7 Possible Outcomes of a Thanos-Like Event Hitting Us Here in the Real, Non-Marvel World
So, Avengers: Infinity War. Saw it a while ago, enjoyed it, figured it’s safe enough now to muse a bit on the film’s ending. Go no further if you haven’t seen it but plan to someday, here there be spoilers, etc.
I’ve seen a lot of talk online about the morality of Thanos’ actions, as in whether his plan to erase half of all life in the universe would achieve the peace he desired. And that kind of discussion is fine if you want to get all philosophical about ends and means, but I’m more interested in the practical impact of something like that happening here on Earth.
So let’s pretend. Imagine that somewhere in our vast universe, an alien with unimaginable power snaps his fingers and half of all humans are instantly gone. What would happen next? How would humanity respond? And how badly would it mess up everyone’s plans for the weekend?
A few admittedly arbitrary parameters before we dive in:
EXACTLY HALF THE WORLD DISAPPEARS AND ALL CURRENT POPULATION RATIOS STAY THE SAME. The event doesn’t disproportionately affect any one country, gender, ethnic group, or what have you; in the aftermath, Earth’s population will still have the same percentages of men, women, young, old, black, white, Asians, Christians, Muslims, atheists, Norwegians, Packers fans, left-handed people, etc., as we do now. (For the purposes of this thought experiment, let’s assume the alien has sufficient power to figure all this stuff out, and he doesn’t want to exacerbate any existing inter-tribal quarrels by letting any one side gain a numerical advantage over the other.)
NO ONE ON EARTH KNOWS WHAT CAUSED THE EVENT. Since we don’t have superheroes in this reality and we haven’t established contact with other alien races, we can’t take it as a given that we humans will know how or why the event happened.
THE DEAD DON’T LEAVE ANYTHING BEHIND. Just like in the movie, one minute they’re here and the next they’re not. Some of them might get enough time to realize what’s happening and say something heartfelt to a loved one before they’re gone, but that’s it: no warning before it happens, no corpses in the street, and no physical evidence that might help explain what happened.
So with those rules in mind, what happens to us? A couple of guesses:
1. The immediate death count will be slightly higher than 50 per cent.
We see a little bit of this in a stinger scene at the end of Avengers: Infinity War, where Fury and Hill witness the Thanos event firsthand. While they’re driving through the city, they end up in a traffic accident; as they get out, they witness a plane crash into a building while cars without drivers careen out of control. This makes sense: we’re currently standing at about 7.6 billion people on the planet, and you have to figure at least some of the disappeared 3.8 billion were doing something at the time that meant literal life or death to other people. Think military personnel, police officers, surgeons, bus drivers, airline pilots, air traffic controllers, heavy equipment operators, skydiving instructors… basically anyone whose sudden disappearance would endanger the lives of others means our “50% dead” figure will likely be something more like “slightly more than 50%.”
2. Two words: complete panic.
Humans are no strangers to death on a massive scale. Even if you take world wars out of the equation, pandemics have wiped out millions of people at a time. Take the 14th century’s Black Death, which was responsible for anywhere from 75 million to 200 million deaths in Europe and Asia, erasing 30-60% of Europe’s population in just a few short years. In those more superstitious times, many people saw the Black Death as the end of the world, and it took decades to repair the disruption to Europe’s political and economic systems caused by all those deaths. Now imagine something on that magnitude happening today, except in minutes instead of years. Without any logical explanation for why the event happened, the people left behind will eventually turn their confusion and grief against their leaders, rationalizing that those people could have done something to prevent the mass cull. Police and elected officials (the ones still alive, that is) will either be too busy dealing with their own grief or broken by this massive demonstration of their powerlessness, and any efforts to restore order will be piecemeal and brutal — causing more riots among a panicked populace, leading to more deaths in a vicious cycle.
3. Survived the event? Rode out the riots? That’s great! Now here are a few more ways to die a horrible death.
Long after the event and the resulting panic, people are going to continue to die as a direct result of what happened. Whether it’s fair to count those deaths against the powerful alien that snapped his fingers is a question for the legal scholars; either way, the end result is the same. Suicides will skyrocket as survivors give in to their grief and rush to join their lost loved ones… children left without parents will scramble to find safety, with some of them lost to worldly dangers (both human and not)… shut-ins, hospital patients and residents in nursing homes with mobility issues will die a slow and painful death if they lose the people in charge of their care and there’s no one to take their place… people who see opportunity in the chaos will kill bothersome loved ones/annoying coworkers/random strangers feeling secure in the knowledge that police will be too preoccupied to investigate the crimes… countries on the verge of war will start shooting as it becomes clear the key political and military figures who could have stopped the carnage aren’t coming back… infrastructure that’s no longer being maintained because of a shortage of skilled workers will begin to collapse, often with fatal results… Let’s just say there won’t be any shortage of non-rioting ways to die if half of humanity suddenly blinked out of existence.
4. Then there’s that small matter of figuring out what’s for dinner…
The reason why Thanos wants to eliminate half of all life from the universe is simple. There are only so many resources to go around, conflict happens when people fight over access to those resources, therefore fewer people = less fighting for resources = peace and harmony throughout the cosmos. And on the surface, that sounds like it makes sense; if we removed 3.8 billion mouths to feed but kept the same amount of resources, then that should mean more food for everyone who’s left, right? Except… someone has to grow that food. And pick it. And process it. And truck it. And inspect it. And put it on store shelves. If half of humanity disappeared, then that means we’re also likely dealing with a drastic reduction in the number of farmers, food processors, truck drivers, food inspectors and grocery workers that we used to have. Even if we don’t take into account the impact of riots and civil disorder on the food supply chain, the loss of those people means a lot of food grown in fields will be left to rot because there aren’t enough people to harvest it (or enough people with the skills needed to keep food safe until it reaches our tables). And once humanity uses up the food already on our shelves, there will likely be a very painful transition to a new reality in which food isn’t as plentiful as it once was for those parts of humanity that once took food for granted. Yes, it’s possible we’ll get back to a point where food security is re-established for the people left behind, but don’t count on that happening without a lot of starvation happening first.
5. Anyone who thinks subtracting people will instantly turn the planet into an ecological paradise isn’t going to like this one.
If there’s one thing you might think would benefit greatly from a sudden mass de-population of people, it’s the environment. And it makes sense; without all those people doing what comes naturally to us garbage-spewing hominids, the Earth would find itself dealing with half the number of plastic bags heading for the ocean, half the greenhouse gas emissions heating up the planet, half the pressure on endangered species to survive, you name it. Sure, life will be hard for us humans for a lot of reasons, but at least the planet will breathe a little easier, right? Except… remember what I said earlier about crashing planes and cars? Now imagine un-piloted oil tankers running aground and spilling their cargo. Or understaffed nuclear power plants spilling radioactive waste. Or oil pipelines bursting and no one around to contain the damage. Or all those stockpiles of waste chemicals making their way back into the environment because humans aren’t around (or too preoccupied with what happened) to safely dispose of them. (And let’s not even think about the possibility that someone overcome by grief uses his access to nuclear weaponry to cause permanent environmental damage on a much larger scale.) Bottom line: we humans tend to make a mess of our home, it’s true, but we also have a lot of people working on cleaning things up… and with half our people gone and the other half likely too preoccupied to focus on environmental issues, those messes won’t be going away anytime soon.
6. Organized religion takes a big hit. Like, really big.
In the HBO drama The Leftovers, the world has experienced the simultaneous disappearance of 140 million people, or 2% of the world’s population, in just one day. One of the outcomes of this unexplained phenomenon is the rapid decline of membership in mainstream religions, with many of those left behind joining cults like the Guilty Remnant, a movement whose members choose to remain silent and communicate only by notes. If that’s a reasonable representation of what might happen when two per cent of the world mysteriously disappears, how will established churches even begin to cope with half of everyone going pffft? The most obvious impact on religious bodies will be the loss of church leaders and congregants at a time when mainstream religion is already struggling to remain relevant, but the event will have a much more profound impact on religious groups than just missing bodies. Clergy members without answers for their flocks will lose frightened and grieving parishioners to any number of new cults that spring up as people search desperately for answers. Meanwhile, evangelical churches based on preparing for the Rapture will be thrown into chaos as adherents try in vain to square their beliefs with the seemingly arbitrary nature of who was taken and who was left behind. Searching for reasons why they were left behind despite considering themselves among the faithful, many religious folks may try to assuage their survivor’s guilt by rationalizing they still have a purpose to fulfil. And whatever they decide that purpose might be, chances are good it won’t be good news for the rest of us.
7. Riots, wars, famine, lawlessness, environmental catastrophes, religious-based chaos… I’m afraid I have some bad news for your stock portfolio.
The thing that bugs me the most about Thanos’ supposedly well-considered plans is that he seems to be missing a few crucial steps. In the film’s flashback to when Thanos visited Gamora’s home planet, we see his soldiers sort the people into two equal groups and massacre half of them. He tells Gamora that when he arrived, everything was chaos and confusion, but after he did this thing the place was a paradise. But notice he didn’t specify any particular timeframe in which his plan goes from (a) “planet in chaos” to (b) “strategic genocide” to (c) “???” to (d) “PROFIT!” Because all of the things we’ve just talked about — riots, wars, mass panic, political and religious upheavals, massive disruptions in every system and supply chain that keep our modern world going — everything is going to feed into and amplify each other to the point where the entire system comes crashing down. Banks and financial systems will fail, trillions of dollars of wealth will be wiped out, communication systems will break down, governments will be helpless to maintain order, and grieving people already on the edge will lose faith in all institutions and abandon any idea of the social contract as we descend into a new global dark age from which a scarred humanity might never emerge.
Well, that went dark fast. All I’m saying is, it might be a while before we Earthlings see any of that peace that Thanos keeps promising.
What say you, gang? Am I being overly pessimistic, or do you think removing half of us puts our entire species at risk? Share in the comments below!