“We need a philosophy of problem-solving, not problem-avoidance. And yes, while stalling techniques are useful, their primary function is to give us more time to create active solutions, not avoid them all together.”
One of the great joys of dramatic fiction is found in its villains—the dark lords, evil geniuses, and monstrous beasts serving to thrill, terrify, and ignite conflict in our favorite stories. We love to hate them, but often, we enjoy those antagonists most who challenge our very conception of good vs evil—those who, through their ideas and characterization, make us pause and consider: what if they’re right?
It’s a common device of late, not because of any notable increase in clever character writing, but because it is particularly well targeted towards an unsure audience. In our current climate, where competing ideas and world views create high levels of argument and confusion, an encroaching self-doubt is on the rise in the West. And as often is the case, when the prevailing narrative is particularly pessimistic, that modicum of self-doubt can metastasize to a comprehensive, defining masochism.
So, what is to be done? Malthus would say nothing, and Thanos would merely snap his fingers. But they are pessimists; destruction is all they know. The key is in understanding that this has never been about our resources—but, rather, our resourcefulness.
Such is the case, with the current climate change debate. We as a society—a species! a planet!—face one of the greatest problems in our history, and the anxiety born from its influence bleeds into every facet of our culture, including popular media.
Possibly the biggest cinematic event this year (perhaps ever), the release of the saga-concluding super-epic Avengers: Endgame, sees the return of its antagonist Thanos, the Mad Titan and cosmic eco-terrorist. In last year’s installment, Avengers: Infinity War, we were introduced to Thanos’ character and motivations in his quest to collect all six “Infinity Stones” (weapons of cosmic power) in an attempt to rid the world of 50% of its inhabitants. “It’s simple calculus.” he says, “This universe is finite, its resources, finite. If life is left unchecked, life will cease to exist. It needs correcting.”
It’s the most concise articulation of his central thesis, a brand of population pessimism that states our means of production can never sustainably increase as fast as that of our demand, inevitably leading to poverty and famine. And as the last line suggests, the only viable solution is one of population control.
It’s an idea dating as far back as the late 18th century with the works of Thomas Malthus. In his Essay on the Principle of Population he wrote, “The power of population is so superior to the power of the earth to produce subsistence for man, that premature death must in some shape or other visit the human race.” In this he is saying, in as cheery a tone as the Mad Titan himself, that only a decrease in population can solve the problem of scarcity.
More recently, the Malthusian prophecy of doom has been echoed by many. In 1968, the American biologists Paul R. Ehrlich and his wife Anne Ehrlich, in their book The Population Bomb, argued a familiar sentiment: our numbers are too great to be sustained, and that our destruction by poverty and famine is already determined. They went as far as to begin their book with the words, “The battle to feed all of humanity is over. In the 1970s hundreds of millions of people will starve to death in spite of any crash programs embarked upon now.”
That is with the notable exception of staunch population controls, of course, which are the darlings of all resource pessimists. And Paul Ehrlich went one step further than Malthus, suggesting we purposefully starve those nations that are unwilling, or simply unable, to impose such controls. The small nation of India, for example (then home to over 600 million people) would have had their food aid eliminated and be left to ruin.
It’s by far the closest we have come to our very own Thanos. But his solution has always been the least serious aspect of his philosophy—not only because of its clear moral insanity but because it makes no sense in his own terms (people would, after all, continue to have children). What has really captured the minds of audiences is his tale of disaster—that we are, despite all efforts, destined for destruction.
It almost seems petty to point out that none of these prophecies have come to pass—and that in the time since Malthus and even Ehrlich published their respective arguments, population and quality of life have increased in tandem with one another (see Steven Pinker’s work). But this is to be expected for all predictions that underestimate, or outright reject, our capacity for creativity.
Today, the words of our fictional villains are quickly becoming those of our thought leaders. David Attenborough, grandfather of the modern nature documentary and darling of the British Isles, has in recent years endorsed Malthusian philosophy. In 2011, he gave a speech at The Royal Society of Arts about overpopulation, sustainability and climate change, in which he quoted Malthus’s “most important book,” hailing him as a prophet.
But like almost everything else we consider “natural,” sustainability is a relic from a time before we knew there was anything better—a time with only clean air, crisp waters, and abject misery. It can only be through sustained progress—both scientific and moral—that natural life will ever hope to join us beyond our past failures.
Given Attenborough’s history as one of the great naturalists, it isn’t surprising that he views the arguments for population control through an environmental lens. Where the likes of Malthus and Ehrlich had only considered the negative impacts affecting society, Attenborough extends their consequences to the entire biosphere. At first glance this appears wise and benevolent: we are not, as the argument goes, the only living things in this world; and through our arrogance and greed, we have likely doomed our fellow Earthlings to a tragic fate. But this has always been so: the history of the natural world has been one of perpetual genocide, with 99.9% of all species going extinct. Only since humanity arose and began to create new knowledge—and with it, the power to alter the world for our benefit—has the stasis been broken.
Attenborough is right to consider the moral status of the biosphere; but he is mistaking our primeval doom for our salvation. This modern call for sustainability is perhaps the most widespread example of the naturalistic fallacy in modern discourse. But like almost everything else we consider “natural,” sustainability is a relic from a time before we knew there was anything better—a time with only clean air, crisp waters, and abject misery. It can only be through sustained progress—both scientific and moral—that natural life will ever hope to join us beyond our past failures.
The shift in moral gaze away from humanity and towards the natural world, while commendable in some respects, is, in part, a feature of yet another unfortunate cultural bug on the rise in society—a deep longing for collective guilt. It’s an example of the masochism I described earlier, and it’s quickly becoming the central message of climate change activism. This is our fault, remember, and we must bear the blame.
But these are arguments built for flagellation—not progress. Today, the primary proposed solutions to climate change are global restrictions to economic output, human reproduction and a total, no holds barred commitment to renewable energy, near over-night and no matter the cost. And who will these mass-taxations impact most? India of course! And other burgeoning economic powerhouses who have yet to wake up to green fever. Ehrlich would be proud.
It will come as no surprise that I take the opposite view. We need all the people we can get. We need scientists, innovators, and entrepreneurs working on how to remove carbon from the atmosphere, how to decrease its temperature, or, at the very least, how best to adapt to a warmer one. We need to maximize our wealth and stimulate innovation. We need a philosophy of problem-solving, not problem-avoidance. And yes, while stalling techniques are useful, their primary function is to give us more time to create active solutions, not avoid them all together.
Renewables will never stop climate change—how could they? It’s likely been too late to halt global warming by passive means since before we knew we were causing it. And my worry isn’t that we are ignoring that fact, but that we’ve succumbed to it. There are no guarantees, but problems are soluble through the methods of science, reason and creativity—through progress. Not its antithesis.
So, what is to be done? Malthus would say nothing, and Thanos would merely snap his fingers. But they are pessimists; destruction is all they know. The key is in understanding that this has never been about our resources—but, rather, our resourcefulness. Malthus was right in at least this respect: we are much more powerful than our surroundings. But where he would say less is more, I say more the merrier. And where he says we have nowhere to go, I say the only way is, and always has been, forward.
Tom Hyde is a student at University College London studying for an MSc in Geophysical Hazards.