A Warning About Declining Birth Rates
Time Magazine has just named Tesla CEO Elon Musk as their “Man of the Year.” The Time feature on Musk, the richest man in the world, naturally focuses on Musk’s extraordinary career as the founder and CEO of world-changing corporations like Paypal, Neuralink, SpaceX, and, of course, Tesla.
However, Musk has been in the news recently for another reason: warning the world of the danger posed by collapsing global birth rates. “I can’t emphasize this enough: There are not enough people,” Musk stated during The Wall Street Journal’s CEO Council Summit a couple of weeks ago. “One of the biggest risks to civilization is the low birth rate and the rapidly declining birth rate.”
To say that this is an unusual message coming from a billionaire is an understatement. Since the late 1960s, most of the world’s wealthy elite have more or less bought into the population control ideology, convinced by the doomsday theorizing of the likes of Paul Ehrlich, author of the best-seller The Population Bomb.
Fellow billionaire Bill Gates and his now-ex-wife Melinda Gates, for instance, have committed an enormous amount of their wealth to the cause of reducing the global population. Gates’ recent $1.7 million donation to a research team working on male contraception is the merest tip of the iceberg. In 2017, the Gates Foundation announced that they were giving over $375 million in support of “family planning” over the space of four years, which was only the latest installment of many financial gifts aimed at reducing the population.
Musk, however, is known for an independent streak, with many of his views defying easy categorization. This is not the first time that he has raised the alarm about the detrimental long-term effects of collapsing population numbers. Earlier this year he tweeted, “Population collapse is potentially the greatest risk to the future of civilization,” linking to a Wall Street Journal article on falling U.S. birth rates.
In fact, he has repeatedly addressed the issue since at least 2017. In some 2019 remarks, he noted that “most people think we have too many people on the planet, but actually, this is an outdated view.”
People are Valuable
Musk is right. Although he may be the most high-profile person raising the alarm about depopulation, more and more political figures and economists are starting to wake up to the reality that a world without babies poses enormous challenges and risks.
A study published last year in The Lancet, one of the world’s most prestigious medical journals, predicted a “jaw-dropping” crash in global fertility by 2100. As the BBC reported, “the researchers expect the number of people on the planet to peak at 9.7 billion around 2064, before falling down to 8.8 billion by the end of the century.”
“That’s a pretty big thing; most of the world is transitioning into natural population decline,” says researcher Prof. Christopher Murray. “I think it’s incredibly hard to think this through and recognise how big a thing this is; it’s extraordinary, we’ll have to reorganise societies.”
Whereas the overpopulation doomsayers view people as a liability, what Musk recognizes is that even from a purely practical perspective people are also (and predominantly) an asset. That is, people are not merely biological beings that consume resources. They are also intelligent beings who use their ingenuity and creativity to produce good things, and to change the world for the better.
This is not to say that it is completely unreasonable to be concerned about the pragmatic challenges posed by rapid population growth. In Evangelium Vitae, even Pope St. John Paul II acknowledged that some poorer countries “generally have a high rate of population growth, difficult to sustain in the context of low economic and social development, and especially where there is extreme underdevelopment.” However, in the face of these challenges, the Holy Father noted, creative politicians must work hard to implement “programmes of cultural development and of fair production and distribution of resources” instead of “anti-birth policies.” (no. 16)
Indeed, despite the consistent fear-mongering that has accompanied population growth ever since Thomas Malthus published his “Essay on the Principle of Population” in 1798, a growing population has not ushered in the apocalyptic disease and starvation that Malthus predicted. Instead, the past few centuries have seen unprecedented advances in human health and well-being, with the widespread eradication of childhood disease, enormous increases in longevity, and reductions in global hunger that have defied the predictions of even the sunniest optimists.
Even someone like Musk can see that human beings are something truly special, and that any temptation to view humans as resource-consuming “parasites” – one thinks of Agent Smith’s rant in the film The Matrix – is based upon a catastrophic misunderstanding not only of the intrinsic dignity of every human being, but also of the practical facts of how humans consume resources: not with the uncontrolled rapacity of a horde of locusts, but with intelligence and foresight.
A Catholic View of Population Issues
If even a non-Christian like Musk can see that the overpopulation ideology is catastrophically mistaken, we must go deeper still. Within the Christian worldview, not only are individual human persons potential practical assets, but they are also something much, much greater: beings made in the image and likeness of God.
As the Catechism teaches, “[Man] alone is called to share, by knowledge and love, in God’s own life… This is the fundamental reason for his dignity… Being in the image of God, the human individual possesses the dignity of a person, who is not just something, but someone.” (paragraphs 356-357)
Rooted in a rich understanding of the inexpressible dignity of every individual human person, the Catholic Church has repeatedly warned against a simplistic approach to addressing complex problems that assumes that eliminating the human beings who suffer from those problems is the answer. In even the best-case scenario, this view inevitably leads to a cynical paternalism that robs developing nations of their freedom, and in the worst case, to horrific human rights abuses, such as the forced abortion and sterilization policies we have seen in places like China and India.
‘‘We must renounce the sophist view which holds that ‘to be many is to condemn ourselves to be poor,’” Pope St. John Paul II said in remarks at the opening of the World Food Summit in 1996. ‘‘It would be illusory to believe that an arbitrary stabilization of the world population, or even its reduction, could solve the problem of hunger directly.”
In Evangelium Vitae, the saintly pope compared globalist leaders who push population control on developing nations to the Pharaoh who ordered the first-born sons of the enslaved Israelites to be killed at birth. He wrote:
Today not a few of the powerful of the earth act in the same way. They too are haunted by the current demographic growth, and fear that the most prolific and poorest peoples represent a threat for the well-being and peace of their own countries. Consequently, rather than wishing to face and solve these serious problems with respect for the dignity of individuals and families and for every person’s inviolable right to life, they prefer to promote and impose by whatever means a massive programme of birth control. Even the economic help which they would be ready to give is unjustly made conditional on the acceptance of an anti-birth policy. (no. 16)
The Holy Father added that any effort to address population questions must “take into account and respect the primary and inalienable responsibility of married couples and families.” Certainly, political leaders can never “employ methods which fail to respect the person and fundamental human rights, beginning with the right to life of every innocent human being.” (no. 91)
“It is therefore morally unacceptable to encourage, let alone impose, the use of methods such as contraception, sterilization and abortion in order to regulate births,” he added. (no. 91)
Musk is on the Right Track
It goes without saying that Musk’s views are no approximation of the richness of the Catholic view. At the end of the day, Musk is only looking at the problem from a purely practical point of view, drawing our attention to the fact that falling birth rates portend a rapidly diminishing work force, an aging population, reduced economic output, reduced tax revenue, huge demographic shifts, etc.
However, he is on the right track. In acknowledging that humans are a resource more than a liability, he is at least partway towards a deeper understanding of the human person than the likes of Bill Gates, who has dedicated his life to ensuring that there are no more humans than he deems ideal.
“Be fruitful and multiply,” God told Adam and Eve in Genesis. This comes immediately after the passage which reads: “And God said, let us make man in our image, after our likeness … So, God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them.” (Genesis 1:28; 26-27)
Every human born is not just another mouth to feed but is an image of God Himself, a spark of the divine on earth, endowed with rationality, and a spiritual soul capable of intimate union with God Himself. At an earthier level, every human being is another potential mother, father, daughter, son, friend, another employee, taxpayer, inventor, and creator. Every human life is a life of inexpressible richness: of triumphs, sorrows, joys, accomplishments. Every human born has the ability to give something to the world that no other person can give.
Here, I am reminded of Pope Benedict XVI’s words in Caritas in Veritate:
When a society moves towards the denial or suppression of life, it ends up no longer finding the necessary motivation and energy to strive for man’s true good. If personal and social sensitivity towards the acceptance of new life is lost, then other forms of acceptance that are valuable for society also wither away. The acceptance of life strengthens moral fiber and makes people capable of mutual help. By cultivating openness to life, wealthy peoples can better understand the needs of poor ones, they can avoid employing huge economic and intellectual resources to satisfy the selfish desires of their own citizens, and instead, they can promote virtuous action within the perspective of production that is morally sound and marked by solidarity, respecting the fundamental right to life of every people and every individual. (no. 28)
And so, rather than reacting to human life with fear, as the population controlling elite have done for so long, we ought, as a civilization, to rejoice in every new life, and to reject the technocratic temptation that says we can build a better world by violently yoking nature to our narrow purposes. For, as Musk has rightly warned, we may learn all too soon that there are unpleasant consequences to our short-sighted hubris.
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Father Shenan J. Boquet was ordained in 1993 and is a priest of the Houma-Thibodaux Roman Catholic Diocese in Louisiana, his home state, where he served before joining HLI as its President in August 2011. Father Boquet earned a BA from Saint Joseph Seminary College, a Master of Divinity (MDiv) from Notre Dame Seminary Graduate School of Theology, a Certification Program in Health Care Ethics from the National Catholic Bioethics Center, and a Master of Science in Bioethics (MSBe) from the University of Mary in Bismarck. In 2018, Father Boquet was awarded an honorary visiting professorship by the Benedict XVI Catholic University in Trujillo, Peru. He is available for interviews and bookings on behalf of HLI by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org.