I’m going to go out on a limb and say, if you’ve found your way to this post, you’ve probably encountered tweets like this from Elon Musk:
Well…it’s bullshit. Sort of. Mostly 😂
I’ve been noodling on writing this post for months, and when Scott Alexander covered it recently in his newsletter (and frankly he went deeper into this than I plan to, so go read that as when you’re done here; or read it first, whatever floats your boat).
I’m not going to rehash all the ground Scott covered, but I do want to drill down into one particular part of this, the economic concerns related to too many old folks, and not enough young, working, tax paying folks. This is actually a valid concern, but…
It needs a non-intuitive solution.
Elon (and Mike Solana, and numerous others) would have you believe that the solution is BREED MORE, and that’s just dumb as shit. Yes, it’s one possible solution, but it’s actually a piss poor one.
Three key reasons.
One: Carrying Capacity
We do not know the actual carrying capacity of our planet (the number of people the planet can support indefinitely, self-sustaining). We do not know this in part because there are too many variables for us to calculate (known and unknown), and too much uncertainty, but also in part because the number is itself variable depending on how people are living, what resources are being used, what technologies we create, and much more.
There are estimates though, but covering a WIDE range. It could be as little as 500 million. It could be a trillion.
We just don’t know.
Also, when it comes to the effects of climate change (which is heavily influenced by population size), we simply don’t know where the tipping point is, the point of no return beyond which the planet cascades to a point where it can no longer support us. This is a rather dangerous known unknown.
It is now crystal clear not only that global warming is a real thing, but that it is human caused, that it is escalating, that it might be farther along than we thought, and that every additional human born on this planet, especially into first world countries, puts additional strain on the system.
Using paper straws and recycling more and not flying as much and driving an electric car (or having no car) and on and on and on, the impact of these individual things, even in aggregate, pales in comparison to the climate saving effect of having fewer children:
Seeing as we’re all stuck on this one planet, and if we fuck it up we and all our descendants are screwed, from a risk analysis perspective it’s probably safer to assume the optimal carrying capacity is on the lower end of the spectrum, and behave accordingly.
BREED MORE is thus unwise to say the least :/
Two: What Got Us Here Won’t Get Us There
This may actually be one of our biggest problems as a species, our tendency to get into a rut and then vigorously defend it as the only possible way to live…only for people to get old, die, and a new generation finds that no, in fact, that was not optimal nor the only way to live.
Just like in a game, where you often need to switch tactics as you reach certain points, in the game of life you can’t stick to one tactic.
For many countries, especially the US, their social support system (social security, disability, Medicare, Medicaid, etc.) are funded much like a Ponzi scheme, with the money being paid into the system from people working now being used to pay out to folks who are already retired or in need. It literally robs Peter to pay Paul, with a promise that Peter will get his later, hopefully, maybe.
The problem is, that money is being VERY poorly handled, and the costs to provide the necessary services are increasing so fast that the funds to pay for it, despite new influxes, can’t possibly keep up.
In the US at least, these social system funds will be exhausted within a decade, give or take.
This will result in retirement age being pushed out, which means more older folks working, which may well mean fewer jobs and fewer senior roles open to younger folk, which is a whole set of domino issues that are going to cascade into a real fucking mess.
It doesn’t have to be that way though.
We’re operating with a shitty system that needs to change, with incentives all out of whack, and it’s not going to change if we just keep things going as-is, which is all “breed more” would really do; same old same old, more human batteries, Ponzi scheme go brrrrrrr.
Most of that money just goes into the pockets of pharma companies and insurance companies and all the other leeches attached to a system that frankly can’t afford to allow ANY leeches to suck it dry. This is our health and wellbeing we’re talking about, and just sticking with the status quo here is absolutely fucking awful.
No more same old same old.
Fuck that noise.
If I’m being blunt (when am I not?), only a post-scarcity economy providing Universal Basics all around (NOT universal basic income though, I make a distinction), as that is needed to fully negate any survival related fears and truly unleash the full potential of human creativity, which is going to be absolutely critical for us to not only survive, but thrive long-term.
But wait, there’s more!
Three: It Would Likely Just Accelerate “Idiocracy”
The Reverse Flynn effect, Dysgenics, Idiocracy, call it what you want—for a variety of reasons, the human population is getting dumber.
Part of the reason is that the wealthiest, most successful, most intelligent people tend to have the least number of children, while the poorest, least intelligent, and least successful people tend to have the most. And with housing costs, vehicle costs, college costs, and medical costs rising rapidly, not to mention all the other things inflation is inflating, having kids is becoming more and more expensive (and for many not financially feasible), regardless of how smart they are or aren’t.
This is not a good thing…but also not really a new thing either. Average intelligence was likely only really rising due to better pre-natal and natal nutrition (Folic acid, Iodine, etc.), and perhaps some population-level educational advances that better equipped folks to answer IQ test questions.
What is new though is all the systems we’ve put in place to effectively neuter nature, to negate a large portion of the weeding out system of survival of the fittest–though survival of the friskiest is clearly still going, even that isn’t quite what it used to be.
But no matter how you slice it, being highly intelligent is, and likely has always been, a statistically rare thing.
In part because of the above stats around who breeds the most, in part because the more intelligent you are the more you tend to question sacred stories/traditions/status quo (we all know what happens to heretics…), and in part because intelligence is actually both a survival and a procreative disadvantage in various ways…and probably numerous other things besides.
To wrap it up, there is no underpopulation crisis, certainly not one that puts our entire species even remotely at risk.
It is absolutely, positively NOT the biggest threat our civilization is facing 🤣
There ARE some economic issues we need to sort out, since the system that got us here (growth at all costs, rob Peter to pay Paul) won’t get us there (post-scarcity, universal basics). And make no mistake, if we can’t figure out how to get to post-scarcity, we’re most likely fucked anyway, more people or no.
So to be fair, failure to solve those economic issues in a way other than grow grow grow WILL cause a crisis in some areas…but we’re not there yet, and if we can pull our heads out of our asses, we’ll never be there.
But no matter how you slice it, Elon and his ilk’s injunction to BREED MORE is just fucking dumb 🤡