Tech entrepreneur and multibillionaire Elon Musk claims that underpopulation rather than overpopulation is the greatest threat that faces humanity, despite current destruction of nature and the millions of people living in extreme poverty. Dr. David Walker examines Musk’s dangerous statements and sets the facts straight.
By Dr. David Walker
As a South African, I must admit to a general admiration for our greatest ever local boykie (lad) made good. Elon Musk grew up in Pretoria, but that has not prevented him from becoming one of the most influential people alive today. Even though he seems to have had unhappy schooldays, Pretoria Boys’ High must have done something right. He made his fortune in the internet boom, but then broadened his personal and business interests to electric cars, rockets, trains and tunnels. And much of the motivation behind his investments seems to be driven by a desire to make the world a better and more interesting place, rather than just for profit. He has made passionate and well-argued pleas for us to aspire to become a multi-planetary species. He has donated units of his Starlink satellite system to grateful Ukrainians battling the Russian invaders. All of this has gained him guru-like status and 100 million Twitter followers at the last count.
So far, so good. And which is why his recent comments on human population are so perplexing. After the recent birth of his twins (which brings his tally of children to about ten – hee hee hee says Jacob Zuma, that’s nothing), he tweeted that he was helping to ‘end the underpopulation crisis’. He then went on to tweet that ‘A collapsing birth rate is the biggest danger civilization faces by far. Mark my words, they are sadly true. … I hope you have big families and congrats to those who already do!’ This could be written off as an attempt to put a humorous gloss on his over-exuberant fecundity, but it is a view he has expressed consistently in the past. And while most owners of vast global enterprises benefit from population growth (increased population equals more customers and cheaper labour), he seems to hold this view sincerely, and not just because more people mean greater wealth for him. This is, of course, very different to life at the bottom of the economic pyramid where more and more people mean greater competition for scarce resources like jobs, social grants, heath care and education.
Let’s start with some facts. Although birth rates are fortunately declining, we are still adding an extra 80 million people to the planet every single year and have been doing so for the last few decades. We are, therefore, adding the equivalent of the entire population of Germany every single year. And we are likely to continue to do so for several decades to come. There are, it is true, a tiny handful of wealthy countries, such as Japan and Italy, where there is a very gentle decline in total population. But these are the exception. Countries such as the UK, France and the USA, which have lowish fertility rates are still growing because of immigration. It has been calculated that the UK needs to build a new house every six minutes to cope with the immigrant influx of the last few years! However, the great majority of the growth in population is happening in poorer countries in the Middle East and Africa, who are the least able to provide fertile land, food, water, jobs and other resources for ever-increasing numbers of people. I am not critical of Musk’s (or Jacob’s) personal choices regarding children. Elon Musk is clearly able to afford as many children as he wants, even if he produced one every hour for the rest of his life (Jacob has to slow down a bit now because he can’t steal money as easily as he once could). But it is a very different situation for a poor rural Somali or Afghan woman, living under a patriarchal tribal culture. She typically might have had five or six children by the age of twenty-five, and with each additional child, sinks further into poverty and further diminishes the prospects of her children.
By contrast, Bill Gates, another multibillionaire who would also no doubt benefit from an ever-growing consumer base, has a very different view. While the Gates’ foundation has put hundreds of millions into primary health initiatives such as polio prevention, it has also put much effort into supplying family planning measures to poor women in the developing world. So clearly, Bill and Melinda – no slouches when it comes to analyzing and solving complex problems – think that controlling human population growth is for the individual and greater good. This has been a particular passion of Melinda Gates, who has said, “contraceptives are actually one of the greatest anti-poverty innovations the world has ever seen.”
And that is without considering the impact of our vast human population on the non-human world. Rivers, seas, and lakes are polluted, oceans are acidifying, the earth is over-heating, species numbers and tropical forests are declining. Ten thousand years ago, 99% of the terrestrial vertebrate biomass consisted of wild animals, and humans made up just 1%. Today, almost 8 billion more people later, that situation has completely reversed. Humans and our livestock make up 99% of the vertebrate biomass and wild animals just 1%. The earth is groaning under the collective weight of our activity. And that activity is a factor of both our numbers and our technology. So, a poor person in Africa has a much smaller impact than a wealthy jet-setting Westerner. But surely, we should not want (or are indeed able) to deny the average Nigerian or Indian the convenience of a microwave oven or refrigerator? The environmental impact of those in the developing world will only become greater in the future as, hopefully, their economic circumstances improve. As Sir David Attenborough has succinctly stated: ‘All environmental problems become much more difficult, and ultimately impossible, to solve, with an ever-increasing human population.’
We are a very long way off from being able to send large numbers of people in Elon Musk’s big rockets to live on Mars. Until then, we need to ignore his nonsense about population ‘decline’ and attend to the urgent unmet contraceptive needs of poor women in the developing world. For the benefit of all people, and our precious natural world.
David Walker is Senior Lecturer at the Department of Conservation and Marine Sciences, Cape Peninsula University of Technology, Cape Town