[WARNING: Spoilers and Math ahead]
I recently got to watch Marvel Studio’s latest blockbuster that has fans all over the world in a shell shocked state of both excitement and despair — myself included. Marvel’s biggest and baddest villain (or anti-hero depending on how you want to look at it) has successfully tracked down all the Infinity Stones and has used its near omnipotent power to carry out his sinister plan for universal balance. This processes however, will result in the elimination of half of all sentient life in the universe.
The end is near, and when I’m done, half of humanity will still exist. Perfectly balanced, as all things should be…
— Thanos in Avengers: Infinity War
When Thanos’ plan was first revealed in the movie, the economics and comic book nerd in me got thinking — would Thanos’ plan actually be sustainable, and would it really bring balance to the universe? So the whole rest of the movie, I was 80% focused on the action, and 20% thinking of the supply and demand curves.
Upon leaving the theatre, I was already discussing my thoughts with my friends — both on the topic of the unexpectedly somber ending, and the penultimate socio-economic goal of our purple anti-hero/villain. I’ve been constructing thought experiment after thought experiment in my head ever since, and so now I’ll try to layout my analysis of Thanos and his plan of action.
TL;DR —Aside from being a terrible person, Thanos is also a terrible economist.
Thanosian Economics 101
To help us understand the problem that Thanos tried to “solve”, we must first look into the state of the universe and the behaviour of the inhabitants within it. In the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU), Thanos saw first hand the destruction of his home world Titan as a result of over population and limited resources, in a twisted way after experiencing this, he took it upon himself to “save” the universe by harnessing the power of the Infinity Stones to make half of all sentient beings disappear.
In reality, Thanos actually borrows an idea made popular in the 18th century by Classical Economist Robert Malthus.
Malthus proposes that human populations grow at an exponential rate, but our food supply only grow linearly, limited by finite resources, such that without proper controls on population or advancements in technology to increase the efficiency of food production; the economy will eventually decline and fall into a Malthusian Trap. This trap occurs when sustainable population growth is halted by the food and resource celling. It is important to note however that just because the economy can no longer sustain the population, doesn’t mean it stops growing entirely. The ultimate downfall of an economy in the view of Malthus comes when the exponential upward population growth intersects limited and unsustainable resources and food supplies due to environmental degradation among other factors.
Based on this, perhaps Thanos might be on to something — Titan’s collapse could be seen as an economy that fell into a Malthusian Trap that eventually hit that resource celling causing widespread political and social upheaval resulting in the demise of Thanos’ civilisation. However, let’s dive into the facts and the data to see if Thanos’ plan is an economically viable and sustainable long term plan.
Some Math for the Nerds
Okay so here’s the more technical analysis. Let’s setup the model:
As per any scientific inquiry we first have to make some assumptions. For the purposes of this economic analysis, we will only consider the MCU Thanos (yes, there are many more Thanoses out there in many more universes for the newly inducted Marvel fans), that there are around 3.1574 x 10¹⁴ sentient lifeforms in the universe based on an approximation using the Drake Equation, the selection of who lives and who dies is purely random, and that in general we will treat the whole universe as if it were one economic system that behaves in the same way as our own real life Earth.
Okay so the first thing we want to check is assuming that half the population suddenly disappears, how long would it take for the universe to bounce back to the original population using Malthus’ Formula — holding food, resources, and technology constant.
N(t) is the population at a given time t, N(0) being the present population, lambda being the Malthus Parameter (based on US census data from 1970–1980), t being the time, and e is Euler’s Number.
Equation: 3.1574×10¹⁴ = 1.5787×10¹⁴ e^(0.018201) t ; solving for t
t = 38 years, rounding to the nearest ones.
Using the Malthus Population Growth Formula, we can see that things aren’t looking great for Thanos as far as “bringing balance to the universe is concerned” since in only 38 years, the population of the universe is expected to be right back where it was.
Based also on observations we can make by watching Marvel movies, there is no reason for us to believe that the universe as a whole has even reached the point where all resources and all possible advancements in technology have been fully saturated. As a matter of fact, based on the advancements we see in the films, the rate of growth of technology might actually advancing faster than the necessary rate needed to sustain an exponential population growth. Not to mention, theres a lot that can be done with the Infinity Stones’ near infinite power.
As far as the economics is concerned, Thanos’ plan ultimately collapses in around 38 years, by which time even without fighting him directly, the remaining inhabitants of the universe would’ve invested heavily into new labor saving technology and have adjusted their lifestyles around it perhaps even increasing the rate of food and resource production to a point that there may never be a Malthusian Trap in this universe.
Thanos’ plan is only sustainable if he keeps doing this random selection process every 38 years, but that would be inefficient and unlikely considering the sustained damage on the Infinity Gauntlet. The damage will eventually prevent the gauntlet to function as a focus point for the Infinity Stones’ power.
What Should He Do Then?
If Thanos really wanted to bring balance to the universe, a better use of the Infinity Stones would be to use their power to forge a ‘universal power plant’ surrounded by a Dyson Sphere in multiple parts of the universe using the gems to create energy portals like the universal version of an electricity grid.
This nearly endless and omnipresent source of energy for the whole universe could change the dynamics of development and social interactions among different sentient species and creatures. This could end war, hunger, poverty, and a whole host of other problems, resulting in a more utopian universe. This would not save Thanos’ long lost home world nor its people, but it would bring balance and change the universe for the better.
In real life, we don’t have Infinity Stones, so this utopian image of a universe with infinite energy is impossible, but some lessons for the real world could be learned here. In the end, even if Thanos wasn’t beaten by the Avengers (yet), he was however beaten by an 18th century pastor and some simple economics.
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