January 20, 2022 - 11:16am

Have we reached Peak Everything? The great and the good are beginning to realise, nervously, that the illusion of never-ending growth can’t be sustained forever just by printing money. “Quantitative easing” has been deployed with staggering free-handedness since the Great Crash to ward off the unsettling prospect of the whole carousel crashing down. That accelerated again during the pandemic: City AM reported that one fifth of the entire world supply of US dollars was created in 2020 alone.

But a growing chorus of voices and economic papers now warns that a cycle of low fertility will drive not just faltering improvements in living standards but a vicious cycle of decline. In 2020, staggering global declines were reported in fertility rates, and these trends have worsened over the course of the pandemic.

Tesla billionaire Elon Musk is the latest to weigh in on our civilisational duty to have more babies. Musk, himself the father of six sons, is perhaps America’s foremost tech-optimist, driving the SpaceX project that’s launched numerous recent rockets and a stated ambition to colonise other planets.

From Musk’s ‘Believe in the future!’ perspective, the stubborn trend towards human reproductive pessimism is obviously a disaster: “If there aren’t enough people for Earth, then there definitely won’t be enough for Mars,” Musk lamented. The tech world’s Spock contingent was quick off the mark in response. Maybe it’s unfair asking women to have more babies, one suggested, because of the asymmetrical career opportunity cost. He and others argued the solution must surely be synthetic wombs, to make it safer and easier to manufacture new humans.

Bay Area nerds are perhaps unfamiliar with, or indifferent to, how intricate and interdependent an organic process it is gestating a child. As Abigail Tucker sets out in Mom Genes, the developing baby affects its mother and vice versa, in a process more akin to a conversation than a manufacturing process. Mothers and babies co-create one another. It’s not like making biscuits in a machine.

We can’t even make a synthetic human breastmilk that’s anywhere near as good as the real stuff. So quite aside from the obvious ethical horror-show of attempting to develop such a technology, the probability of developing a form of ectogenesis capable of incubating a live human child is low to say the least.

This doesn’t make the fantasy less appealing, to people whose idea of freedom looks like a concerted push to transcend every given limit of humanity. So perhaps it’s unsurprising to find a growing overlap between those who reject the idea of natural limits to our mastery over our own biology and nature, and those who reject the idea that there might be equivalent limits to economic growth.

When economists are increasingly vocal about the threat to growth posed by population decline, the two ineluctably converge. Artificial wombs are proposed as a means of ‘printing’ new human ‘resources’, in response to growing scarcity in the naturally-occurring kind. Human quantitative easing, then, is the logical next intervention to postpone the collapse of a Ponzi scheme no one wants to admit we’re all still feeding.

Mary Harrington is a contributing editor at UnHerd.