28 June 2019

Mission Earth, not Mars

Population Matters Director Robin Maynard challenges Elon Musk’s claim that the “real issue” is not overpopulation but an “ageing and declining population”.

Few would question Elon Musk’s extraordinary achievements as a visionary thinker and entrepreneur: enabling rapid, secure online payment technology, transforming electric vehicles into attractive supercars with mass-market appeal, and pioneering space travel outside of government control. In a recent tweet, coinciding with the publication of the latest statistics from the UN’s Population Division, Musk blasts off into the sphere of ongoing human population growth, downplaying its impacts upon our currently still living, green and biodiverse planet (compared to the red, dead, distant and deadly one, Mars, that Musk is so preoccupied with).

Musk tweet

The UN projects that the global human population will increase by a further 2 billion over the next 30 years to 9.7 billion, possibly peaking at just under 11 billion by the end of the century. Those are the median figures – the UN’s 95% certainty estimates give a range of a low of 9.4 billion people on our planet by 2100 and a high of 12.7 billion. A difference of over 3 billion people. Other UN projections in the series offer an even greater disparity between high and low projections, depending on a range of factors.

Contrasting to those projections, Musk cites a 2012 article by the highly-respected scientist Jorgen Randers, co-author of the seminal 1972 report Limits to Growth, to support Musk’s view that an “ageing and declining world population” will be the “real issue” by 2050, not overpopulation. This is in direct contradiction to the concerns Randers set out in his article adapted from a lecture given as part of the University of Cambridge’s Sustainable Development series:

“If I could persuade you of one thing, it should be this: the world is small and fragile, and humanity is huge, dangerous and powerful. This is a total reversal of the biblical perspective on humanity, and the way in which man has thought during most of his presence on Earth. But this is the perspective we need to take if we’re to be sure that sustainability emerges or, at least, that the world as we know it survives for a couple of hundred more years.”

Person looking at stars

With 7.7 billion people on Earth currently, our planet is already under considerable stress, as accelerating climate change and biodiversity loss demonstrate. Although Randers’ population projections differ from the UN ones in that he predicted a peak in 2040 at 8.1 billion people, followed by a decline, he is unequivocal about the ongoing negative effects of human population pressure: “…in 2050, I am afraid there will be no real nature outside parks. Most untouched nature will be inside protected areas. Everything outside will either have been cut down or used for agriculture or urban areas.”

He describes his methodology as being “much less of a scientific activity than the type of scenario analysis I commonly do”, and as “educated guesswork”. But he does not shy away from reaching concrete conclusions and proposing clear personal actions:

“First, have fewer children, and that’s particularly important when you’re rich. My daughter, who is 29 and Norwegian, is the most dangerous animal on the surface of the Earth. She consumes between 10-30 times as many resources and generates 10-30 times as much pollution as an Indian child. So, it’s much more important to have one less rich kid than it is to have 10-30 fewer Indians. I’m serious. Population control in the rich world should be the prime focus." 

A positive, personal action and choice supported and promoted by Population Matters, but not one apparently acknowledged or adopted by Elon Musk.