Elon Musk is wrong about population growth

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.

Photo by: Steve Juvetson

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.

Historical population growth and future projections. From United Nations World Population Prospects 2017

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

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10 thoughts on “Elon Musk is wrong about population growth

  1. I appreciate this rebuttal to Musk’s nonsense. But I do think it’s time we start being critical of irresponsible procreation decisions. There is no excuse for Musk’s ignorance of overshoot. And while we do need to support family planning in the yet-to-be-overdeveloped world, we also need to support family planning everywhere and make sure that everyone can make responsible, INFORMED family-size decisions. The people in the overdeveloped world, regardless of their nation’s current fertility rate, need to be aware of human overshoot and overpopulation – and encouraged to make responsible decisions, too (while we also encourage them to live more lightly on the planet).

    1. I agree! Elon Musk should model more responsible behavior, no matter how much money he has.

    2. Thanks for your comment, Dave. And broadly I agree. I was just trying to point out that even if we ‘allow’ people the freedom to have children as they wish, we could still easily reduce the fertility rate by providing contraception to those who desperately need and want it. And I would support measures to encourage smaller families eg in South Africa we provide a child grant for every child. I would support stopping the child grant after two or three children.

      1. I see a big contradiction in saying that Elon Musk is entitled to as many children as he wishes, because he can afford them, but poor people aren’t, not only because they are poor (makes sense) but also because of their impact on the planet, which would be much higher for rich people.

        Also, going to Mars after having wrecked Earth is a terrible idea.

  2. I take issue with the endless–and MOSTLY WRONG–statement of the author and others that “most of the population growth” happens in the Middle East and Africa. And, even if true, FAR LESS HARM IS DONE TO THE PLANET BY THAT GROWTH versus “our” growth in the U.S., the world’s 3rd most populated nation behind only China and India and, BY A WIDE MARGIN, the highest per-capita carbon nation on Earth–yes, far, far higher than China. (Roughly 3 times higher at per-capita levels!)

    So, we’re overdue for population activists to understand that not all population growth is equal! A child born into the U.S.–as was estimated by Britain’s Royal Academy–some years back, can be equal to upwards of 60 people in poorer nations of Africa! That’s much of why, before it decided to be politically correct, RATHER THAN SCIENTIFIC (since the U.S. population EXPLOSION is 92-percent immigration-driven) the Sierra Club sold a bumper sticker, “The United States: THE WORLD’S MOST OVERPOPULATED NATION!”

    I urge everyone to read Ed Rubenstein’s NPG paper, “The Impact of U.S. Population Growth on Climate Change,” that alludes to why, when thousands of climate scientists and 54 National Academies said we MUST DEAL WITH POPULATION to solve climate, they were thinking more of the United States and its 18 metric-ton per-capita carbon footprint, than that almost non-existent one in many African nations with exploding populations that matter a great deal to them, but very little to the world at large!

  3. Yes, true that population growth in the US matter a lot – for environment, people, and more.
    But to recognize the problem of strong population growth especially in Sub-Saharan Africa is equally important – simply because we want people there to obtain a much higher standard of living, and welfare similar to e.g. Europe. The continued strong population growth in Africa means an enormous increase in consumption – if it is possible. Reducing fertility in Africa can have huge advantages in the future. It would then be much easier to increase welfare – and save more of the environment – on the African continent. Unfortunately, this take time, due to so called population momentum (check word).

    1. Sorry, I’m jaded. I have been saying exactly what you just wrote for 50 years, and yet, THERE HAS BEEN NO SIGNIFICANT LEADERSHIP TO BRING FAMILY PLANNING TO THESE REGIONS and they continue to explode. One doctor friend of mine who went there as a missionary doctor told me how he experienced push-back, with one village chieftain saying, “Don’t tell us not to grow! You Americans love growth, so don’t preach to my people about family planning!”

      And, at this point, I have shifted focus: I am focused on the SURVIVAL OF THE PLANET and that points to my OWN COUNTRY, not to sub-Saharan Africa, and I cannot continue to participate in the hypocrisy of population activists in the United States worried about “over there” growth when the planet’s PROBLEM ARE THE 3 CARBON/POPULATION-GIANT NATIONS: China (which is LOSING POPULATON, with some estimating the population is DOWN BY 200 MILLION PEOPLE!), the United States (which is EXPLODING ITS POPULATION) and India, which has a low per-capita carbon footprint. Why in the h— are we (Americans) focused on population in Africa, when our 340 MILLION, 18 metric-ton per-capita population is what is PROVIDING THE MEGA HIT TO THE PLANET? Oops, so yesterday, with Biden running the show, that 340 million, might well be 341 to 344 million, JUST SENSE THE LAST CENSUS!

      And as to momentum, let me remind you that, though our CORRUPT, NOW-DEREGULATED MEDIA, like to pretend that it is births, not immigration, that matters, even with our falling birthrate, DUE TO MOMENTUM, it will take upwards of 80 years for that to STOP ITS PART IN GROWING THE U.S. POPULATION. Nonetheless, 92 PERCENT OF OUR EXPLODING POPULATION is the unprecedentedly high population growth of post-1965 “immigration reform” with even that DWARFED BY CURRENT BIDEN INVITE-IN-THE-WORLD-AS-THOUGH-THERE-ARE-NO-CONSEQUENCES immigration, averaging, just at the southern border, AT LEAST 4 MILLION A YEAR!

  4. Also, I personally see no reason at all to admire Musk. Yes, he’s made an enormous amount of money. Is that even a good thing? I wish we would stop praising the mere fact of being rich when we know how much difference all that extra money would make if distributed to everyone else. Not to mention that, in such a competitive world, no one can make that much money by being fair and honest and respecting people and the environment. It simply wouldn’t be possible.

    Musk made his money by collecting billions in subsidies from the government, has been accused of violating workers’ right, and has deforested a chunk of Germany to build a factory.

    There’s probably more but these are just the things off the top of my head.

    1. I completely agree with you. I’ve never understood the appeal in Musk, and his following because of his wealth seems cult-like. I don’t see how his money helps the environment or the wealth gap. What’s the point in spending billions on going to another planet (and destroy it) when that money could be used to repair our own planet. He doesn’t realise that Earth is not only inhabited by humans, but we share it with many other flora and fauna who have equal rights to call this planet home.

  5. While we’re all free to procreate like rabbits, or lemmings, or guineapigs, we’ll do so. Some more than others. Granted the per capita load on the environment of first-world countries is significantly greater than that of the indigent nations, it makes no sense to bicker and point fingers. A recent book – An Inconvenient Apocalypse – has made the point that moral high ground in this matter is very difficult to take. The bottom line is that there are too many of us, and nature will take us down unless we wise-up very quickly. (It’ll probably take us down anyway.) Our problem, as has been endlessly pointed out, is profound stupidity. To leave procreation ‘up to the individual’ is absurd.

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