From Malthus to Marvel: The High Cost of Population Control

Radical factions are pushing the environmentalist idea that the earth is alive—a living, possibly sentient, organism. The most extreme call human beings a “planetary cancer” and argue for abortion as a means of population control. History tells a dark tale of various attempts at population control, all rooted in the same tragic misconception: humanity’s rapid reproduction will result in overpopulation and cause our doom.

Anticipation is off the charts for Avengers: Endgame, but I thought I’d take a gander back in time to unpack the central theme of the previous Avengers movie, Infinity War. We’ve become accustomed to seeing our heroes triumph over all manner of evil throughout the galaxy, but in Infinity War, they face a greater challenge than ever—one great enough to warrant bringing together not only the Avengers, but also the Guardians of the Galaxy, Doctor Strange, Black Panther, Spider Man, and all the other heroic characters that have been developed over the years. The scale was grander than we’d ever seen, but for the first time in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, death was a very real, heartbreaking end for some of our friends.

The mighty, sinister foe they faced? A tyrant who believed in a dark, radical form of population control.

The movie opens on the devastation after Thanos’ attack on Asgard, home of Thor and Loki. For those who don’t remember or haven’t followed the franchise as closely, Thanos is the huge, purple space Titan the Guardians of the Galaxy encountered in their first film, and it turns out he was also responsible for the attack on New York in the first Avengers movie. The villain’s agenda is revealed in the chilling opening lines, spoken by Thanos’ sidekick Ebony Maw.

“Hear me and rejoice. You have had the privilege of being saved by the great Titan. You may think this is suffering. No. It is salvation. The universal scales tip toward balance because of your sacrifice.”

Thanos is seeking to possess all six “Infinity Stones,” each of which controls a different aspect of reality, so that with the snap of his fingers, he can wipe out half the population of the universe. Make no mistake: he’s an evil, power-hungry warlord, but I think somewhere deep down Thanos really believes he’s doing humanity (and alien-kind, etc., since we’re still in a sci-fi world) a favor.

Thanos has done this on smaller scales before—invaded planets and eliminated half the population. He views himself as the people’s savior, so that children born after he cuts the population in half see “nothing but full bellies and clear skies.”

In the real world, this ideology might not play out with quite such overt violence, and there certainly aren’t as many swords, blasters, and space ships, but it’s no less sinister.

The horrific history of population control

The history of modern environmentalism began with doom-and-gloom warnings of a population apocalypse, spearheaded by scholar Thomas Malthus’ 1798 work “An Essay on the Principle of Population.” He believed that increasing numbers of humans would eventually lead to widespread famine and poverty. He was proved wrong by the West’s rapid industrialization and resulting prosperity, but his ideas stuck around.

Enter Margaret Sanger in the early twentieth century—popular feminist and birth control advocate during the sexual revolution, she was also an outspoken eugenicist. She founded the American Birth Control League, which became Planned Parenthood. In her journal, The Birth Control Review, the main theme was “the elimination of the unfit.” Her 1924 speech, “My Way to Peace,” advocated a system of forced sterilization and work camps for “the whole dysgenic population,” by which she meant “morons, mental defectives, epileptics.” The goal: eliminate the feebleminded by preventing them from reproducing.

Obviously, Darwin’s callous belief in the survival of the fittest had a profound impact on Sanger’s ideology, as it impacted Adolf Hitler’s sadistic desire to purify the Aryan race. It’s not surprising that Sanger was also a devotee of Thomas Malthus. When the horrors of the Second World War, with the Holocaust and Stalin’s gulag, became fully known in the West, the eugenics campaign was largely driven underground. Nonetheless, Sanger continued to publicly advocate her national sterilization policy. And Planned Parenthood continues to carry out its duty.

Paul Erlich’s 1968 book The Population Bomb reiterated the Malthusian theory and cast terror far and wide that “hundreds of millions of people are going to starve to death.” That fear fueled an environmentalist fire that propagated human rights abuses across the globe.

Heeding Erlich’s warnings, organizations such as the International Planned Parenthood Federation, the Population Council, the World Bank, and the United Nations Population Fund began a crusade to reduce population growth in poor countries—Egypt, Tunisia, Pakistan, Mexico, Bolivia, Peru, Indonesia, Bangladesh, and others—with horrific consequences. First, women were pressured to use contraceptives, then IUDs were forcefully inserted into women. Finally, millions of people, mostly but not exclusively women, were sterilized, most in unsafe conditions; many died as a result of carelessly performed surgeries or infections.

Believe it or not, in the 1960’s President Lyndon B. Johnson openly tied U.S. aid to India with requirements for a population control program, and sadly, he wasn’t the first or last American president to hold such views. In the 1970s and ’80s, India embraced population control policies that created an economy where sterilization was traded for water, electricity, ration cards, and medical care. As late as 2014, deaths were reported due to botched sterilization surgeries.

China’s one-child policy, in effect from 1979 to 2015, resulted in the greatest human rights tragedy since World War II, with massive numbers of forced sterilizations and coerced abortions, many in poor conditions leading to infection and even death. But even before the one-child policy, China’s “Later, longer, fewer” campaign promoted later marriages, longer wait times between children, and fewer children per family. This likely resulted in over 200,000 “missing” girls—and in the 1970s, before ultrasound technology and therefore before selective abortion was possible, that meant postnatal neglect or infanticide.

Even today, in our own country, the link between abortion and a population control agenda is undeniable—without even talking about Planned Parenthood. A late-term abortionist in Colorado has published numerous research papers on environmentalism; he refers to human beings as a “planetary cancer” characterized by “rapid, uncontrolled growth,” that invades and destroys “normal tissue,” or other species.

It’s just not worth it

All of this is infuriating and totally unnecessary. For one thing, the only correlation between population and poverty is reverse what the population control agenda claims. For example, the Democratic Republic of Congo has a sparse population, only 75 people per square mile, while Hong Kong’s population is dense, 6,500 people per square mile. Yet, Hong Kong enjoys a per capita income of $43,000 while the DRC only has a per capita income of $300. Other population density evidence corroborates this example.

Doomsday predictions fail to come true time and time again as mankind continues to advance. Technology has enabled marvels that wouldn’t have been believed even 100 years ago, and man’s ingenuity and specialization of trade (plus personal liberty and private property rights) allow us to produce greater quantities of food with less land and resources. Less is yielding more—and that’s true with most inputs for goods and services, not just farming.

So-called overpopulation problems are merely the results of socialistic government policies that hinder the creativity and advancement of people and therefore their ability to provide for themselves. People do just fine when they are free to pursue their own happiness and prosperity in a free economy under just rule of law. Farm controls, tariffs and other trade restrictions, price and wage controls, and other anti-progress policies are widespread in underdeveloped nations—not to mention human rights violations (Syria and Venezuela are just the most recent crises that come to mind), that incentivize productive people to leave and stifle the productivity of those who remain.

What did it cost?

So, after that dark history lesson, back to the purple space Titan and his plan to save the universe. Thanos explains, “With all six stones I could simply snap my fingers, and they would all cease to exist. I call that mercy. Then I could finally rest, and watch the sun rise on a grateful universe. The hardest choices require the strongest wills.” He even sacrifices his own (adopted) daughter to obtain one of the stones and make his “destiny” possible.

Thanos as the sun sets on his "grateful" universe

Spoiler alert: after arguably the greatest battle in MCU history, Thanos obtains the final stone and snaps his fingers, as promised. The devastation is apparently indiscriminate—Thanos calls it “random, dispassionate, fair, the rich and poor alike.” We lost some of our favorite MCU heroes, and we eagerly await their mysterious return in Endgame—time travel? Magic? Quantum physics? Who knows—and anyway, that’s beside the point.

The point is, after Thanos snaps his fingers, he sees his young daughter, now dead, in a vision. She asks, “Did you do it?” “Yes,” he replies. “What did it cost?” Thanos doesn’t even pause before answering: “Everything.”

That’s just it. Attempts to control things that we aren’t supposed to control will cost everything. Does the desired end justify all means? Even if overpopulation was a realistic fear, would stopping it justify the incredible bloodshed that has occurred to do so? Who is to suffer for the good of humanity? Who decides who lives and who dies? Is it just and moral to kill off the ill, handicapped, mentally challenged, impoverished, and unborn, that the rest may roam free? I think not—for we are supposed to defend and care for the least of these. As Captain America says at one point in the film: “We don’t trade lives.”

So: three cheers to Marvel for once again confronting some of humanity’s deepest, darkest issues on the big screen—this lesson is a sobering one. Endgame promises to bring deep themes (and epic battles) as well, but hopefully with a happier ending!

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