In the sustainability era, many see population growth as damaging to economic development. Yet before the days of climate change and environmental degradation, scholars found that a growing population can boost the economy. Elon Musk – himself a proponent of high birth rates – is a good example of why the optimistic view might still be correct.
The 18th century English demographer Thomas Malthus predicted that population growth would eventually lead to famine, disease, death, and hence a contracting population. This view has historically fueled the noxious debate between seculars and religious types regarding family size, with the former using a Malthusian stick to beat fecund Christians and Muslims, accusing them of bringing humanity closer to extinction due to their large families.
The Malthusian conjecture turned out to be wrong because Malthus dramatically underestimated the rate of technological progress, and the two centuries since the demographer’s death have witnessed unprecedented economic growth in tandem with a population explosion.
In 1993, economist and future Nobel laureate Dr. Michael Kremer published a paper titled: Population growth and technological change: one million BC to 1990, wherein he raised a novel objection to the Malthusian model. According to Kremer, the technological progress that had disproven Malthus’ theory was not a random phenomenon – in fact it was to some extent the result of population growth.
The key to Kremer’s argument was that innovations and technological advancements are what economists describe as “non-rival,” meaning that one person benefiting from them in no way diminishes the ability of others to benefit too (like radio broadcasts). The discoveries that change the world for the better are extremely rare, and you have a higher chance of producing one the larger your population, because it is more likely that one of the children being born turns out to be the next Albert Einstein or Steve Jobs.
Therefore, in contrast to the Malthusian model, the Kremerian model predicted that economic growth and population growth go hand in hand, and using data from antiquity to the present, he found support for this hypothesis.
While Malthus wasn’t talking about environmental degradation and climate change during the late 18th century, these new threats to humanity have led to Kremer’s analysis being described as simplistic and obsolete, and the sustainability agenda is to some extent a form of Neo-Malthusianism. Seculars continue to frown at people of faith not just due to a feeling of intellectual superiority, but also because they view the larger families of Christians and Muslims as being reflective of an unethical disregard for the planet’s welfare.
The claim that religion causes higher fertility rates is not without merit. A recent paper by Brown University’s Guillaume Blanc analyzed genealogical data from 18th century France and showed that the process of secularization – the decreasing importance of religion to social and political life – contributed to a significant decrease in fertility, and in line with the Malthusian view, this helped France to maintain living standards comparable to those in Britain, despite the latter undergoing the industrial revolution significantly earlier than their Gallic cousins from across the Channel.
Elon Musk is now trying to turn the tide back against the neo-Malthusians: he recently claimed that declining birth rates are a threat to mankind and called on people to have more babies. Moreover, Musk is no hypocrite: he has six children of his own.
The South African born entrepreneur is very much a walking embodiment of the Kremerian model. Not only is he the sort of one-in-a-billion kind who makes life-changing innovations – those innovations happen to be concentrated in tackling Malthusian problems. His electric cars, mega-batteries, and other technological advancements all extend the planet earth’s shelf-life, while his SpaceX program allows us to dream of ditching earth for a new planet once we’ve milked it for all it’s worth. If the world’s population was only 500 million, and birth rates were two per family, then probabilistically speaking, the likelihood of Musk ever being born would have been much smaller.
But before people of faith use Musk’s neo-Kremerian model as an excuse to have 10 children, it is worth drawing attention to a misconception regarding what religions like Islam prescribe. Having children is generally considered to be a good thing in Islam, and one should not use limited means as an excuse for keeping their family small.
However, one also has a responsibility to have children only if they can raise those children to be righteous members of society, meaning giving them sufficient time and attention. Having children for the sake of having children, and letting them grow up without direction or mentorship, is not what Islam prescribes. Accordingly, perhaps there is a way for theists and atheists to agree on optimal family size.