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Thanos and the Malthusian Problem

 5 min read / 

In the movie Avengers: Infinity War, Thanos’s sole objective is to eliminate half the universe. His reason is simple: the population of the universe exceeds the resources of the universe.

Malthusian Prophecy

The central economic problem of the scarcity of resources and humanities near limitless wants is often the first economic lesson taught. Compounded by the issue of exponential population growth, it seems as if Thanos’s actions are justified in an attempt to save humanity. How does that relate to today’s world and would such a solution ever be needed in the future?

The origins of the tension between population growth and finite resources can be traced back to 1798 when Reverend Thomas Malthus argued that population, if left unchecked, increases in a geometrical ratio, while food production increases only arithmetically. This implies that if the population was unhindered, there would eventually be famine on a massive scale. Later economic theories such, as David Ricardo’s theory of rent, were based on the assumption that the Malthusian prophecy would come true and that the increase in population would further increase the amount of land given over to farming. David Ricardo perceived the limitation of land and fertile soil as a bottleneck to progress, proposing that more mouths would demand more grain, which would demand more fields, which would increase inequality as landlords who were well situated with fertile soil would benefit relative to others.

Agricultural and Societal Revolution

Fortunately, the Malthusian prophecy never came to pass. What Malthus and Ricardo did not foresee were the huge advances in agriculture which broke the links between population, labour and food supply. The industrial revolution brought tractors and mechanisation, which vastly increased productivity. The green revolution saw improved fertilisers, pesticides, herbicides and genetically modified organisms(GMO) come about. Humanity’s ability to raise food from a limited amount of land increased and agricultural yields increased tremendously.

Furthermore, with the increased awareness of the need for planned parenthood and birth control, fertility has declined in nearly all regions of the world. Even in Africa, where fertility levels are the highest of any region, total fertility has fallen from 5.1 births per woman in 2000-2005 to 4.7 in 2010-2015. Also, the enormous urbanisation of the West eased birth pressures. On the farm, children are potential assets as they would be able to help out with labour. In the city, too many is a potential liability.

With the world population forecasted to grow to over 9 billion by 2050 from over 7 billion today, and with already 815 million people undernourished in 2016, food scarcity continues to be a pressing issue. However, it is important to note that majority of the malnourished populations are concentrated in African countries, where much of agriculture is still done manually, and planned parenthood is still lacking relative to the west. Furthermore,

conflict is a key driver of situations of severe food crisis and recently re-emerged famines, while hunger and under nutrition are significantly worse where conflicts are prolonged and institutional capacities weak.”

The State of Food Security and Nutrition in the World, UNICEF

A typical example would be South Sudan. The confluence of poor infrastructureweather conditionspolitical corruption and conflicts contribute to areas of famine, rather than a simple equation of just population size exceeding available food resources.

Wait, what about the modern day issue of a degrading environment and the running out of natural resources?

The Ultimate Resource

The business school professor and economist, Julian Simon, argues in The Ultimate Resource that humanity always has enough of the resources it needs to progress. These resources change over time to reflect new demands and technology. The key argument posited is that the ultimate resource is the human mind, and our ability to adapt and innovate overcomes issues such as resource depletion. An apparent decline of one resource prompts us to look for an opportunity to find other resources, or use the existing ones much more efficiently.

Besides increasing the productivity of cultivation as mentioned above, another modern example would be the shale revolution in oil and increase harnessing other forms of energy such as solar, tidal, and wind power. New technological innovations and ventures allow the development of new sources of supply or increase the efficiency of old ones. The key point he makes is that a material never ‘runs out’ because human ingenuity always finds ways of creating more of it.

Sustainability

The big X-factor here is that of technological advancement; whether human ingenuity can come up with solutions to scarcity. These answers are never nearly as optimistic as professor Julian Simon or as pessimistic as the Reverend Thomas Malthus. As in most cases, the possibility that the answer is somewhere in between is a strong one. Cautious optimism is probably the most realistic outlook to take.

It is not solely the issue of number of people on the planet, but rather to put it simply, it is the confluence of the number of people, the amount of resources they use, how they manage these resources and whether or not innovation can catch up or even pre-empt our needs, that would give us the answer whether our current path is sustainable. It is important to note that predicting future population growth is akin to predicting the weather; it is not set in stone and is dynamic. The human race has managed to sustain itself ever since doomsday prophecies about our resource consumption took root in economic discussion some 200 years ago, and it is with cautious optimism that we can look forward to adaptions and overcome any obstacle accordingly, but only if we acknowledge there are current hurdles and seek to supersede them.

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