Though Ehrlich opposed poverty, he never pushed for a redistribution of wealth. To him, people were best described in numbers, like butterflies and other insects. His remedies for overpopulation were draconian: steep taxes on diapers, mass sterilization, and the addition of sterility agents to food exported to foreign populations. In 1969, Stewart Brand, one of Ehrlich’s Stanford protégés, told an interviewer at an overpopulation protest, “We’d like to see people have fewer children—and better ones.”
In 1971, Garrett Hardin, who had a PhD from Stanford in microbiology, went further. In a New York Times opinion piece, Hardin argued flatly for stripping women of “the right to breed.” The Southern Poverty Law Center now calls Hardin’s writings “frank in their racism and quasi-fascist ethnonationalism.”
MUSK GRABBED the population panic mic around 2020. He sounded contrarian, even papal. Though he had elsewhere expressed indifference to caring for babies—and has been disowned by one of his 10 children—he was quoted in The New York Times as saying “babies are supercool.” Furthermore, by siring a big brood, he told the Journal audience, “I’m trying to set a good example.”
Musk also announced, on the Lex Fridman Podcast, that “sex without procreation … is quite a silly action.” Some Catholic traditionalists pounced, claiming Musk had gone full Humanae Vitae. Meanwhile, the modern NoFap set, who refrain from masturbation in an effort to channel their mojo into nobler things, also claimed Musk as a brother.
Others on the right are similarly panicking about birth rates. J. D. Vance, the Ohio-based venture capitalist, mewled to Tucker Carlson last year that “childless cat ladies” run the United States. To promote pregnancies in such ladies, Vance—his logic shaky—proposed an “outright ban” on pornography. “If we want a healthy ruling class in this country … we should support more people who actually have kids,” he said.
Population concerns rattle Carlson too. For years he’s been preoccupied with unnamed ghouls who are disappearing white people to replace them with “new people, more obedient voters from the Third World.” The culprits are white women of his own social class for not being fruitful enough. In July, Carlson told the journalist Ben Smith that he’s “not mad at Black people” because he reserves that vitriol for a “38-year-old female white lawyer with a barren personal life.” “I hate you!” he shouted merrily.
Vance and Carlson are deep in the far-right tank, but Musk may never enjoy the full conservative embrace. His idea of cool babies, after all, extends beyond white babies. In an address to Republican fat cats in August, Musk faulted the party for its stand against immigrants and urged the GOP to show more compassion.
This wasn’t as sweet as it seemed. Immigrants, to Musk, are just a bigger labor pool; he welcomes anyone who will do manufacturing grunt work for long hours and low pay. If birth rates shot up, but the new people, instead of working for him, subsisted on government programs, Musk—the notorious tax-avoider—might change his tune.
Every population ideology eventually skews sinister. Opponents of underpopulation, just like opponents of overpopulation, issue decrees in their thunderous way simply to conceal a monstrous program of eugenics. Ehrlich wanted fewer poor people; Vance and Carlson want more white ruling-class people; Musk wants more pro bono laborers. None of them want actual warm-blooded people, the oddballs we learn from, collaborate with, even love. I can’t emphasize this enough. Caring about butterflies or bots does not mean caring about humans. Mark my words.
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This article appears in the November 2022 issue. Subscribe now.