Wednesday, May 16, 2018

Perfect balance

When I’m done, half of humanity will still exist.  Perfectly balanced, as all things should be. -- Thanos.

We don’t trade lives.  -- Captain America.

Everything is interconnected, and that genuine care for our own lives and our relationships with nature is inseparable from fraternity, justice and faithfulness to others.  -- Pope Francis, Laudato Si.


Human beings are consuming the earth’s resources at an unsustainable rate.  We are all familiar with these issues. We are depleting our stores of fossil fuels.  Climate change is causing the oceans to rise. Something has to change.

In the latest installment of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, this is more than just an Earth problem. Across the universe, planetary resources are insufficient to maintain current population levels in comfort. People are hungry. Wars break out over scarce resources.

The main character of Infinity War has a solution. Thanos (whose name is derived from Thanatos, the Greek word for “death”) saw his home planet Titan struggling with seemingly inadequate resources. He proposed that half the population (chosen at random) should be slaughtered, and then the planet would have plenty of resources to support the remaining half. The other inhabitants of Titan rejected this plan in horror -- and then the civilization destroyed itself fighting over natural resources. Thanos believes that his plan would have averted this devastation and now he and his henchmen go from planet to planet and slaughter half the population on each. His ultimate quest is to acquire all the Infinity Stones, which would give him the power to eliminate half the life in the universe simultaneously. The Marvel heroes band together in order to defeat Thanos and keep this from happening. Captain America repeats the movie’s theme: “We don’t trade lives.”

Thanos’ quest is horrific, but you can see some connections with many modern conversations about sustainability. Nobody is suggesting mass slaughter, but plenty of people believe the world has too many people and we should be deliberate about reducing birthrates. In 2007, science journalist Alan Weisman published The World Without Us, which also formed the basis for the History channel show Life After People. This is a thought experiment imagining what the world would be like if all human beings suddenly disappeared. For example, if nobody is there maintaining the roof of your house, it won’t take all that many decades until the inevitable leaks cause your house to fall apart. On the other hand Mount Rushmore will last for millennia. The book has a sense of wistfulness when it talks about flora and fauna flourishing with all human beings out of the way, and concludes with a proposal that procreation be restricted to one child per fertile woman. In 100 years, this would reduce Earth’s population to approximately the population of the 19th century, which the author considers much more appropriate for the planet than our current numbers. In the interim, life would progressively improve as the population decreased. The book does not mention that China had instituted a one-child policy a generation earlier and it did not exactly lead to utopia.

This book was widely reviewed in mainstream populations, won various awards, and was on the New York Times bestseller list for twenty-six weeks. This is not the lunatic fringe. Of course there are many differences between this proposal to have fewer children and Thanos’s plan of slaughter, but both see human beings fundamentally as liabilities.

In his 2015 encyclical Laudato Si, Pope Francis decries human abuse of our environment, but he places the blame not on humans merely existing but on human greed and overconsumption. A sustainable lifestyle would require significant changes to the American lifestyles we have come to consider as normal. We should be reshaping our lives significantly, on both individual and societal levels.

All that of course sounds very hard. So it is much easier to think that “oh if there weren’t so many other consumers, then I would be free to continue to consume resources as much as I like.” Pope Francis will have none of this:

To blame population growth instead of extreme and selective consumerism on the part of some, is one way of refusing to face the issues. It is an attempt to legitimize the present model of distribution, where a minority believes that it has the right to consume in a way which can never be universalized, since the planet could not even contain the waste products of such consumption. Besides, we know that approximately a third of all food produced is discarded, and whenever food is thrown out it is as if it were stolen from the mouths of the poor.

For Christians, a better world comes not by eliminating people but by living in harmony with all of creation -- with our neighbors as well as plants and animals.  “Disregard for the duty to cultivate and maintain a proper relationship with my neighbor, for whose care and custody I am responsible, ruins my relationship with my own self, with others, with God and with the earth.” We don’t need to trade lives when we change our ways of relating to the earth’s resources. While the process of reordering our lives to be in better harmony will be difficult, the end result is not misery but a richer and more joyful human life.

Want more from this author? Click here to listen to a discussion of Infinity War from the Christian Humanist Network.

Kristen Filipic has been involved with the Pauline family since 2010 and completed the Cooperator Formation program in 2014.  She is a native Midwesterner but has lived in Boston for the last twelve years, where she works as a civil rights attorney.  She serves as a lector and a Bible study leader in her home church.


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