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Thanos Syndrome: How Not to Deal with Resource Scarcity

The Myth, History, and Science of Overpopulation

Thanos Syndrome is the belief that when a human population is facing resource shortages, the immediate solution should be to reduce the number of people.

Who is Thanos?

In the Marvel Cinematic Universe, super villain Thanos is from planet Titan. Thanos wants to collect the six Infinity Stones that would give him infinite power. Once he collects the Infinity Stones, Thanos wants to wipe out half of all life in the universe to bring back to balance.

Of course, you’ll have to watch the Avengers movies to bring it back.

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Calling Thomas Malthus

Thanos is fiction, but his evil plan has some historical basis. The British minister, Thomas Malthus, wrote in the late 1700s that England’s population was increasing too quickly. So quickly, that soon England would not be able to feed enough people. The poor especially would live miserable lives and die of hunger.

Unlike Thanos, Malthus didn’t call for mass murder to deal with dwindling resources. Malthus himself preached that people should instead delay marriage and remain abstinent.

But Malthus’s theories did inspire especially persistent policies that would have lasting effects–especially on how governments handled people in poverty.

The Chinese “Solution”

For example, to combat China’s growing population in the late 20th Century, the Chinese Communist Party imposed a One Child Policy in 1980. Every married couple could only have one child. A couple who had more than one child were punished with severe fines or imprisonment.

People dispute the policy. However, China’s growth did not stop and China still has one of the largest populations today.

In 2015, the Chinese government abandoned the One-Child Policy for a Two-Child Policy. In 2021, China abandoned their policy completely. Why? Chinese Planners realized the One Child Policy would create a demographic crisis. Soon, too few children would be taking care of too many elderly people. Ironically, the One-Child Policy was creating the very problem it was supposed to solve.

Industrial Revolution

Thanos Syndrome leads people to believe that the simplest answer of reducing the number of mouths to feed is the best solution. It’s a form of short-term thinking.

In historical reality, what saved much of Western civilization from overpopulation… was increasing -efficiency. For example, during the 1400s in England, a single acre of land could produce about 8-9 bushels of grain. Today, a single acre of land can produce between 50-100 bushels of grain. Not only that, but farmers have learned to bring more land into cultivation. Also, irrigation, fertilizers, and disease resistant crops reduce the risk of crop failures.

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Written by David

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