Rejecting outdated predictions of the consequences of unchecked population growth promoted by population control advocates such as Microsoft’s Bill Gates and Columbia University’s Jeffrey Sachs, Elon Musk has been warning us for the past few years that the real threat is the fact that we are no longer having enough children. In fact, Musk—a father of six—seems to believe that our very survival is at stake if people do not begin to have more children.
In a June 21, 2019, tweet Musk explicitly rejected population doomsayers like Gates and Sachs by warning that the real population issue is an aging and declining world population by 2050, not “overpopulation.” Musk followed that tweet with one on July 26, 2021, when he wrote that “population collapse is potentially the greatest risk to the future of civilization.” Citing Norwegian academic Jorgen Randers, whose book 2052: A Global Forecast for the Next Forty Years predicts that the human population will start dwindling around 2040, Musk has said that the world’s population will begin to look like an inverted pyramid over the next three decades: “Demographics, stratified by age will look like an upside-down pyramid with many old people and few young.”
Earlier this month, Musk got a lot of attention when he told those gathered at the Wall Street Journal CEO Council simply that “There are not enough people…I can’t emphasize that enough, there are not enough people.” For Musk, the low birth rates could contribute to a societal collapse:
So many people, including smart people, think that there are too many people in the world and think that the population is growing out of control. It’s completely the opposite…look at the numbers—if people don’t have more children, civilization is going to crumble, mark my words.
With fertility rates at an all-time low in 2021, Musk is refuting the doomsayers who have been warning of out of control global population growth. In 2011, Sachs wrote an alarmist op-ed lamenting the birth of the “7 billionth individual.” The Sachs solution to this supposed problem—promoting population control through increased global access to abortion and contraception—runs counter to the teachings of the Catholic Church, yet Sachs is often an honored guest speaker on sustainability at the Vatican. In fact, in October 2021, the pontiff named Sachs to the Pontifical Academy of Social Sciences. This, despite the fact that for Sachs, “sustainable growth is the stabilization of the global population.”
Likewise, Bill Gates and his ex-wife Melinda have spent the past two decades promoting global population control by coupling their philanthropy to foreign countries with family planning opportunities. In February 2010, at an invitation-only “Technology, Entertainment and Design Conference” in Long Beach, California, Gates provided the keynote speech on “Innovating to Zero!” which provided an equation demonstrating that population growth was the major contributor to the increase in CO2.
Gates has claimed that each individual on the planet puts out an average of five tons of CO2 per year, and indicates that there is no such thing as a healthy, high population growth country. For Gates, if you’re a healthy country, you’re low-population growth.
Gates is not alone in coupling foreign aid with population control. In a 2008 book titled Fatal Misconception, author Matthew Connelly writes that in the 1960s, President Lyndon Johnson leveraged food aid for family planning during crop failures in India, thus creating an incentive for the country’s sterilization program. According to Connelly, India’s Ministry of Health and Family Planning admitted that, “The large numbers of sterilizations and IUD insertions during 1967-1968 was due to drought conditions.” Eventually, more sophisticated incentives such as bicycles and radios were used to encourage women to accept sterilization. Under Indira Gandhi in the mid-1970s, sterilization became a condition not just for land allotments, but also for irrigation water, electricity, ration cards, rickshaw licenses, medical care, pay raises and promotions. There were sterilization quotas—especially for the Dalits (the untouchable caste), who were targeted for family planning.
China—which once sought to control its population through its coercive one-child policy—now finds itself turning to policies that incentivize women to have more children. The new Three-Child Policy in China has been implemented to mitigate its most precipitous decline in population in decades. While for years the ruling Communist Party implemented policies to slow the growth in population, it now finds itself in an era of contraction in total population size. The decline in the birth rate and an increase in life expectancy means that in China there are too few workers able to support an enormous and aging population. Incentives have not worked and in 2018, the total number of births in China fell to 15.2 million, a drop of nearly 12 percent nationally from 2017. The New York Times writes that some cities and provinces have reported declines in local birth rates of as much as 35 percent.
Although Musk has gotten some attention for his warnings of population implosion, Sachs and Gates still hold sway in most conversations about sustainability and population control in this country. In many of California’s largest cities, pets are replacing people. Earlier this year, San Francisco was named “the most childless” city in the country with the percentage of children in the city falling to 13 percent. The city’s percentage of children under 18 is even lower than New York City’s 21 percent. Documenting the declines as far back as 2017, the New York Times introduced a young San Francisco couple living in a compact studio apartment on the fringes of the Castro district “with their demanding 7-year-old whom they dote on and take everywhere: a Scottish terrier named Olive.”
The future looks bleak, unless we begin to pay attention to the warnings Musk has made. The 2017 research revelations that sperm counts for men living in the West have plunged by 60 percent since 1971 reminds readers of P.D. James’ great dystopian novel, The Children of Men, with its chilling prediction of a future society that can no longer reproduce. Set in Britain in 2021, James’s frightening fiction described a world of mass infertility—a world in which no children had been born in more than 25 years. In the novel, the last baby to be born is now an adult and the population is growing steadily older. Few marry, even fewer fall in love, and suicide is rampant. Recalling the religious rituals that used to accompany the birth of a child, the rectors of the Anglican Church in the dystopian society regularly offer baptism ceremonies for the kittens of the aging childless couples—replete with bonnets and christening robes for the feline companions.
No one wants to live in such a world. It is time to begin to pay attention to the warnings of Elon Musk—and reject the population control zealots such as Gates and Sachs.
Anne Hendershott is professor of sociology and director of the Veritas Center for Ethics in Public Life at Franciscan University of Steubenville, Ohio.