Normally, when Elon Musk talks, I eagerly soak up his big ideas. The world is a better place because of the bold moves he has made with Tesla, SpaceX, the Hyperloop, and even his work with AI. Not all of his ideas hit with clarity (Solar City and The Boring Company, anyone…). But, rarely does he completely miss the mark. Yet, while on stage in Shanghai the other day, at the 2019 World Artificial Intelligence Conference (WAIC), with Alibaba Chairman Jack Ma, Musk veered far from reality and took Ma with him. And people gobbled it up.
“Most people think we have too many people on the planet, but actually, this is an outdated view,” Musk said while on stage with Ma. He went on to say "Assuming there is a benevolent future with AI, I think the biggest problem the world will face in 20 years is population collapse.” Ma agreed saying that "the speed of population decrease is going to speed up. You called it a ‘collapse,’ - “I agree with you.”
Surely Musk and Ma know that the global population is not decreasing. Surely they know that instead is growing at more that 80 million annually. Perhaps they got lost in the need to be provocative on the world stage, and accidentally misspoke? Perhaps they were referring to the decline in the rate of population growth that is going on in more and more nations as women become empowered, educated, integrated in to the workforce and given access to family planning technology. The United Nations Population Division projections have the world population steadily rising from the present 7.7 billion to at least 9 billion souls, by 2050 or so. If we are lucky, the total population might begin to decrease, at that point, as global fertility falls below replacement value. Collapse? Hardly. If we are lucky, humanity will find ways to bend the global population curve downward until it reaches a more sustainable population plateau that might lessen the human ecological footprint to a level that our planet could actually sustain. Unfortunately, however, experts are not confident that growth will end at 9 billion and, the ecological implications of continued growth are dire.
It would be one thing if Musk and Ma were referring to the possibility of a precipitous population collapse due to cataclysmic disease, famine, or ecological disaster. However, it seems clear that they were not. They warn of global population going in to (or already being in?) free fall – collapse - and that something must be done to grow the global population. Ironically, by advocating for continued population growth, they are (unwittingly, I am sure) advocating for a scenario that would only further undermine our planet's long-term ecological carrying capacity. In turn, this would greatly increase the probability of a grimly abrupt population collapse.
Readers may quibble with my assessment of the Earth’s carrying capacity. How many people do you believe the Earth can support? While it is a seemingly simple question, there is no consensus on the basis of estimate we should use to make such a determination. As it turns out, most people actually do not even have the current world population at the top of mind, and many cannot tell you the number within a billion or two or three. After all, what class would you even learn that in? Who reports on it regularly? Why would you know? It is an enormous cultural blind spot, as demonstrated by Musk and Ma.
While climate change has finally established itself in the popular mind, after decades on the fringe, it is only one of many forms of “human footprint” burdening our planet’s ability to support our species. No one seems to track that the continual increase in ecological bad news is most strongly correlated to the 80+ million annual growth in human population. There is a “population taboo” that if not confronted will lead humanity down a dark alley, only to be mugged by its own doppelganger.
We have avoided a real discussion about the Earth’s carrying capacity for far too long. As such, smart folks such as Musk and Ma can be excused for making such ill-informed statements. ONE. LAST. TIME. Going forward, we must explicitly confront our planet’s “people problem,” the endless stream of ecological destruction it will deliver if something is not done, and how we – collectively - can navigate our way to a lower population plateau.