Space-Malthus

Is Thanos a shitty environmentalist?

"Avengers: Infinity War" invites a political ecological review (with no spoilers)
Marvel Studios

After the mid-credits scene to the first Avengers film closed on a certain someone’s menacing purple rictus, I sat in stunned, beatific nerd-rapture: Thanos is coming!

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I’ve loved the character ever since I was a kid in 1991 eagerly awaiting each issue of The Infinity Gauntlet, the epic six-part comic book mini-series that Avengers: Infinity War is based on (with some content inspired by The Thanos Quest and Infinity).

And so I couldn’t help but be curious to see how my all-time favourite villain would be depicted in this latest and biggest Marvel film.

It wouldn’t be an easy translation. Thanos’s motivations in the source material (reversing an unrequited love with the Marvel universe’s anthropomorphized embodiment of Death) would be difficult to pull off on screen. Apparently realizing this, the writers emphasized instead a slightly more obscure motivation; they turned him into a cosmic environmentalist.

Space-Malthus

As Thanos puts it in the film, his home of Titan “was like most planets. Too many mouths, not enough to go around. And when we faced extinction, I offered a solution.”

That solution? Genocide at random: “Dispassionate, fair. The rich and poor alike.” In the end, Thanos’s predictions about the planet’s impending collapse were dismissed, Cassandra-like, and Titan underwent the ultimate Malthusian nightmare, a total planet-wide cataclysm precipitated by resource overshoot.

This population bomb hypothesis ranks at the top of the canon of faulty environmental responses.

Through that crucible, and haunted by his failure to prevent it, Thanos discovers his cosmic purpose, one driven by “a simple calculus: This universe is finite, its resources finite. If life is left unchecked, life will cease to exist. It needs correction.” Half of all life, he concludes, must be wiped out if universal balance is to be restored, and he sets off to collect the six metaphysical Infinity Stones that will give him the power of a god.

As with Black Panther’s Killmonger, who hoped to violently liberate the wretched of the earth, the reason we can be sympathetic with Thanos is because we agree with his ends (avoiding collapse), but — and this is what makes him a villain — not his extreme means. For this to work effectively, however, it’s necessary for him to operate with a plausible, compelling, or convincing analysis, namely that human (or humanoid) population size is the primary determinant of whether a planet’s carrying capacity is apocalyptically overburdened.

The ecological is political

And that’s where there’s some cause for concern.

The idea that environmental crises are mainly driven by there being too many of us — that we are, by nature, serial overshooters, genetically predisposed to procreating, polluting, devouring, and consuming our way, insatiably, beyond the carrying capacity of our landbase — deserves far less credence than it already currently receives. Because it’s really quite flawed.

In other words, to borrow from the names of the six stones that feature in Infinity War, environmental issues raise major questions about Power, Space, Reality, Soul, Time, and Mind.

For instance, take our most pressing ecological challenge: climate change. Far from being driven equally by “the rich and poor alike,” it’s a problem the rich are ludicrously more responsible for.

This population bomb hypothesis ranks at the top of the canon of faulty environmental responses alongside individual lifestyle environmentalism — the take-shorter-showers, buy-an-electric-vehicle, bring-your-reusable-bags kind of approach.

The problem with both responses is in how they ignore that the ecological is political; they tell us little about the nature of the larger context that powerfully shapes a population's relationship with the earth.

The Infinity heuristic

Instead, consider the following six (necessarily incomplete) sets of questions.

  1. Does power to decide how people are to live on this earth inhere in a largely unresponsive political elite, in major concentrations of wealth, in democratic movements? Whose voices are decisive and whose silenced?
  2. Has the current economic system organized nature for conservation, for renewal, for human sufficiency? Or has it arranged large swathes of the earth into monocrops, clear cuts, factory farms, tailings ponds to serve industrial capital?
  3. What are the systems and institutional logics that make our lived reality what it is, and what policies, behaviours, and lifestyles do they compel? Is a global economic system driven to realize maximum profit and growth, and one that can only value things according to market logic, the best way to make a civilization likely to recognize or observe limits? How have they created a world where some of us live without enough while others live in a way that will require two to six more planets?
  4. Just what manner of creatures are we? Are our societies designed to encourage and bring out the best our nature permits? Or have they been arranged to mold us into perpetually esurient consumers?
  5. How would we live today if we institutionalized responsibilities to preserve an environment in which future generations can thrive? What are the unhealed legacies of the past — whether that be imperialism, settler colonialism, slavery, neoliberalism — that have disempowered communities in environmental decision-making and put them on the front lines of human-caused environmental catastrophes?
  6. How does the reigning ideology of neoliberalism constrain our thinking and affect the kind of rationality favoured in making decisions? What is the effect of teaching in every undergraduate economics course a mental model of the economy conceived as though it has no linkages to the physical world? Are there alternative ways of conceptualizing the economy to recognize that it is nested in a society that is itself nested in the environment?

In other words, to borrow from the names of the six stones that feature in Infinity War, environmental issues raise major questions about Power, Space, Reality, Soul, Time, and Mind.

All of which interact, and that makes most environmental problems complexly raveled. Picture a series of threads stretching out from various points in a room, twisting at all sorts of angles and entwining at multiple points, densely and undisentanglably. Tugging on any one thread makes one or more quiver or tauten somewhere through the web.

So many Gordian knots make analyses that lead to prospects of a cheat (like wiping out half the population) seductive, but villainously unhelpful.

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