Dear Mr. Musk: You're wrong about population
Written by Olivia Nater | Published: September 20, 2022
Your work on electric cars and commitment to renewable energy are commendable, but you are deeply wrong about population. You’ve repeatedly expressed concern that our global population will “collapse” due to declining birth rates, stating that this represents the “biggest threat” to civilization, exceeding even the threat of climate change. But these views are misinformed and harmful.
First of all, while at Population Connection, we would welcome a less-crowded future, our population is nowhere near decline, let alone collapse. It is still growing by around 70-80 million people every year, and according to new projections by the United Nations Population Division, there’s only a 50% chance that it will stop growing before the end of the century. The population trajectory considered most likely to come true shows a peak of 10.4 billion people by the 2080s, with no further change through 2100.
Recent projections by other researchers provide no indication of collapse either. Population models published in The Lancet two years ago estimated that population will likely peak in 2064 at around 9.7 billion and then decline to 8.8 billion by 2100. That’s still higher than our current population, and this scenario assumes steady progress towards development goals related to access to education and family planning. Unfortunately, the latest authoritative reports show that progress in these areas is actually stagnating, and even reversing, in part due to the repercussions of the Covid-19 pandemic.
Which brings me to another crucial fact: The main driver of declining birth rates is women gaining bodily autonomy and the power to pursue education and careers, which is a good thing. By suggesting that the trend towards smaller families is somehow detrimental, you are fueling a harmful, growth-at-all-costs narrative that could lead to reproductive rights violations. We are already witnessing attempts to restrict access to contraception and safe abortion in countries around the world, including in Iran, China, and right here in the United States with the reversal of Roe v. Wade. You chose to have many children — let others choose to have few or none. Of course, we must all work hard to make sure that every child has a chance for a decent, productive life, but there is never any good reason for anyone, anywhere to push people to have more children. We know that, given real choices, most people choose smaller families. Let’s respect and actively support those private decisions which clearly benefit our living planet.
Earth desperately needs smaller families. People aren’t stackable blocks — we all consume resources and generate waste and require shelter, infrastructure, and services. We are already consuming natural resources 1.8 times faster than they can regenerate and using 50% of all habitable land on Earth just for agriculture, so I wonder why you think that our planet can sustain “many times its current population.” According to the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES), human activity has already damaged three-quarters of terrestrial land and two-thirds of marine areas. Their landmark report shows that one million species are now at risk of disappearing for good, and the extinction rate is still accelerating. Even if you don’t care about other species’ right to exist, healthy, biodiverse ecosystems are critical for our own survival too.
Limiting further population growth is also a key climate solution. I’m sure you dream of a future in which everyone is driving Teslas (or being driven by them), but as you know, even renewables come with environmental costs. We need to end overconsumption and population growth alongside decarbonizing our economies — infinite growth can never be sustainable on a finite planet. Research by Project Drawdown found that slowing population growth by accelerating progress on family planning and education would save 68.9 Gigatons of CO2-equivalent emissions by 2050, making this the third most powerful available climate solution, after reducing food waste and switching to plant-based diets.
Please limit alarmist public declarations to your areas of expertise and leave demographic trends and their implications to population professionals. Most of all, don’t stigmatize or try to place barriers in the way of those who choose to be child-free or otherwise limit their family size.