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Thanos and a $1000 Bet- Problematizing Overpopulation


In the movie Avengers: Infinity War, the villain Thanos, is set out to wipe off half the world. He claims he just wants to help the world achieve “salvation”. In an overpopulated world with limited resources, he contends, only a genocide can help free up the resources to sustain the world. The film portrays a larger-than-life villainous image of Thanos who is set out to destroy the Universe. But Thanos is not the first to concern himself with overpopulation and resource constraints, it is just the theatrics of how he aims to achieve that which makes him the villain.

An Imperfect Prediction

Thomas Malthus, a renowned British Political Economist, in his seminal work, Essay on the Principle of Population published in 1798, predicted that overpopulation will ensure that the quality of life never improves. He articulated, for the first time, a theory that explained why the world may inevitably experience starvation and a subsistence quality of living. Malthus predicted that food production would grow at a rate much slower than that of the population, leading to mass starvation. The solution to his theory was simple– curb population growth. This is very similar to the idea that comes from Thanos’ argument for disintegrating half the world.

Interestingly, as soon as Malthus wrote this essay, the quality of life started improving. Malthus' predictions were never realized. More than 200 years later, populations around the world are substantially larger and in comparison, better off. Famines have occurred, but they have been caused more by regional circumstances and politics than by a lack of resources on Earth to feed the people. Malthus failed mainly because he did not anticipate that technological developments would make it possible to feed a large number of people. Except in cases influenced by natural disasters and political inefficiency, starvation is rarely a widespread problem nowadays.

“Dying Planet”- The Overpopulation Saga Continues

Malthus’ proposed ideas did not fade away. A similar account concerning rising population was released by entomologist Paul Ehrlich in his book The Population Bomb in 1968. Ehrlich made the case that many of the most disturbing occurrences of the day had a common, underlying cause: an excessive number of people living in too few places, depleting the earth's resources. Unless humankind drastically reduces its numbers, we would all face starvation on a "dying planet".

Ehrlich’s writings were motivated by his dislike for unnatural chemicals that affect insects. He was an entomologist and was fascinated by insects. As a teen, he was dismayed by environmental degradation. His beloved butterflies were being killed by the insecticide DDT, and their habitat was being destroyed by suburban sprawl. Consequently, he wanted to make a change- regulating population growth. This would reduce the dependence of people on technology as resource-constraint would become less of a problem, thus, minimizing the harmful effects of technology and protecting Ehrlich’s dear insects.

It All Comes Down to a Bet

Ehrlich’s ideas had many takers. He soon gained popularity, appearing on famous television shows like NBC’s “Tonight Show”. However, many experts started criticizing his approach to overpopulation. Most notably, Julian Simon, an economist, argued that humans can innovate their way out of scarcity. Unlike other animals, humans can expand the supply of natural resources or develop alternatives for scarce resources. For instance, inventions in the realm of renewable energy have helped reduce the use of quickly-depleting fossil fuels.

Both thinkers - Ehrlich and Simon did not budge. They decided to practically test if overpopulation is going to bring doom to the world by placing a $1000 bet. The bet was based on the inflation-adjusted prices of five metals from 1980 to 1990. Ehrlich anticipated that these metals would increase in price as a result of population growth. According to Simon, however, the metal prices would decrease as there would be greater motivation to develop or employ alternatives as the population grows.

The sale price of the decided commodities after 10 years was lower and thus, Simon won. However, it must be noted that the win was merely due to high price volatility and on some days, he might even have lost the bet. Even so, Simon’s arguments left a mark on the world suggesting that overpopulation is not a big problem. Moreover, the Simon-Ehrlich wager helped establish that the extremities with which thinkers like Ehrlich problematize overpopulation may not be entirely inaccurate.

Rounding It Up

The debate continues to exist even today with no obvious answer in sight. Most recently, climate scientists are starting to point out the challenges of overpopulation to the climate. More fossil fuels are now being burnt which produce various heat-trapping gasses. In addition to raising the surface temperature, this poses risks to the survival of species on land and in the ocean. Hazards like water availability and destructive storms threaten life across the globe. These arguments serve to depict that overpopulation is definitely a worry. And if not tackled urgently, its consequences may multiple soon, causing trouble throughout the world.

(Written by Raghav Bansal and Edited by Anoushka Gehani)


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