The long-awaited Marvel movie Avengers: Endgame is upon us, and with it comes Thanos, the most formidable opponent the Avengers have ever seen. In the last Avengers installment, Thanos devastated both the team of superheroes and the world. He lives by the philosophy that a species (in this case, humanity) is better off with half of them gone. But Thanos is not original in his philosophy. His actions follow a long intellectual tradition that begins with Malthus and leads us now to Paul Ehrlich.
The Real Thanos
Paul Ehrlich is an American biologist most notable for his book The Population Bomb. His philosophy was similar to that of Thanos. He posited that humans should drastically reduce their numbers if they want to effectively avoid this catastrophe. Ehrlich specifically advocated for taxes on baby products like cribs and diapers and the sterilization of men that had 3 or more children. Although not quite as radical as Thanos, Ehrlich’s beliefs are somewhat out there and are seen as problematic by many.
Yet, what if Thanos and Ehrlich are correct? If the human population continues to grow, is catastrophe imminent? Do we truly need to take such radical steps if we wish to continue into the future? Thankfully, the answer is no. We learn this from a famous wager between Ehrlich and Julian Simon.
The Foundation for Economic Education explains Simon’s view:
Simon dismissed the widely held belief that population growth must inevitably result in poverty and famine. Unlike other animals, he argued, humans innovate their way out of scarcity by increasing the supply of natural resources or developing substitutes for overused resources. Human ingenuity, in other words, is “the ultimate resource” that makes all other resources more plentiful.
Simon and Ehrlich stand clearly diametrically opposed. They realize this and decide that the best way forward is to abandon mere intellectual positing and embrace a wager.
The Famous Ehrlich-Simon Wager
Simon and Ehrlich’s innovative solution has gone down in history. If Ehrlich was right, the price of all resources would increase because the human food supply wouldn’t be able to keep up. This would make valuable resources, particularly foods, relatively more scarce. The more scarce a good is, the less there is for each consumer. This means that now consumers must compete for the resources by paying more for them. The result is rising prices.
So to test whether or not this was, in fact, going to occur, Simon and Ehrlich agreed upon a measure of resource scarcity. Ehrlich then bought $200 of chromium, copper, nickel, tin, and tungsten on September 29, 1980, for a total of $1000. They then both waited 10 years until September 29, 1990, to determine if the metals had become more or less scarce based on the prices. Simon was right in the end, for all five of the metals had decreased in price. Thus, the metals had become less scarce and humanity was not on a downward spiral towards resource depletion.
The philosophy of Thanos, Ehrlich, and Malthus is demonstrably untrue. As you head to the theaters for this installment of The Avengers, keep in mind that Thanos is not just the bad guy. He is the bad guy with the wrong philosophy.
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