Saturday, 29 September 2018

Why the Thanos plot is dangerous in real life (Infinity War)


I liked the movie. It did a really great job of bringing together all the accumulated characters and story arcs in a meaningful and satisfying way. Great fight scenes. Implausibility only becoming physically painful in the scene with stellar re-ignition via elbow grease.

The movie's most notable success was subverting expectations by making the genocidal big-bad into an empathetic and rational protagonist. In fact, the central protagonist of the movie.

The problem:

Thanos' plan, through the whole Avengers timeline, is to wield the combined potency of all the 'infinity stones' to wipe out half the population of the universe in an instant.

His motivation for this is to save all civilisations from implosion via resource depletion, brought on by over-population. As happened to his home world, after he personally failed to convince them to randomly cull themselves.

It doesn't really matter that this is a stupid plot mechanism, in that...

(a) Caveman or medieval civilisations, elsewhere, aren't in any danger of exhausting planetary resources. Maybe we should assume he only culled human level, globalised civilisations. (But then also, what about the various, seemingly stable societies we see in Guardians and Thor?)

(b) Clearly a one-time cull is only going to delay the inevitable by a couple of generations (if it is inevitable).

... It's made to work in the movie. There is suspension of disbelief.

The dangerous part is that the only reason this plan is presented as undesirable is the killing itself. "Murder = evil" is such a universally evocative idea that no one can avoid making that the main counter-argument.

But that's not enough in reality, where the ends tend to justify the means: we have large, expensive organisations dedicated to making and utilising weapons to kill potential threats to our civilians and nations.

When we, as humans, feel our lives are threatened, we tend to acquiesce to amoral measures. In the last decade, nationalist xenophobia has been fuelled by increasing financial and physical hardships on individuals. (Not mattering that this is primarily from unrelated, rising wealth inequality.) This collective sentiment has already enabled callous right-wing/authoritarian politicians to implement horrible policies that would normally have been seen as too inhumane.

With further, deeper economic crashes seeming ever more pressing (in the West), the tale of woe so far could easily be eclipsed, in terms of increased suffering catalysing far further reaching humanitarian disasters, even war, etc.

Add to this ferment the popular notion of global over-population, with such bastions of scientific authority as Sir David Attenborough pushing discussion of the need for population reduction.

When bellies are empty and people are terrified, maybe a little genocide can slide, if it's helpful in the grand scheme of things...

Why it's wrong headed - because it won't work!:

Morality, even in the extreme, is malleable. Practicalities, not so much.

Civilisational progress has been the tale of technology enabling ever larger, denser, more broadly connected societies of people, working together. Historically when small populations have become isolated from the rest, have seen their technological capabilities backslide - construction and use of complex technology requires a complex society comprised of ever more niche roles and specialised knowledge.

Culling half of us should be expected to cause regress to a proximate point in time where we had that population. For the UK, that would equate to the Victorian era (the mid-1800s). That's setting aside the immediate damages from the shock of such a magical step change, worst than any previous war - having no accidental nuclear apocalypse, etc. Let alone the cataclysmic practical reality of what would be needed to *actually* separate over 3Bn people with their dearly held lives.

Coupling this regress with the fact that populations bounce back, like the 'Baby Boomer' generation, after WW2. All you would do is waste another century of non-renewable resources, greatly increasing (if not ensuring) the likelihood of global extinction.

In the movie, the only evidence we are presented with, of the success of the many global genocides, is Thanos' word. This from a guy who describes mass slaughter, with a monstrous dread-army from space, as a 'mercy'. (I guess this is how witch-doctors work too - you didn't die, so the pain must have been curative.)

Worst still if you perpetually cap the population. Which is my big issue with the core political philosophy of greens (despite currently liking their polices best in terms of all practicalities). The whole "you can't have infinite growth on a finite planet" argument. Which is flawed in 2 ways:

(1) we're not confined to this planet (a point that Musk, for example, is desperate to illustrate).

(2) 'Economic growth' is an abstract concept that need not require growth in use of material resources. The increasing dominance of the information economy, virtual reality, etc.

(3) Sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic - with exponential advances headed towards technological singularity, it's naive to talk as if fundamentals of our reality won't change drastically, again (and again).

'Perfect balance' - is a lie; the main force of evolution is diversification and increasingly complexity.
Stability is stagnation and death.
Why it's unnecessary:

Fertility rates voluntarily decline as life expectancy and living standards rise (if there was one thing to take from Hans Rosling, it would be this fact). Global population growth has already past its peak. 'Developing' countries are far more advanced and already more populous that many in Europe and North America realise. Even political intervention to specifically push birth control is generally unnecessary - family planning comes naturally with prosperity. Secularisation too, with general education and good living conditions.

In fact, I'm more afraid of insufficient growth than environmental disaster, to an extent. (Of course their not mutually exclusive challenges, at all.) In the same way that you can't climb up to orbit in a linear fashion and you can't cut your rocket's rate of thrust and expect to still get there, but slower (rather than crashing back to Earth).

Parallels in other fiction:

The genocidal super-villain wins for the good of mankind, twist, was done well in Watchmen. Better executed in logical terms.

But there's a more striking similarity between Thanos and Lordgenome in Gurren Lagann. That's an anime series that I quite liked for it's overarching story arc exponentially cranking up the stakes and scale, despite it's core philosophy of "you can do anything just by REALLY putting your heart into it" nonsense.

Anyway, Lordgenome is a huge, muscle bound, baldy philosopher king, who sits atop a solid, austere throne, surrounded by his impossibly diverse monster children, who do his bidding as he suppresses all human life on Earth. This 'cartoon' villain is also suppressing population for the sake of it's survival, but due to the more logically sound reason of avoiding complete annihilation by an unassailable stronger cosmic threat.

Of course, given that the manga for this started in 2007, the Thanos character is most certainly the earlier archetype, the Thanos character first appearing in 1975.

Where will Infinity War part 2 go?:

It seems certain that we'll see a reversal of fortune and sentiment. It seems most likely that Thanos himself will have a change of heart, more than anything. At minimum it would have to turn out that the population of the universe was *actually* just split between 2 parallel realities, because there's a "Spiderman - Far from home" sequel scheduled for next year...

But it's greatly doubtful that any reversal will come down to a long hard look at the evidence of this ploy failing in it's goals. Seems more likely to be a clever trick from Dr Strange, or love triumphing, or some of the bad decisions from the heroes in Infinity War (part 1) turning out to have hidden benefits. As a counterpoint to the theme of this movie, which was pretty much: attachment to individual lives is sentimental, selfish and bound to fail against a more committed and worthy, utilitarian, defying naive moralistic foibles.

But we will seem next year...

Addendum (2018-10-01):

Having watched a few YouTube videos on the topic (after writing the above), there were certainly a few good ones that align with what I was at [e.g. 1, 2]. Also, really spelling out that Earth is not currently 'overpopulated', because we are well inside it's carrying capacity for food production. A capacity that we've already increased greatly in the past (e.g. via the 'Green revolution' and industrialisation of agriculture before that, etc).

But the most viewed video on the topic had made the attention grabbing claim that "Thanos was RIGHT!!". Making a naive, partial pass of Malthusianism and pointing to the black death as an example where the loss of 1/3 of Europeans lead to a reduction in house prices and increase in wages. Well, obviously - short term supply and demand. But nothing about the effect on long term population, bounce back, etc. Let alone the detrimental impact on technological progress (which was far slower and harder to quantify, back then).

He does acknowledge that population growth has actually stalled in many countries, but suggests that the global linear growth, now, might mean that a cull may result in a lower max population ceiling -unreasonably presumptuous conjecture, to say the least.

It concludes by cobbling on a "human life is priceless" (murder = bad) disclaimer, that sounds even more alarmingly weak that I imagined, making me feel vindicated in writing this post... :-\

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