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‘Civilization is going to crumble,’ if we don’t have more kids, says Elon Musk

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Elon Musk sounded the alarm about the West’s rapidly declining birth rates last week, worrying that there simply won’t be enough people to do the work needed in a productive society.

“If people don’t have more children, civilization is going to crumble, mark my words,” said Musk, at the Wall Street Journal’s CEO summit. Musk, the world’s richest man and founder of multiple technology companies, was named Time Magazine’s person of the year on Monday.

“One of the biggest risks to civilization is the low birth rate and the rapidly declining birth rate. And yet so many people, including smart people, think that there are too many people in the world and think that the population is growing out of control,” said Musk. “It’s completely the opposite. Please look at the numbers.”

The problem is acute in Canada. The average number of children born to Canadian women dropped to a new low of 1.4 last year, a steep decline from 1.47 children per woman just one year earlier, and well below the natural replacement rate of 2.1 children per woman.

Musk made the comments in a conversation about the recently announced “Tesla Bot,” which is an AI-powered humanoid robot that Tesla hopes will one-day do humanity’s more undesirable jobs.

The robot will be about five-feet-eight-inches tall and weigh 125 pounds, with a walking speed of about eight kilometres per hour and a lifting capacity of about 20 kilograms. Some critics described it as a pie-in-the-sky, dystopian idea, while others suspect it’s simply a joke.

Musk suggested the best fix for the fertility crisis would be for people to simply have more children, but the AI robots could represent another solution. And as the world suffers through a pandemic-inspired labour shortage, Musk sees many more shortages in our future.

“The fundamental constraint is labour. There are not enough people. I can’t emphasize this enough: there are not enough people,” said Musk.

In the wide-ranging half-hour conversation, Musk also decried the spiralling deficits in Washington and explained his vision for the future of autonomous vehicles. He also told the audience of CEOs that he believes the role of government is to be a referee and not a player in the business world, to avoid blocking society’s progress.

With a massive infrastructure recently passed in Washington, D.C., Musk said he would simply “delete” the bill and get back to basics on infrastructure. His preferred bill would focus on highways and airports, he said.

“Especially in cities that are congested, we’ve got to do something to deal with extreme traffic, which I think is some combination of double-deckering freeways and building tunnels. If we don’t do something we will be stuck in traffic forever,” said Musk.

Musk said he is anticipating “one of the biggest transformations ever in human civilization” when autonomous vehicles begin to dominate the roads in the near future. Drivers will become passengers and most of the pain of driving will be taken out of the daily commute, Musk said. That will lead to many more cars on the road and a possible spike in congestion unless governments build more capacity in the highways.

“We don’t have a traffic problem in suburbs, we have a traffic problem on freeways because they are just too small and did not anticipate the size of the urban environments that we currently experience,” said Musk.

He argued that this is the kind of thing government should be focused on rather than, for example, building charging stations for electric vehicles and offering subsidies to people who buy them.

His views on government expenditures are reminiscent of an insight that led to the creation of his SpaceX company. Because NASA funding was allocated by congress, many of the crucial decisions were made according to whether that money would be spent in certain districts, rather than if it would be a useful way to spend it. That has allowed SpaceX to launch its rockets at a significantly lower price tag than NASA.

“They probably will be getting fairly close to launching humans to Mars, which sounds crazy, because if you gave NASA its current budget plus 50 percent they would be nowhere near putting humans on Mars in the next 15 or 20 years,” said Eric Berger, the author of Elon Musk and the Desperate Early Days that Launched SpaceX, on a recent episode of the Political Economy podcast.

James Pethokoukis, who hosts the podcast, recently told Time Magazine that Musk may not articulate his views in the traditional language of partisan politics but that he definitely has a coherent worldview.

“The reason it’s confusing is it’s not on the traditional left-right spectrum. It is a politics of progress,” said Pethokoukis.

“In general, government should just try and get out of the way and not impede progress,” said Musk, at the Wall Street Journal summit.

“There’s not really an effective garbage collection system for removing rules and regulation and so gradually this hardens the arteries of civilization,” said Musk. “So I think government should really be trying hard to get rid of rules and regulations that perhaps had some merit at some point but don’t have merit currently.”

Can we dim the sun to fight climate change? We may have to try

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It would take a maniac or a genius to look at the 1991 eruption of Mount Pinatubo in the Philippines, which belched rapid avalanches of hot ash across hundreds of kilometres, and see the solution to climate change.

After an earthquake shook the ground near Pinatubo, the volcano rumbled for months before releasing an ash cloud that rose 35 kilometres in the air and darkened the countryside. The ash was sucked into a nearby typhoon and spread across the Indian Ocean, with its remnants travelling several times around the globe. Thanks to a warning from U.S. scientists who were monitoring the volcano, the area was evacuated and thousands of lives were saved.

And like any large volcanic eruption, the sky blackened, causing about half a degree Celsius of global cooling.

This demonstration of nature’s power could be a solution to the most vexing problem facing mankind. Or it could be the seeds of another man-made catastrophe.

With global emissions still remaining stubbornly high, some scientists and philanthropists, like Bill Gates, have turned their hopes to a technological solution to cool the earth. The plan, which has existed in different forms since the middle of the 20th century, is simply to dim the sun.

The scheme is breathtakingly simple. Rather than shooting ash into the atmosphere, scientists have proposed spraying tiny sulfur-containing particles that would reflect some of the sun’s radiation before it gets trapped by greenhouse gases.

Some environmentalists worry these geoengineering schemes will only discourage people from cutting carbon emissions, relying on evermore sulfate particles in the air. It’s a fair concern that even the most ardent boosters of solar geoengineering take seriously.

The plan requires constant upkeep and new emissions will require more sun-dimming particles in the atmosphere than older ones. The cooling effects last only a year or two and, if for some reason the effort was halted, the atmosphere would spring back to natural levels of warming in less than a decade, causing enormous levels of rapid warming.

Most proponents of solar geoengineering are banking on big improvements in carbon capture technology to one day suck these emissions out of the atmosphere and slowly scale down the sun-dimming effort. Some scientists point out that there’s no guarantee that this technology will exist and so it would be reckless to rely on it.

Although these fears are real, many environmentalists, scientists, and philanthropists think it’s smart to hedge against humanity failing in its quest to lower emissions.

Whatever the number of Canadians who think fighting climate change is important, they don’t seem keen to sacrifice much to do it. Fossil fuels continue to make up 84 percent of all energy consumed on earth, down only two percentage points from 20 years ago. Any effort to lower emissions and meet the goals of the Paris climate deal would necessarily have to be a global effort, which is not necessarily the case for a sun-dimming program.

This is where geoengineering is both attractive and worrying to people who have studied it.

The plan is straightforward and relatively cheap. It would involve spraying some substance, likely tons of sulfate particles, into the earth’s atmosphere from about ten large aircraft. It would cost about a billion dollars to execute and it is technically possible for a single country to do it alone.

One proponent of the idea boasted that it’s possible to create an ice age at a cost of 0.001 percent of U.S. GDP.

The question of whether a single country should do it alone, whether it’s a moral question or one of political and diplomatic backlash, is much more complicated.

“One of the exciting, one of the horrifying things about geoengineering is that it could in theory, at least, be done by a small group of nations, just a small group of assertive countries. It wouldn’t have to have buy-in from everybody. But it would affect everybody,” said Elizabeth Kolbert, the author of Under a White Sky: The Nature of the Future on the Ezra Klein Show. “And I think in general, if you were looking at good governance, you would say, well, every country would have to have a seat at the table.”

The title of Kolbert’s book refers to the eerie potential of a geoengineered future: an atmosphere full of sun-dimming particles may change the appearance of the sky to a sickly white colour, among an abundance of other strange, possible side effects.

These unintended consequences could be incredibly hard to predict. The eruption of Mount Pinatubo, for example, weakened the usual Indian monsoon, which wreaked havoc with the country’s agriculture. A previous, larger eruption in the 19th century brought summer snow and massively cooled the earth.

“Now, one of the other messages of the book is, even when we think we’re acting responsibly, often we’re intervening in systems that are so complicated that we think we’re doing the right thing, as you suggested before, and things get horribly out of control. And that has happened again and again,” said Kolbert.

“So I do think that stressing humility would probably be a good first step, but it doesn’t prescribe a course of action.”