December 9, 2021 - 7:10am

Elon Musk has described declining birth rates as one of the “biggest threats to civilisation”. Speaking at a Wall Street Journal event earlier this week he said: “If people don’t have more children, civilisation is going to crumble. Mark my words.”

This isn’t the first time he’s issued this warning. In an interview back in September, he remarked that “a lot of people think there are too many people on the planet; in fact there’s too few.” He also reiterated the point on Twitter yesterday.

But is he right? Birth rates are certainly in decline across the world. Yesterday, The Guardian reports that Australia’s total fertility rate (TFR) fell to a record low 1.58 babies per woman in 2020. Though the impact of Covid and lockdowns may have contributed, the latest fall is consistent with a long-term trend. Furthermore, it doesn’t just apply to Australia and the other advanced industrial nations, but to many emerging economies too.  

So far, only a few countries are experiencing outright population decline — because longer life expectancy and immigration is topping up the head count. However, there are limits to both these compensating factors: biological limits in the case of human lifespans and political limits in respect to migration. So, if birth rates remain below the replacement level across two or more generations — and in countries like South Korea they are less than half what is required — then dramatic population decline is inevitable.

Musk is thus absolutely right to raise the alarm. The only question is whether he’ll be listened to. As the most entertaining and outspoken of the tech lords, his opinions can be easily dismissed as Elon being Elon. Indeed, the cynics will accuse him of promoting his own pet projects like the Tesla Bot — a bid to develop a humanoid robot. Getting us to believe in a future where human workers are in chronically short supply would be a good way of attracting investor interest.

But there’s more to Musk than hype. Some of his ventures have already had a transformative impact on their sectors — for instance Tesla on car manufacturing and SpaceX on unmanned spaceflight. Other breakthrough products are promised, including a commercially-viable, fully-automated car and Neuralink, a brain/computer interface that could be used as treatment for brain injuries. His rockets might even get us to Mars.

If these wonders do come to pass then he’ll have done more than any person alive to make the 21st century. It will become increasingly difficult to dismiss either the man or his message. At any rate, his pronouncements on the future ought to be taken more seriously than his current hairstyle.

Peter Franklin is Associate Editor of UnHerd. He was previously a policy advisor and speechwriter on environmental and social issues.