October 25, 2022

In the enduring thought game “Who would you host at a dinner party?”, three men sit at my table: the 21st-century’s Elon Musk and the 20th-century Huxley brothers, scientist Julian and writer Aldous. They would talk about Mars and whether humans should bother with it, about energy and its limits, about artificial intelligence and its possibilities. And they would talk about the future.

The thing is, though, that Elon Musk is the future that the brilliant Huxley brothers spent their lives imagining; Aldous most famously in Brave New World (1932) and science-communicator Julian in a thousand books and articles and broadcasts on the quantity and quality of the human race on planet Earth.

Aldous and Julian would wonder why Mars was still so interesting for someone as clever as Musk. Human habitation of proximate planets was already an old idea for their generation. And not just as a science fiction trope. Emigration to the moon and Mars was tossed around all the time as a possible solution to one of the Huxley’s key political discussion points: overpopulation. Expenditure on settling other planets, Julian was convinced, would do nothing to alleviate the poverty that such crowding brought on Earth. His eminent brother Aldous was also firmly earthbound: neither population, nor hunger, nor land problems were going to be addressed by looking outward from Earth to the celestial bodies.

The trio would, inevitably, talk about population. Musk would probably tell them that, any day now, the world’s population will tick over to eight billion. Julian and Aldous would sit back and look at one another, shocked. In their time, they were both A-list speakers and lobbyists on the great post-war problem of overpopulation. But they had only imagined a future of up to four billion or so.

It is impossible to overstate the whole-Earth scale of the population problem in the years after the Second World War. The planetary crisis, then, — one of energy consumption — was not just similar to our own Anthropocene-crisis, but its direct antecedent. Julian and Aldous Huxley’s generation watched regional and global rates of net population growth accelerate in a manner unimaginable even to their grandfather, the biologist Thomas Henry Huxley. “Darwin’s bulldog”, a fierce supporter of Darwin’s theory of evolution, was already worried in the late 19th century.

In 1957, Julian put it in terms of doubling: one billion in the mid-18th century, two billion by the mid-Twenties, and at its Fifties rate, he forecast, four billion by the Eighties. His brother put the same idea differently. “On the first Christmas Day”, Aldous wrote, there were about 250 million humans; this grew only slowly, so that when the Pilgrim Fathers landed at Plymouth Rock, there were perhaps 500 million. By the time he wrote Brave New World in 1932 there were almost 2 billion people on the planet. Just 27 years later, when he revisited his dystopia, human numbers were approaching 3 billion. That was the figure that sent the Huxley brothers, like so many others, into intellectual and political overdrive.

Aldous wrote Brave New World Revisited in 1958, a non-fiction book naming something that was for him far more terrible than the fictional world he had created decades earlier: “The Age of Overpopulation.” For the Huxley brothers, world population growth was leading inexorably toward a catastrophic planetary future.

At my table, Musk might then lean forward and tell the Huxley brothers that as we approach eight billion on planet Earth in 2022, the average fertility rate has declined to 2.3 births per woman. That’s when the dinner party would either fall apart or come alive. For Elon Musk, this fertility rate is one of the great near-future problems. He tweets: “Population collapse due to low birth rates is a much bigger risk to civilisation than global warming.” He is not alone. We’ve heard quite a bit about an apparent cataclysm, for example in Empty Planet: The Shock of Global Population Decline, by Darrell Bricker and John Ibbitson. In the Huxley era, similar catastrophic books were on the shelves, but they sold under titles like “Standing Room Only”, “Overfill” and “The Population Bomb”.

For Aldous and Julian Huxley, the astonishing fertility rate of 2.3 would be a breathtaking achievement. This was everything they had worked for. Planetary catastrophe had been averted! The future of humans on Earth, safe. Immodest Julian would think that the world had been wise, read his thousands of talks and books and papers on the unprecedented disaster that was population growth, and acted. The Huxley brothers simply couldn’t and wouldn’t understand how this decline could possibly be construed as a global problem.

Late in their lives, on this matter, the brothers were twinned: the same arguments, the same catastrophe, the same popular deployment of Huxley science and politics in every register and outlet possible. While Julian was writing articles on overpopulation for Playboy, Aldous was writing the same for Esquire. While Julian was broadcasting on the BBC, Aldous was speaking to ABC on population and world resources. Both used the widely recognised formula of “death control without birth control”. That is, the easily comprehensible idea that the public health control of infectious disease had been implemented across the world with incredible success especially in the reduction of infant mortality, but without any accompanying programs for birth control. The “balance is out”, as Aldous put it.

In the post-war world, there were a range of reasons for being troubled by world population growth. One was geopolitical, especially as the Cold War unfolded, when population control policies were associated with US-led anti-communism. A higher standard of living, linked to fertility control in then-named third-world economies, was understood to offset hunger and thus political discontent. For the White House, population planning was about ensuring food security and keeping polities this side, not that side, of a communist line. For leaders of newly independent nation-states, not least Jawaharlal Nehru in India, lower fertility rates meant higher standards of living and economic “development”. For any number of economists, lowering fertility rates was a means of averting future wars. For Aldous Huxley, population control was a road to world peace.

For Julian, however, his desire to manage human fertility was largely driven by early environmentalist politics. He sought to save wildlife habitats from encroaching cultivation, all those additional acres turned to the plough to provide grain for ever-growing numbers of humans. He was also driven by a feminist politics of sorts. He argued his whole life that reliable birth control should be available to all women, not just some, and that there was little human freedom for women bearing eight, nine, 10 children out of their worn-out bodies. The good and the bad of population control and family-planning history is well known. Yet we need to recall how recent and unprecedented in human history effective contraception actually is. Julian knew it. His generation and milieu often considered birth control one of the great technological developments of humankind, as significant in the long history of human affairs, he would say, as fire, printing, or electricity: “In time it will change the entire course of history.” It has.

It is sobering to observe how much more sensitive the Huxleys were to the gender dynamics of population policy than Musk and his ilk today. Women around the world are now opting en masse to have fewer children, and to do so later in life. The reasons are multiple: women are marrying later, retaining employment, getting educated, and accessing contraception. But collectively, this is one of the truly phenomenal changes of modern world history. In the UK, for example, the birth rate fell from 5.63 births per woman in the Huxleys’ grandfather’s time to 1.753 in our own. In India, it fell from at least 6.0 to 2.2 births per woman. But if the pro-natalists had their way, and this global trend towards lower fertility were to be reversed, it would be women bearing the brunt of it. And that would be impossible to justify.

As the planet approaches eight billion, the change in fertility rate since the Huxleys’ time means we need not be alarmed, as they were, by global “overpopulation”. Nor should we worry about an incorrectly named global “depopulation”. What we really need to be alarmed by are crude rationalisations for women to breed more. There lie the truly sinister lessons of history.