Pronatalism: Elon Musk's fakest public alarm
Here’s something that I just cannot understand: what calamity do the “pronatalists” and Elon Musk believe they are trying to avert?
Musk wrote this ominous tweet a few months back:
Look, Elon says a lot of ridiculous shit. We don’t have to take every bit of it seriously. WIRED’s Matt Reynolds wrote a solid piece that explains the underlying demographic trends, “Elon Musk Is Totally Wrong about Population Collapse.” Economist Noah Smith also wrote about it on his Substack this week, “How much does aging really hurt a country?” The global population is not collapsing. The rate of global population growth is just slowing down. Aging populations can be a persistent drag on a country’s economic productivity. This is decidedly non-apocalyptic terrain.
This isn’t just some random Elon flight of fancy, though. He has a bunch of fellow-travelers — rich, white, extremely-online techies — who have convinced themselves that the way to save the world is for people like them to have lots of babies and also to genetically enhance those babies and oh yeah also those babies must commit to also having lots of babies. The most prominent members of the crowd are a married couple named Malcolm and Simone Collins. They’ve written their own grand philosophy (it’s a GoogleDoc) and launched the “Collins Institute School for the Gifted.” It’… all a little weird. Julia Black wrote about these folks in her article “Can Super Babies Save the World?” Jules Evans also digs into the topic in his Medium piece, “The Religion of the Future Police.”
(NOTE: I think there’s a real case to be made that I’m overthinking this. The simple explanation here is that these people have just slapped a new coat of paint on old-school eugenics. If it looks like a racist movement and sounds like a racist movement and has all the same intellectual trappings of previous eras of “scientific racism,” then you can probably safely hit the buzzer and say “it’s just racism” without any more clues.)
What I keep puzzling is how little internal logic there is to the apocalyptic warning itself. Most of Elon’s dire pronouncements are grounded in his fascination with science fiction, coupled with his grade-school understanding of the texts. (“Humanity must become a spacefaring civilization! What if we’re all living in a computer simulation?!? The AI apocalypse is nigh!”)
There is a version of the pronatalist apocalypse that appears in science fiction. You can see it in Children of Men and in The Handmaid’s Tale. But it is always premised upon a precipitous decline in fertility rates, usually due to environmental pollution. Science fiction is an excellent tool for conducting thought experiments around this sort of premise. In a world where the vast majority of people who want to have children cannot have them — a world where the ongoing existence of humanity is in doubt — how might civilization change? What parts of our shared humanity would be sacrificed, who would bear the brunt of that sacrifice, and how would they react?
But that simply isn’t the world we inhabit. It’s not the threat that the pronatalists outline. So… what are they even talking about?
I looked at some of their materials. It didn’t help.
Below is a screenshot from the Pronatalist.org website, which is run by the Collinses. It’s ridiculous.
They begin by writing, “Birth rates are falling precipitously around the world in both developed and developing countries. If dramatic action is not taken, we will witness the extinction of entire societies, expansion of totalitarian governments, and an unchecked rise of tribalism.” Again, let me encourage you to read the Reynolds WIRED piece. Birth rates are stabilizing at around replacement rate. They aren’t in freefall decline. We have a global population of around 8 billion now, and we’re on a path to stabilize somewhere between 8.8 billion and 10.4 billion. That’s a lot of people.
The details of the argument get silly, fast.
Take a look at that first bullet point, Demographic Collapse: “Our society and economy operate on the assumption that each next generation will be larger. (…) we will soon enter a world in which this dynamic no longer holds, causing stock markets to decline reliably on a macro scale. This will disrupt basic financial instruments and cause untold suffering.”
Now look, I’m not an economist. I think it is entirely possible that an aging, contracting population could indeed be bad for the stock market in the long term. Businesses of the future might not be able to expect continuous overall sales growth if the pool of potential customers isn’t increasing. But (and I can’t believe I have to type this) the stock market is not civilization. If the worst case you can imagine is the disruption of basic financial instruments, then I am begging you to read a little Kim Stanley Robinson.
The second bullet point, Genocide through Inaction, is even flimsier. “At current birth rates,” they write, “there will be six great grandchildren for every hundred Koreans. This is equivalent to a disease that wipes out 94% of the population.”
…Well no. No it is not. Three notes:
(1) Couples independently deciding to have two or fewer children in the aggregate is not in any way similar to genocide. (That’s obvious as soon as it’s typed out, right? I could lead us through a venn diagram activity, but that feels a little unnecessary.)
(2) Population fluctuation over time is also really nothing like a disease in any meaningful sense. Hell, if we’re going to use that line of thinking, then the greatest “disease” of all has to be aging. Aging has a 100% mortality rate, in the sense that everyone who doesn’t die of something else is guaranteed to eventually die of aging. You could say that aging is a terrible disease (one can say all sorts of things, after all), a scourge upon humanity. But you would make everyone around you just a bit dumber for having said it.
(3) “Endangered ethnic group” is also, ahem, conceptually fraught. There’s a reason why a favorite slogan of white nationalists everywhere is “immigration is white genocide.” Take a moment to ponder how these categories are constructed. Members of the ethnic group who emigrate to another country are excluded from this category. Individuals who intermarry outside their ethnic group also don’t count. There’s a term for treating human society as though it is made up of pure ethnicities that belong in certain countries and become endangered when they decline is just. It’s called “ethnonationalism.” And ethnonationalism is, y’know, bad. And notice how the Collinses glibly declare that “radical solutions” are necessary to preserve this status quo. (They don’t mention which ethnic groups deserve this protection. Going down that road would immediately turn all the subtext into text.)
Then they dismiss immigration and automation out of hand. It seems like they’re tying themselves in knots to say “the wrong kind of people are having babies! We need more babies from the right kind of people” while maintaining a dollop of plausible deniability that this is what they’re really saying.
This is basically the premise of Idiocracy. And Idiocracy is a terrible movie to take even a little bit seriously. The movie has a certain appeal to eugenicists who have decided that they are the brilliant elites who rightfully should be in charge. It’s a short hop from believing your status is embedded in your superior genes to worrying that the future will be ruined by the growing mass of humanity that has lesser genes.
It’s also noteworthy that the pronatalists talk about Gattaca like it’s a life-goal. Malcolm Collins describes the pronatalist project as “the Underground Railroad of ‘Gattaca’ babies and people who want to do genetic stuff with their kids.” Cue Cyd Harrell:
All of which still has me pondering, “wait, you think this is a bigger threat than global warming? And you’re saying this out loud, where people might notice?”
The obvious comparison here is to Paul Ehrlich and the population control movement of the 1960s and 1970s. Ehrlich ignited a neo-Malthusian moral panic with his 1968 book, The Population Bomb. He warned that the human population was extending well beyond our ecological limits, one which guaranteed a near future of global poverty, war, and starvation. Groups like Zero Population Growth were founded in the years that followed, offering various arguments in favor of population control.
Today, Ehrlich’s argument is widely ridiculed and critiqued. (Michael Hobbes and Peter Shamshiri absolutely shredded it last month on their “If Books Could Kill” podcast.) And, sure, yes, Ehrlich was clearly wrong.
But at least the internal logic of the Population Bomb at least made sense at the time!
Ehrlich was writing back in the 1960s, a time when (a) the global population was increasing at a dramatic pace, (b) the agricultural breakthroughs of the “Green Revolution” were still unclear, and (c) the new field of population biology was yielding insights into how ecosystems dynamically regulate non-human animal populations.
Under those circumstances, Ehrlich posited that humanity was on a path to ecological ruin. His warnings were probably too strident (though there’s an argument to be made that stridency is strategic). His warnings were certainly, in retrospect, incorrect. (As Noah Smith points out, Ehrlich had way too much confidence in way-too-simple models of mass behavior under population growth.) And the whole subject of population control descends quickly into a politics of reactionary authoritarianism. Many of Ehrlich’s fellow-travelers from the 1970s split off from Zero Population Growth and formed the network of groups that are now core to the U.S. anti-immigration movement.
But just consider the premise on its own merits: The global population in the 1960s was rapidly growing. It showed no signs of slowing down. Without breakthroughs in agricultural technology, the possibility of mass starvation loomed. And that would lead to increased strife, probably war, in a nuclear age. All because the human population, temporarily set free of the natural limits of ecology, kept increasing. That certainly sounds apocalyptic. It’s worth worrying about, at least until we understand the underlying dynamics well enough to decide we don’t have to worry so much after all.
(Don’t get me started on present-day Ehrlich, though. He was featured on 60 Minutes last month, and appears convinced that he has been right all along. There are few intellectual sins greater than refusing to learn from your own incorrect predictions. That’s maybe a post for another day.)
For both the pronatalists and the population control advocates, the key question is “if this is a crisis, who ought to do what about it?” And there again, I’m astonished by how undercooked the pronatalist proposal is.
Their primary solution is a “Five-Child Pledge.” It’s a voluntary pledge to have more kids. They’re trying to build their own subculture of smart techies who have lots of babies, and then convince their children and their children’s-children and their children’s-children’s-children to have lots of babies as well.
The obvious problem here is that FIVE KIDS IS A LOT! I have two children. I love them immensely. I am forever tired. Three kids would outnumber the adults in the household. That would be madness. I am sure I would perish. The idea that several generations of family lines would commit to such madness because of the compelling arguments in a Google Doc strikes me as a little far fetched.
There’s also an irony, as Jules Evans notes: A central theme in the life stories of all three major characters in the pronatalist story (Malcolm Collins, Simone Collins, and Elon Musk) is rebellion against their parents. "Malcolm comes from a monied Dallas family,” Evans writes, “but he rebelled when his parents divorced and was sent to various youth prisons. He ended up on the streets, so hungry he was forced to eat insects. Looking back, he realizes this taught him resilience and independent thinking.” Simone “came from a hippy polyamorous Californian family, which she rebelled against.” And Musk’s dad, well, yeesh!
It takes a particular brand of self-aggrandizing self-deception to build an entire world-saving plan on the belief that your children, your grandchildren, and your great-grandchildren will all abide by your dictate that they must all have lots of kids. The independent, rebellious drive ends now! For the next century or two, all of our progeny will gleefully follow in our footsteps.
[side note: I suspect a big part of why I got so involved with the Sierra Club when I was a teenager was that my dad worked with computers. When the rest of my generation was rebelling against their parents by getting online, I rebelled against my parents by going hiking. I prefer not to think about how my kids will one day rebel against me. That’s a problem for later-Dave.]
The pronatalists do not propose any government actions.
If they did, they’d run into the same problems that have plagued liberal population control organizations for years. The easy population control ideas are all pretty progressive actually. My recollection from the 1990s is that Zero Population Growth focused pretty much entirely on international and domestic funding for family planning education, making contraceptives widely available, and supporting abortion access. Their theory-of-change (IIRC) was that the best route to reducing the rate of population growth lay through promoting women’s reproductive freedom.
The trouble for the population control movement starts as soon as you start considering “what ifs” beyond that theory-of-change. If Ehrlich’s warning is correct (it isn’t) and if public education and personal empowerment don’t slow population growth enough (they arguably have), then you end up pondering coercive government actions through the lens of “well at least it isn’t quite an apocalypse.” You also, under those conditions, might start to notice that you have a bunch of potential coalition partners who are also concerned with (national) population growth. They come at it through a nativist frame, an ethnonationalist frame. But, y’know, your issue is critical and you need bipartisan support, and before you know it your movement has turned into the proverbial nazi bar.
Likewise, take the apocalyptic warnings of the pronatalists seriously and you might eventually start asking “well this is serious, isn’t there something we ought to do beyond encouraging each other to have lots of kids?” And there are easy, liberal answers like generous, government-funded parental leave and universal pre-K (although, ahem, certain pronatalists might worry that everyone could access those programs, even the people with bad genetics). But get past those prosocial policies and things take a real dark turn. If Musk were right about the existential threat posed by “population collapse due to low birth rates”(he isn’t), then you end up in Gilead territory real quick.
I think it’s striking that the pronatalists don’t even bother voicing support for those easy, liberal answers. It seems like they’re adherents to the old California Ideology, believing that there is no problem that cannot be solved by techie entrepreneurs, and no solution ever to be found through policy or regulation.
It makes them laughable, and less effective. If not for the billionaires in their midst (Musk, Thiel… my kingdom for a wealth tax! If they weren’t so rich we would not have to take them so seriously.), this movement would not be worth the attention. But alas, their proximity to power means their half-assed ideas can cause real harm.
The funny thing is, if you drop the techie ideological blinders that presume governments are incapable of crafting any sort of policy response, the solutions to aging national populations become pretty obvious.
Here’s my bold prediction — as the global population ages, and population growth slows, we’ll see the following trends:
In countries with relatively-more-responsive forms of government, social programs that care for the elderly will expand. It will be paid for either through increased taxes on the working-age population or through increased deficits. GDP will temporarily decrease, but governments will take care of their citizenry — particularly when that citizenry is composed of high-propensity voters. It will look less like a civilization-ending crisis than like, well, significant chunks of Florida.
In countries with less-responsive governments/authoritarian societies, people will experience far more cruelty. The elderly population will die without dignity, living in squalor. But, to be blunt, this also won’t be a civilization-ending crisis. The social safety net as a policy innovation is less than a century old. It will be a vicious return to the bad-old-days, not an existential threat to civilization itself.
Cultures, meanwhile, will keep on changing. Same as they always have. Maybe some day we figure out the difference between cultural preservation and nativist ethnonationalism. It will be a long, messy road from here to there.
And, finally, interest in pronatalism will continue to function as sideshow entertainment for techie elites who would prefer to treat the more serious, looming threats to human civilization as Somebody Else’s Problem.
It’s 2023 and these people are inventing new made-up social problems instead of confronting the ones we’ve known about for a generation.
Of all Elon Musk’s ridiculous claims, this seems in fact to be the worst.