“You are destroying the earth,” they muttered at me as they stormed off towards what I assumed was a shorter, less chaotic line at the grocery store. My wife and I have 5 children, and that day they were helping me unload our very full grocery cart onto the conveyor belt. I was stunned, angry, and grieved. Stunned that someone would say that out loud. Angry that they would say it out loud about my beautiful children. Grieved that someone would be so pessimistic about the future that they would fail to see the potential in the next generation, but let it go and chalked it up to someone having a bad day. Who knows? Maybe they were just angry at the long line.
But it made me wonder. Assuming this person truly was angry that I was destroying the world by having so many kids, and not just angry that they had to wait longer in line, did they have a point? Was there any validity to their claim that I was irresponsibly destroying the earth?
Thanos and Malthus
Days later, I went to see Avengers: Infinity War, and it all came flooding back. I’ve had multiple conversations this week with friends who are struggling to see Thanos as a purely bad guy, and it bugs them. His “merciful” motivation for randomized mass genocide seems strangely noble to a culture obsessed with a pessimistic view of the future. Like Thanos, we all want a sustainable environment to live in…but is the solution really genocide?
One of the thinkers who popularized Thanos’ problem in the real world was Thomas Malthus, an English clergyman whose work has been debated for over 200 years now. His thinking has even been turned into an “ism” … Malthusianism. His central thought can be summed up in two sentences from his Essay on the Principle of Population: “Population, when unchecked, increases in a geometrical ratio. Subsistence increases only in an arithmetical ratio.” Basically, Thanos and Malthus were on the same page when it came to the problem: too many people, and not enough food. Now Malthus didn’t really advocate for random genocide, but he did have an uncharitable solution, and arguably less merciful than Thanos. I am sad he was a clergy, because he had a very un-Jesus like idea for dealing with the problem…simply stop providing for the poor and the environment will take care of the rest. Paul R. Ehrlich, an American professor who wrote The Population Bomb in 1968, predicted many of the very same things 200 years later. What Ehrlich, Malthus and Thanos have in common is a very pessimistic view of humanity. They all believe that humanity, is incapable of creating a future for themselves. It is true, that of the three, only Thanos leapt to random mass genocide as the solution, but he is also strangely the least biased towards the poor, and the only one who is a comic book villain.
So how should I, as a Christian respond to Thanos, and his slightly less extreme, much less purple, real life counterparts, Malthus, Ehrlich, and the impatient fellow in the grocery line?
Well, I don’t know everything we should say. But here is where I want to start. I believe that God has given us as human beings two things that we should acknowledge in this conversation.
Made to flourish in His image
God has given us a mandate to flourish. To multiply and to steward the earth. His very first command to people was to populate the earth, and care for it. This gives us no excuse to pillage the earth without consequence. We must care for earth because it is not ours, it is His. But we also should delight in new life…in seeing humanity flourish.
God has made us in His image. I don’t know all of what that means, but I am actively studying it this year. I do know that it means we have the ability to create a future. We have the ability to see something that doesn’t yet exist and bring it into reality. This is a unique human ability, and is a reflection of God’s ability to bring something out of nothing.
I do think we need to bend all of our creativity towards how to grow and share food in an environmentally sustainable fashion. We have much work to do there. But I believe that motivated by love, rather than fear, we can come up with a creative solution that values life.
If I could talk to that man in the grocery line now, I might just ask him to take a second look at my 5 children. And see in them an unwritten future, that is filled with the possibility of making the world a better place…a place where, because of each one of them, there is more love, more hope, more joy, more creativity, more life. And that is beautiful.