Elon Musk’s Take on Falling Birth Rate

December 8, 2021

I really like Elon Musk. He’s an incredible entrepreneur. I love the fact that, already an extremely wealthy man, he was willing to risk building his own car company to compete with the giants in the industry, something everyone said couldn’t be done. I love the fact that he’s dedicated to building the cars he sells in America right here in America, including the development of his own battery technology – batteries that he also builds right here in America. Musk is an extremely smart and ambitious man – an American hero.

So I found his take on falling birth rates – as reported in this USAToday article – very odd and disappointing. For such a smart man, his take is, well, downright dumb. Musk believes that:

  1. There are “not enough people in the world,” and
  2.  “… one of the biggest risks to civilization is the low birth rate and the rapidly declining birthrate,” and
  3. “…  if people don’t have more children, civilization is going to crumble,” and, finally
  4. people shouldn’t “try to live for a super long time.”

First of all, let’s get one thing straight. Yes, birth rates have been declining. But they’re still high enough to drive exponential population growth, doubling the population every forty years. Look at this graph of world population growth. My God, that’s not fast enough growth for him?!?

It’s not surprising that CEO’s of major corporations favor never-ending population growth. They see it as a source of never-ending profit growth. After all, more people mean more customers. However, in this case, it seems contradictory for the CEO of a company like Tesla, dedicated to producing “green” products to combat climate change, an existential threat to human life, to actually be advocating for the very thing that’s driving that threat.

We live in a finite world that can only support a finite population. Any child who has ever had an aquarium with guppies understands this. Item no. 4 above seems to indicate that perhaps Musk has some grasp of this too. After all, if everyone lived forever, the birth rate would have to fall to zero. Otherwise, the world would quickly become very badly overpopulated. But advocating for a shorter life span and a higher death rate? Yikes!!

Economists assert that mankind is clever enough to overcome all obstacles to growth and, when they say this, they are talking not just about economic growth, but population growth as well. We know this because they say it in direct response to Malthus’s fears of the consequences of overpopulation. Such a statement has no basis in fact and is nothing but pure hubris. Just because it’s proven true up to this point doesn’t mean it will always hold true. Mankind is, in fact, very clever, but not that clever.

There are endless limitations that make never-ending population growth impossible. Human beings are made up of compounds whose supply on earth is limited. Take water, for example. We’re mostly made of water. As I pointed out in my book, Five Short Blasts, if population growth continued at today’s rate, in 850 years the world’s land masses would be carpeted in human flesh several feet deep. In only 1,100 years, every drop of water on earth would be locked up in the make-up of human flesh. These scenarios are obviously impossible. If theories don’t hold true when tested at their limits, then those theories are invalid. Mankind is not clever enough to overcome all obstacles to growth.

Other obstacles will prove to be insurmountable long before we reach the above scenarios. We may be witnessing some already. Take climate change, for example. Commitments to reduce carbon emissions are broken as fast as they are made because of a dirty little secret: the goals are unattainable, though we continue to pretend they are. All of the renewable energy can’t make a bit of difference without a backup source of power. And what about methane? Landfills emit tons of methane, and we need more landfills all the time. Cattle emit tons of methane, but we need meat. People emit methane, but no one talks about that. Instead, people like Musk insist we need more people.

Then there’s the one that’s the subject of this blog. Growing populations mean more crowding, which drives down per capita consumption and, along with it, employment. Nations, especially the U.S., are getting poorer thanks to social safety net programs meant to deal with the effects of rising unemployment. Maybe we could spend more to fight climate change – like making electric Teslas more affordable – if we weren’t being bankrupted by the costs of overpopulation.

I wish Elon would take a break from his Tesla and Space-X duties and spend some time pondering the subject of population growth a little more carefully. If he did, and came to the conclusion that maybe a lower birth rate and a stabilized population would actually be a good thing, he could have more influence in saving the planet from an existential threat than all of his electric cars ever could.


Economic Decline Impacting U.S. Fertility Rate

July 29, 2012

http://www.usatoday.com/USCP/PNI/Nation/World/2012-07-26-bcUSATBIRTHRATES_ST_U.htm

Here’s a piece of news from late last week that I certainly can’t let pass without comment.  As reported in the above-linked article, the U.S. fertility rate has declined from 2.12 in 2007 to 1.87 today, and is projected to decline further to 1.86 next year.  The reason for the decline, according to Demographic Intelligence, the company that gathered the data, is the economy.  Student loan debt and job insecurity makes it impractical for twenty-somethings to consider having children.

It’s an interesting observation.  Prior to the renaissance and the industrial revolution, poverty held the world’s population in check.  In recent centuries, economic development drove down death rates much more quickly than birth rates, fueling a population explosion.  Economic development and population growth became synonymous in the minds of economists.  But they are not synonymous.  They were cause and effect, up to a point – the point where overcrowding becomes an impediment to per capita consumption.  Now, the cause and effect have reversed.  Population growth has strangled economic development, driving up unemployment and poverty.  And now, poverty is resuming its role as the mechanism that will hold the population in check.  Not only is poverty driving up the death rate but, as this article makes clear, it’s reining in the birth rate as well.

A fertility rate of 1.86 is very close to the rate of 1.79 that I calculated as necessary to achieve a stable population.  (See page 178 of Five Short Blasts.)  A rate of 2.0 is what’s considered a “replacement rate,” the rate necessary to replace each previous generation with one of the same size.  But as long as life expectancy increases, then a rate less than 2.0 is required to achieve a stable population.

A declining fertility rate – finally approaching the rate needed to achieve a stable population – is great news.  But what happens now?  Will hand-wringing economists convince policy-makers that a stable population is a threat to macro-economic growth and that we need to flood the country with even more immigrants?  What a mistake that would be.


New Baby Boom “a Healthy Trend”?!?!

March 19, 2009

http://news.yahoo.com/s/ap/20090318/ap_on_re_us/med_baby_boomlet

There’s been numerous reports in the media in the last couple of days about the fact that the number of births rose to a record of more than 4.3 million in 2006.  It’s not terribly surprising that this surpasses the record levels of the baby boom years in the ’50s, since our population is twice as high.  Thankfully, the fertility rate, the number of children per female, has plummeted since then.

But this linked article stands out in need of comment, since it perpetuates some misconceptions about population growth.  For example:

_The U.S. population is more than replacing itself, a healthy trend.

“Healthy?”  How is this a healthy trend?  As worsening overpopulation drives up unemployment and poverty, increases the strain on dwindling resources and exacerbates global warming, how can anyone possibly consider this a “healthy trend?”

The new numbers suggest the second year of a baby boomlet, with U.S. fertility rates higher in every racial group, the highest among Hispanic women. On average, a U.S. woman has 2.1 babies in her lifetime. That’s the “magic number” required for a population to replace itself.

While 2.1 children per female may be the rate needed for a generation (not a “population”) to replace itself, that level will assure further worsening of overpopulation due to steady rises in life expectancy.  A rate of approximately 1.8 is required to counteract the increase in life span and stabilize the population. 

Countries with much lower rates — such as Japan and Italy — face future labor shortages and eroding tax bases as they fail to reproduce enough to take care of their aging elders.

This notion that an ever-growing population is needed to avoid “future labor shortages” and to support “aging elders” may be the most harmful misconception of all, as it buttresses the arguments of economists that population growth is an essential ingredient for a healthy economy when, in fact, the truth is just the opposite.  To suggest that places like Japan and Europe, so badly overpopulated that they are utterly dependent on exports to support their excess labor supplies, will face “labor shortages” is preposterous in the extreme.  And the argument that bigger generations are needed to support aging elders defies even the simplest train of logic.  Since it’s impossible for population growth to continue indefinitely, it will obviously be more difficult to make the transition to a stable population when conditions have grown so bad that further growth is impossible.  It only makes sense to make that transition right now, while the size of the elder population is lower than it will ever be if we don’t act.

The author of this report, an AP medical writer, should stick to medicine and leave the economics of population growth to those of us with the courage and sense to think through the ramifications.


Bad News about Birth Rate, Good News in Readers’ Reactions

July 17, 2008

http://www.usatoday.com/news/nation/2008-07-16-baby-boomlet_N.htm

The birth rate in America is on the rise. Although the article reports only a record number of births, but not the birth rate, you can do the math yourself with the data provided for annual births and see that the rate is on the rise. And the fertility rate is rising too. It’s up to 2.1 births per female. This is far in excess of the 1.79 needed to attain population stability (along with a dramatic decrease in immigration). Why less than 2.0? Because of the steadily increasing life expectancy. If life expectancy were holding steady, 2.0 births per female is the rate needed for a stable population. But, because each generation is living longer than the previous, the fertility rate must drop below 2.0. (Consider the extreme: if life expectancy approached infinity, then the fertility rate would have to fall to zero. If no one ever died, there would be no room for anyone to have children.)

For some good news on this topic, just scan the comments at the end of the article. The vast majority are written by people concerned about population growth. Clearly, attitudes have changed and people are concerned about overpopulation. The time is right for our nation’s leaders to open a dialogue with the American people about population. How many is too many? Can our standard of living and quality of life really be maintained in an environment of unending population growth? Can real progress be made toward energy independence and toward mitigating climate change if we keep adding more and more oil consumers? Will any of our problems be easier to solve with a larger population? It’s going to take a lot of courage to be the first politician to broach the subject, but the time has come.


“Culture of Death?”

April 26, 2008

Last night I encountered a blogger who referred to concerns about overpopulation as a “culture of death.” I attempted to post a reply; I just can’t let something like that stand. But the reply wouldn’t go. It seems the site was experiencing some kind of problem. (Maybe the problem was some sort of automated, cyber-close-mindedness?)I thought this would be a good topic for a post of my own. This is a reaction that those of us concerned about overpopulation often get. We’re accused of promoting a “culture of death.” I’m not sure what twisted logic makes them think that’s an appropriate metaphor; perhaps they equate a concern with overpopulation with advocating abortion. Or perhaps they think that we’d just like to see everyone else cease to exist. Neither could be further from the truth. We want a lower birth rate – true – but that can easily be achieved without resorting to abortion. This is why I removed it from the population equation in Five Short Blasts. It’s a non-starter for many people. They won’t even consider your position if it’s included. So why torpedo the discussion with something that’s irrelevant?

If you encounter this “culture of death” accusation from someone who doesn’t believe that we face a problem of overpopulation, politely suggest to them that it is actually they who are promoting a culture of death. Since there are only two factors in determining the size of the world’s population – birth rate and death rate – and since the population must stabilize at some point, then a refusal to consider a lower birth rate is, by default, a choice for a higher death rate. And if they can’t recognize that the population will, in fact, stabilize eventually, then they need some education in some simple matters of physics, like the finiteness of the supply of elements available for the make-up of human flesh. (It’s a ridiculously extreme limitation, but one that no one can deny, not even the most fanatic economist who insists that any resource shortage can be overcome.)

By and large, the people who spout this “culture of death” stuff are self-righteous religious fanatics who let their pro-life zeal pervert a reasonable stance against abortion into an illogical advocacy for never-ending population growth. Don’t be intimidated by their passionate attacks. Take them on. The truth is on your side.

Pete

 

 


The Rising Birth Rate

December 22, 2007

There was much ado on the national news last night about the fact that the birth rate in the U.S. has ticked slightly higher, to 2.1 children per female.  It was explained that “economists” see this as a good thing, because we need more younger people to support the older generation in retirement, alleviating (at least slightly) some of the huge projected social security / medicare deficit. 

It never to ceases to amaze me that “economists” can’t look far enough down the road and question what will happen if we keep “growing” the economy in this way.  It’s because they don’t understand that a smaller population will actually benefit the economy through improved per capita consumption.  In the meantime, slightly higher taxes and tariffs on over-populated nations is all that’s needed to eliminate the projected ss/medicare shortfall.