Elon Musk and a new generation of pronatalists are warning of falling birth rates, but some say fertility decline should be celebrated
The billionaire Twitter owner is perhaps the highest profile figure associated with a resurgence of pronatalism, a new generation of “pro-birth” activists and anxious governments spooked by declining birth rates. Pronatalists fear the world is on the verge of “demographic collapse” and that if something dramatic isn’t done, the consequences will be dire. Among them, a rapidly aging world with fewer working-age bodies to support social programs and growing populations of pensioners; innovation will suffer, economies and living standards will stagnate or collapse. Civilization, Musk has warned, “will crumble.” It’s all a much bigger risk than global warming, the Tesla CEO has tweeted. “Mark these words.”
Declining birth rates merit serious consideration, economists have said. Children play a crucial role in economic growth and “intergenerational fiscal sustainability,” wrote the authors of a recent paper in Fertility and Sterility that makes a case for publicly funded, medically assisted reproduction. According to some forecasts, 183 of 195 countries will have total fertility rates — the number of children a woman delivers over her lifetime — below the replacement level of 2.1 births per woman, by 2100. “When you’re slightly above 2.0 or 2.1 versus slightly below, that’s the difference between the population growing forever and the population shrinking forever,” Charles Jones, a professor of economics at Stanford Graduate School of Business said in an interview last month. Negative population growth, Jones said, “could be a problem.” If birth rates continue to collapse, Musk has warned, “civilization will indeed die with a whimper in adult diapers.”
But some say the new generation of pronatalists is operating from a warped bubble of techno-utopia, that its leaders are more interested in populating the planet with their own genes and artificially assisted “super babies” than collapsing cultures, an image pronatalists reject. “Imagine if there really were some secret cabals of rich dudes trying to just make more of themselves,” Malcolm Collins told the National Post. “Wouldn’t that be outrageous and wild?”
“What we find ironic about this is that, for the first time, there’s a pronatalist movement that is not about preserving any particular culture, but rather one about preserving as many cultures as possible and avoiding a hard landing on demographic collapse,” said Malcolm.
More than a quarter of the world’s countries have pronatalist policies aimed at boosting fertility rates and encouraging people to have more babies. Critics, however, argue the “humanity is going to collapse” trope is creating unnecessary alarmism and that the planet’s most pressing problem is that there are already too many of us consuming too much. If there’s any collapse to be feared, “that would be environmental collapse,” said Nandita Bajaj, the Toronto-based executive director of Population Balance, an organization that works to fight environmental degradation that it says is a result of human expansionism. The world’s population hit the eight billion mark in November. “Globally, we’re still adding about 80 million people every year to the planet,” Bajaj said. “That growth stems from pronatalism, which is all of the cultural and institutional pressure that promotes or even coerces childbearing.”