The Covid-19 pandemic, 1,000-year floods and droughts, widespread homelessness and poverty, mass shootings, the erosion of democracy.
You’d think that the world’s richest man might take aim at one of humanity’s real problems. With so many resources at his disposal and Tesla’s commitment to transforming our energy storage and use, I was shocked that Elon Musk’s top concern is so trifling.
So what is his number-one worry? What issue keeps this wealthy entrepreneur tossing and turning in bed at night?
Population collapse. That’s right: population collapse.
Musk tweeted in August that population collapse is a “much bigger risk to civilization than global warming.” It certainly helps explain why he’s fathered 10 children with 3 different women—a fact he’s cheekily pointed out on social media. But for a guy who presumably reads reports and analyzes data, his baffling obsession with birthrates is out of touch with the numbers.
In July 2022, the UN stated that the global population is expected to swell to 8.5 billion in the 2030s and 10.4 billion in the 2080s. This hardly seems like an imminent crisis, especially when “experts” were concerned about overpopulation and the depletion of the world’s resources a few decades ago.
Paul R. Ehrlich, a biologist from Stanford University, published a book called The Population Bomb in the late 60s that stoked fears of having too many people across the planet. Even recently, Ehrlich told Retro Report that allowing women to have many babies is like letting everyone “throw as much of their garbage in their neighbor’s backyard as they [want].”
So which is it: is humanity on the brink of collapse because we have too many people or too few people? I suspect that the world’s population growth isn’t actually the problem. Perhaps the real crisis is powerful men’s desire to scrutinize and control women’s reproduction.
In every era, male leaders present strong opinions about whether too many or too few babies are born. Regardless of the actual birthrate, it’s treated as a cataclysm.
From 1980 to 2016, China’s sexist one-child policy was implemented to control the country’s population growth. During the same period, American conservatives decried falling birthrates and made outlawing abortion their top issue.
We all share the same world: why would there be such diametrically opposed opinions and policies about birthrates?
What’s implicit in Musk’s concern is that the “right types” of babies are not being born. The birthrate is declining in many industrialized nations, even as the world’s population is continuing to grow overall.
In fact, the UN anticipates that roughly half of the global population growth up to 2050 will be concentrated in just eight countries: the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Egypt, Ethiopia, India, Nigeria, Pakistan, the Philippines, and the United Republic of Tanzania.
If the declining birthrate in the US were really the issue, surely Musk and American conservatives would welcome families from south of the border. Musk himself—in contradiction with his own population collapse concerns—has bemoaned the lack of media attention about the increased immigration into Eagle Pass, TX from our southern neighbors.
Wealthier countries should expand their efforts to help struggling countries with their basic infrastructure, sanitation, healthcare, and education, allowing children everywhere to thrive. Those are real issues. Also, Europe, Japan, and the US can increase their immigration caps and have no need to fret about smaller tax bases supporting aging populations.
There are plenty of births occurring worldwide, but US conservatives see things differently. White nationalist and former congressman Steve King tweeted in March 2017, “We can’t restore our civilization with someone else’s babies.” This echoes the racism at the heart of Musk’s concern: will the world’s richest man be able to overcome his fear of a decline in the “right types” of babies?