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Do Only Villains Care About Overpopulation? (Podcast Episode 15)

In Avengers: Infinity War the villain Thanos wants to solve overpopulation by exterminating half the population of the universe. Whenever overpopulation pops up in the movies, it’s always a villain with an inhumane solution. Dave and Dana discuss whether this helps or harms the cause of achieving a sustainable human population (yes, the world IS overpopulated today, and the forecasts are to add several billion more). Aren’t there humane, noble solutions to overpopulation?

Plus: Are we hardwired to reproduce? Population control, Paul Ehrlich, Thomas Malthus, Dan Brown’s Inferno novel and movie, Soylent GreenZPG, and Dave’s Top 10 Overpopulation Films also come up. (See links below)

A number of listener comments are included. Thanks for writing in. Your comments are welcome either via posts on the episode page at or Libsyn, on the GrowthBusters Podcast Facebook page, or on Twitter.

Also in this episode: Listener comments about disposable straws and the movie, Downsizing (episode 13 of the GrowthBusters Podcast).


Maybe Thanos Was Right (by Sparky, at Medium)

Thanos’ plan in Avengers: Infinity War has historical precedent, but he applies it wrong (by Alessandra Potenza, at The Verge)

Inferno (the novel)

Inferno (the movie)

Soylent Green


Top 10 Population Films of All Time

Missed an episode (or two)? They’re all archived here.

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Comments (6)

  • Avatar

    winthrop staples


    I am an endangered species biologist now trying to write sci fi advocating for stabilization of the size of the human enterprise that is crowding out other species and poisoning the eco sphere, which in the future will increase largely due to population growth as living standards around the world equalize. Regarding the themes of the very few novels and films that dare address population growth, its obvious that the global 1% who profit from an every larger number of what economists term “bodies” (more customers and workers … regardless of the long term degradation of the earth and the environment the 99% have to live in) have intervened to insure that these media entertainments often serve as a kind of reverse propaganda to maintain the status quo of an additional 1 billion consumer/polluters every 15 years. And although I can’t stand to watch the insulting to intelligence Marvel movies, as the review reports on their characters and plots suggest it stands to reason that film makers who also profit from ever more customers would present evil murderous, Nazi like, or insane sterio types as the kind of people who express concern about unsustainably growing human populations. Now Dan Brown IN HIS NOVEL was very courageous, and probably only because of his reputation was able to partially depart from the evil concerned about population character steriotype and still get his novel published and widely distributed. His anti hero character is depicted as being factually correct and having the most noble of motives although he is thought by the protagonist to be the antagonist enemy for most of the novel. Then in the conclusion of the novel the anti hero is discovered to have been successful at releasing a virus that will sterilize 1/3 of the human population, which will stabilize the human population and so avert the collapse of the biosphere in the years to come. This effectively validates doing what is required to stabilize the human population for the larger long-term good of all. But Hollywood could not let this stand! Let this be the logical and socially approved message of the film that would reach a much larger audience , affect public opinion in a way adverse to continuing ever more customer derived profits. So the movie ends with who is depicted as mostly evil or insane antagonist failing and being said by the screen writers (other characters) to have been tragically misguided. If you watch the special features on the film DVD you will see a particularly cowardly and incoherent explanation by the director Ron Howard for why the story’s ending was changed. His reason fulfills the apparent requirement for an explanation but if makes no logical sense from any perspective that I can assume. Therefore, again what we are left with is the base motivation that the bought off by the rich and powerful economist priesthood propagandists for the 1%, and our Wall Street and our corporate financial institution oligarchs simply do not want the human population to stabilized to avert an inevitable biosphere crash, because in the mid term they can make every more profit off a growing total GDP and at least believe that they can use the loot that they have gained to somehow escape planetary level catastrophe in the same way that they escaped with their billions, reputations and lives intact after the 2008 economic crash that was built on a very similar grow, borrow from the future fraud until the collapse of that particular Ponzi scheme. By the way the documentary on the reasons for the 2008 fraudulent loan economic collapse (Inside Job) is one of the very few examples of a major media production that some how escaped the censure of the 1%. Although predictably the 1% did not allow it to get real big theatre/mass distribution. But one can use it as an excellent approximate model for the very similar limits denying and ultimately catastrophic advocacy for continued population growth, from economists like Lawrence Summers who allowed the 2008 crash to occur. Who now with no data similarly says, reassures us we can continue with business as usual, because that the earth can easily support 15 billion people. Why? Apparently because as Summers also says “the human imagination is infinite” apparently meaning that as he believed before 2008 that Capitalism (or whatever you do and call it Capitalism) is some religion like magic that can make the most reckless unsustainable behavior end in success.


    • Avatar

      Dave Gardner


      Thanks, Winthrop, for such a thorough explanation of your theory. I confess I hadn’t considered that assigning this task to the villains might be a propaganda ploy of the growth profiteers. Makes a lot of sense. I imagine there is some truth to this. We’ll share your thoughts on our next podcast!


  • Avatar



    Another nice podcast discussion. I’ve not yet seen ‘Avengers: Infinity War’ but certainly having arch movie villains threatening rapid negative population growth is nothing new. I recently watched the ScFy series Helix[1] which has a somewhat more nuanced take on the trope, basically a virus that leaves the human population infertile by default, forcing the truly committed breeders to jump through many expensive hoops to aversion to procreate; worth enduring through the numerous zombiesque scenes in my opinion.

    Most people do seem to a natural aversion to top-down approaches to addressing human overpopulation. I don’t think there has never been a life form on the planet that consciously acted to control it’s population; if humans were somehow able to achieve this at the social/cultural level it would truly be unprecedented.

    The more tried and true means of population control is two-fold: food and habitat. More food leads to more feeders. Always. Occasionally a pandemic or geological event intervenes in the plot but most of the time it’s simply food supply and habitat that drive the narrative.

    I recently learned of Daniel Quinn’s[2] passing this past February. He is probably best known for his 1992 novel Ishmael in which he discusses some of connections between modern food production and our current predicament. This issue turned out to be fairly controversial, perhaps because it brought to the forefront that fact that humans are ALSO animals and are likely to be governed by the same rules as every other life form in the history of Earth – and were until fairly recently historically speaking. Anyway, it seems in 1997 Quinn teamed up with a evolutionary biologist named Alan Thornhill to do a 3 hour presentation of these ideas called “Food Production and Population Growth”[3] which was videotaped; currently it’s available in 2 parts on YouTube. It’s a long and occasionally awkward presentation and Quinn looks relieved that he has someone with the right credentials next to him to back up what he’s saying.

    It most significant thing I took away from Quinn and Thornhill’s presentation was that all the usual proposals for addressing human overpopulation – educating women, modernization, promoting contraception and family planning – are focused at social/cultural level. They do work EVENTUALLY, but they sit on top of the geophysical structure of how we’re living, how we are feeding ourselves. Quinn and Thornhill make some suggestions on how we might go about making structural changes that would lead eventually to sustainable human population levels. First is to change how food producers are compensated by removing the incentives to produce as much food as possible, for example changing the metrics for grain production away from shear tonnage and towards soil health. Second is a return to regionalism to create the boundaries of the human habitats from which the inhabitants will derive the bulk of their livelihood, ie. localized food production within a given bioregion. Obviously these bioregions would vary in their carrying capacity and thus the populations they can support. To be sustainable the boundaries will have to be held, meaning an end to completely unregulated migration.

    How doable something like this might be is an open question. Certainly it flies in the face of the way most westerners currently live. That said, I think a return to regionalism and living smaller has some appeal as it would likely lead back to tighter knit communities, authentic cultures, and greater respect for the natural environment which is ultimately the foundation on which we build our lives.

    [3] ;


    • Avatar

      Dave Gardner


      Jeff, thanks for the thoughtful comments. Daniel Quinn was on the GrowthBusters Board of Advisors; I’m familiar with his work and I have the DVDs of that talk with Thornhill. Quinn was a deep thinker on all this and argued with me in an effort to open my eyes. I think globalism has played a huge role in the unsustainability of the human race. When we export our pollution and are able to appropriate resources from the other side of the world, we don’t see the impact of what we do.


  • Avatar

    Stephanie C. Fox


    The only one of these movies that I haven’t yet seen – and I will catch up! is Infinity War. (I love Marvel Comics movies.)

    However, I have also read Dan Brown’s Inferno, and its outcome was both different and better than that of the movie. It really seems as though the movie producers/writers were afraid to pull the proverbial trigger, even though it was fiction either way.

    As for the answer to the question posed in this article…

    It is not always villains who are concerned with human overpopulation and seeking to do something about it.

    I am an author of a dystopian science fiction series, entitled Nae-Nee, about human overpopulation and ecosystems collapse. In it, the narrator, a woman with Asperger’s whose name is Avril, is not a villain, yet she is very concerned with this topic. She isn’t interested in killing anyone who already exists in order to reduce our numbers. Instead, she wants to arrest our rate of growth.

    Nae-Nee is a birth control nanite that Avril envisions and her nanobotic engineer physician husband makes a reality. At first, they simply sell it, after human clinical trials (Avril goes first), to any woman who wants it. They get rich and figure that that is all there will be to that…until the U.N. gets in on the deal and promulgates a planet-wide treaty requiring every fertile woman to use it and all couples who want kids to apply for a birth license.

    To give you a more complete answer to this article’s question, there are bad guys who kill in my series. They reduce our numbers like Thanos, with another method. But I won’t explain here because I am supposed to induce people to read my books to find out.

    On my website, I blog about human overpopulation and overshoot, and you can see one post here:

    I am really glad that Dave Gardner runs GrowthBusters. He’s doing great work!


    • Avatar

      Dave Gardner


      Thanks for this, Stephanie. Your novel sounds very interesting. I’m going to have to order it and read next time I have a vacation (the only time I can currently read fiction, as I’ve got a planet to save and a lot of nonfiction I must devour!).


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