in the universe, so that the other half can flourish. I am greatly encouraged that such population explosion obsession is presented as, ultimately, evil.
Jibran Khan makes the point in National Review that there was an actual Thanos who wished to bring about the same outcome. And, indeed, he was successful in wiping out millions of lives. This would be Paul R. Ehrlich, whose bestselling book The Population Bomb, which came out in 1968, predicted global apocalypse by 1984, unless the world’s population could be dramatically decreased, by coercion if necessary.
Of course, 1984 came and went, and none of Ehrlich’s dire predictions came true. Well, the world’s population has increased, but so has food production and the number of producers and consumers necessary for economic growth.
And yet, Ehrlich’s doomsday book, says Khan, alarmed the world and was directly responsible for China’s One Child Policy of forced abortion, India’s forced sterilization program, and similar initiatives–often run by affluent Westerners–throughout the developing world.
Two prominent American scientists advocated the fictional Mad Titan’s philosophy in real life, with horrific global results.
Thanos, the Mad Titan of Marvel comics and, now, cinema, aims to wipe out half of all life in the universe. In Jim Starlin’s original comic series, Thanos is in love with (the embodiment of) Death and hopes to impress her with his feat. But the filmmakers behind Avengers: Infinity War gave him a different motivation — one that is chillingly familiar in the real world. After his own planet collapses from civil war and starvation, the movie iteration of Thanos becomes convinced that the destruction resulted from a lack of population control. If it is to be fixed, he reasons, half of the universe’s population will need to be culled. Only then, can the powers that be ensure prosperity, health, and safety — for those who survive, anyway.The mad scientist who is bent on mass destruction for the “greater good” is a sci-fi theme as old as the genre itself. But, alarmingly enough, the idea did not come from comics. Indeed, in the last few decades, two real-life American scientists, Paul and Anne Ehrlich, wrote a best-selling book advocating the same ideas. While their arguments have been thoroughly discredited in the West, they have proven extremely influential on repressive regimes throughout the world.
The Ehrlichs’ 1968 book, The Population Bomb, opens with the line, “The battle to feed all of humanity is over.” The couple then predicts the deaths of hundreds of millions from worldwide famine within a decade and proposes a set of solutions that would not sound out of place in Thanos’s mouth. “Increasing food production will only provide a stay of execution, unless [it is] accompanied by determined and successful efforts at population control,” they argue. “Population control is the conscious regulation of the numbers of human beings to meet the needs, not just of individual families, but of society as a whole.”
Lest anyone have illusions that the Ehrlichs were advocating voluntary reform, they make it clear on the first page that there must be “compulsion if voluntary methods fail.” They cement their misanthropy with a warning: “We can no longer afford merely to treat the symptoms of the cancer of population growth; the cancer itself must be cut out. Population control is the only answer.”
Photo of Paul R. Ehrlich by Ilka Hartmann – eBay, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=20701670