Last Wednesday, venture capitalist Marc Andreesen went on the Joe Rogan Experience for a wide-ranging conversation that eventually landed on the latest billionaire obsession: birth rates.
“Right now there's a movement afoot among the elites in our country that basically says anybody having kids is a bad idea, including having elites have kids is a bad idea because of climate,” Andreesen told Rogan, who cut in to say Elon Musk doesn’t believe in that. “Exactly, Elon has been surfacing this very issue in a very useful way.”
Andreesen was referring to Musk’s insistence on telling the world about his breeding kink, an effort that has picked up since Insider revealed the Tesla chief executive had secret twins with one of his executives. “Doing my best to help the underpopulation crisis. A collapsing birth rate is the biggest danger civilization faces by far,” Musk tweeted shortly after the story broke.
Musk’s fascination with birth rates is more than a bit strange. Musk doesn’t seem to follow the lead of other conservatives who insist we must have more children within nuclear families to preserve Western civilization and its values. Musk has nine children: five with his first wife before an acrimonious divorce; two with Canadian musician Grimes; and the secret twins with Neuralink executive Shivon Zilis.
For Musk and others, the future is in growth. After all, Musk and other reactionary billionaires have thrown millions at groups centered on longtermism, a cultish philosophy which believes “nothing matters more, ethically speaking, than fulfilling our potential as a species of ‘Earth-originating intelligent life’.” The philosophy hinges on doing whatever you can to maximize the well-being of humanity millions, billions, and trillions of years into the future, as well as mitigating risks to civilization and the species. And as Musk has said, he believes low birth rates are “the biggest danger civilization faces by far.”
“There’s a long history in elite Western thinking about this question of whether there should be kids, who has kids. Hundred years ago, all the smartest people were very into eugenics," Andreesen told Rogan. "And then later on that became something called population control. And then in the ‘70s it became something called degrowth. And now we call it environmentalism and we basically say as a result, human beings are bad for the planet, not good for the planet.”
To his credit, Rogan pushed back a bit here, and asked if you can actually equate environmentalism to eugenics. Andreesen argued that eugenics was discredited by Nazi Germany's interest in it, but gave birth to a focus on controlling population levels.
“The programs for population control tended to be oriented at the same countries people had been worried about with eugenics. A lot of the same people who were worried about the eugenics of Africa suddenly became worried about the population control of Africa,” Andreesen explains. “That led to kinda this whole modern thing about African philanthropy, kind of all flows out of that tradition. But it all kind of rolls up to this big question, which is like: are more people better or worse? And if you’re a straight up environmentalist, it’s pretty likely right now you’re in the position that more people leave the planet worse off.”
Andreesen is right when he points out that eugenics was not only popular before the ascension of Nazi Germany but that elements of it re-emerged later on. The United States had a long history and central role within the global eugenics movement, going so far as to forcibly sterilize one-third of the women in Puerto Rico between the 1930s and 1970s. Books like William Vogt’s Road to Survival and Paul Ehrlich’s Population Bomb may have helped catalyze the modern environmental movement, but they also birthed a neo-Malthusian movement centered on the belief that humanity's population growth (especially among poor, non-White populations) was wreaking environmental devastation as well as sustaining poverty worldwide.
The ideas that fueled forced sterilization and the revival of Malthusiasn apocalyptic thought have persisted in some corners, even though the ideas have been long discredited and its concerns proven wrong.
One of the greatest science fiction writers alive, Kim Stanley Robinson, flirted with an optimal global population in his book Ministry of the Future (2 to 4 billion), and argued in a Washington Post column that declining birth rates and a smaller population might actually be desirable. He has, however, also proposed alternatives where there isn’t a reduction in the population’s size and instead a mass migration to cities to minimize our global footprint.
Garrett Hardin's landmark Tragedy of the Commons essay, which argues human agency must exclude reproductive control if we are to halt ecological degradation, has persisted to support arguments for privatization despite Nobel economist Elinor Ostrom disproving Hardin's argument decades ago and showing this sort of degradation did not hinge on population growth, but on how commons were used and managed—on whether it was by a state or a corporation, anonymously or transparently. This has long been the leftist response to eugenics and population control narratives: That there is enough to go around, and the problem is distribution.
Though Andreesen is, rightly, criticizing the environmentalist strain of eugenics thinking, he's still buying into the myths that animated those beliefs. Musk’s and Andreesen’s concern about low birth rates is not a rebuke of the eugenicist logic but an affirmation of one of its core subtexts: that the issue isn't who gets what or why, but how many people are getting things.
Eugenicists believed in the selective breeding of humanity promoted through policy, Andreesen believes more breeding of humanity should be promoted presumably through policy—both obscure that the political order they want those humans to live in isn’t one concerned with how to improve the lives of those humans so much as how to use them to somehow, someway, fix the future.
The question is not and has never been: How many people are on Earth? Obsessing about population in either direction brings us to unsavory dead ends. Billionaires' focus on increasing population leads us to wonder who can afford to have more children and which countries can support programs to encourage it, and trying to decrease population leads us down a path of determining who gets to procreate and who doesn't. Both options are essentially technocratic and distract us from the central issue of who controls the levers of power, who hoards the money, and who decides who gets more or less.
A world with more people is fine, but what sort of world do Andreesen and Musk want us to build for them? It is a world dominated by speculative digital assets, the privatization and commodification of daily life, the corporate monopolization of outer space, and control of resource allocation rested in the hands of capitalists.