by Edward Ring
In 1968, Stanford biologist Paul Ehrlich published The Population Bomb, a book extrapolating global population growth data to predict a catastrophe as humanity’s demand for resources outstripped supply. The book became a bestseller and catapulted Ehrlich to worldwide fame. But today, just over a half-century later, humanity faces a different challenge. We are in the early stages of a population crash.
Ehrlich’s basic math wasn’t necessarily flawed. In 1968, the world population was 3.5 billion, and today the total number of humans has more than doubled to just over 8 billion. Anyone with a basic understanding of exponential growth can appreciate that if human population doubles every 50 years, within only a few millennia, an unchecked ball of human flesh would be expanding in all directions into the universe at the speed of light. Which means, at some point, Malthusian checks will apply.
But where extrapolation yielded panic, reality has delivered something completely different. Today population growth is leveling off almost everywhere on earth, and the cause of that decline started, ironically, back in the 1960s when Ehrlich wrote his book. The reasons for this are subtle, because the only ultimate determinant of population growth is the average number of children a generation of women are having, and the impact of that and other variables take decades to play out.
In the late 1960s, the United States, along with most Western nations, had just moved out of its baby boom years, that period from 1946 through 1964, when women were still having lots of babies. Having grown up during the Great Depression, followed by a world war, the choice to have large families may have been a response to the adversity these women and men experienced as they came of age. That theory is borne out by subsequent history.
Over the past 50 years, in a pattern that has been repeated around the world, as prosperity increased, the average number of children per woman of childbearing age has decreased. The chart below provides hard evidence of this correlation. Tracking data per nation, the vertical axis is the average number of children per woman. The horizontal axis is the median income. A clear pattern emerges. In extremely poor nations, birth rates remain at Ehrlichesque levels. But once a nation’s median income rises barely above poverty, at around $5,000 per year, the average number of children per woman drops below replacement level.
One may view this chart and conclude that if an average of 2.1 children per woman is necessary to keep a population stable, this cluster of nations averaging around 1.5 children per woman can’t be that bad. But that reasoning ignores basic math. At a replacement rate of 1.5 per woman, for every 1 million people of childbearing age living in a nation today, there will only be 420,000 great-grandchildren. This means that nation’s population will drop to 42 percent of what it is today in less than a century. And the numbers get worse very fast.
South Korea’s current fertility per woman, for example, is a dismal 0.81, and those are extinction-level numbers. At that rate of reproduction, for every 1 million Koreans of childbearing age today, there will only be 66,000 great-grandchildren. South Korea is on track to disappear in less than a century.
This collapse is just now becoming apparent in overall population numbers because it is only when a numerically superior older generation, the product of fecundity, begins to die that absolute totals begin to drop. As baby boomers, known to demographers as the “pig in the python,” reach the end of their lifespans, the consequences of the decade decline in birth rates will finally be reflected in dramatic downward shifts in total population. That process is already underway.
In China, a nation that enforced a “one child” policy from 1979 until 2015, absolute population decline has begun. With a current fertility rate of 1.3 (possibly lower, estimates vary), China’s population peaked in 2021 at 1.4 billion and is projected to decline to possibly as low as 488 million by the end of this century. This decline is exacerbated by the fact that among China’s youth, men outnumber women by about 120 to 100, thanks to “illegal gender selection” that was widespread during the one-child era.
In the United States and most Western nations, the solution to collapsing birth rates has been to import people. To pursue this policy to its ultimate conclusion is to replace Americans of European descent—along with Asian Americans and Latino Americans—with African migrants, insofar as the Sub-Saharan nations of Africa remain in desperate poverty and hence retain skyrocketing, youthful populations. And to be clear, this is merely a statement of demographic fact based on current data.
Data also indicates that once migrants arrive in America and other prosperous nations within a generation, they too experience crashing fertility rates. This means that importing people into prosperous nations does not solve a nation’s demographic challenges, it only postpones that reckoning. Meanwhile, a new problem arises as these developed countries can only maintain economic stability if they ensure the African countries they are using as human “farms” never escape desperate poverty (e.g. their average income never rises above $5,000 a year).
These are the challenges posed by post-prosperity population collapse in any nation that successfully rises out of poverty. There are three choices: Either go extinct within the next century, buy some time by replacing your own citizens with foreigners from poverty-stricken nations, or figure out how to convince women in prosperous societies to have more children.
Lifeboats to Survive a Post-Crash World
While the severity of the looming population collapse in developed nations is plain to see and beyond serious debate among demographers, it remains virtually ignored by politicians and the media. This doesn’t mean there aren’t private citizens who have decided to do something about it. Earlier this month, I spoke with Malcolm Collins. He and his wife Simone are using a fortune they earned as technology entrepreneurs to help support people who want larger families. His observations help illuminate the underlying reasons why prosperity correlates with low fertility, and he begins to offer strategies to reverse the trend.
American Greatness: When did you first become aware of population collapse?
Malcolm Collins: Back in 2015, I was working as a [venture capitalist] in South Korea and modeling their economic conditions. I realized that they were facing a 95 percent drop in population within the next century. There was no 50-year timeline to predict for the South Korean economy, because there won’t be a country in 50 to 60 years.
Coming back to the U.S. was like coming back in time to bring two messages from the future. One, it will not fix itself. Nobody has systemically reversed the decline. And two, even when it is incredibly severe, nobody panics because it isn’t immediately obvious. Fertility collapse leads to more fertility collapse, and then you have population collapse. China is within 10 years of getting crazy; they could go full Handmaid’s Tale to cope.
AG: What do you mean when you say the leveraged growth economic model that nations have relied upon for the last 75 years is dead?
MC: Let’s say you make a $10 investment, and $2 is equity and $8 is debt. If that investment’s value grows by 20 percent, you have doubled your money. But if the investment just shrinks by 10 percent, you have lost half your money. The reason why our economy has grown is that worker quantity has gone up exponentially and productivity has gone up arithmetically. If the population declines exponentially then we will deal with an economy that is declining on average with brief moments of uptick, which is the exact opposite of what we’ve had for the last 75 years.
AG: Can artificial intelligence make up for the loss of an expanding workforce?
MC: A.I. is as likely to kill us as solve all our problems. Most of the people familiar with A.I. developments are A.I. apocalypticists. Best case, A.I. will replace units in the economy. It might allow us to add units the same way the Fed adds dollars.
AG: So when we discuss demographics, A.I. is the elephant in the room?
MC: There are a lot of elephants in the room. We could talk all day about endocrine disruptors and their impact on fertility.
AG: In Peter Ziehan’s recent book, The End of the World is Just the Beginning, he claims North America will escape most of the problems coming to the rest of the world. Do you agree?
MC: North America will come out differentially well, but it will still be much worse off than it is today. America will have more power and will consolidate power, but the average American will have a quarter of what they did. Globalization was amazing for us, we bought cell phones that were manufactured overseas by workers making 10 cents per hour. What is essentially slavery all over the world has enabled us to live well for the last 50 years. It’s going to be like Byzantium when Rome fell. The Byzantines were better off than the Romans, but they were still worse off than they’d been.
AG: What are the primary causes of a post-prosperity population crash?
MC: It is most correlated to wealth and gender equality. In earlier eras, another kid was another hand in the factory or helper on the farm. Today, especially in urban environments, every individual kid no longer adds incrementally to a person’s quality of life. Today you need an exogenous motivator to have kids, such as religion or ethnic pride.
The other core reason is we have structured our economy to organically milk every individual worker for the maximum productivity they can provide, and we don’t think long-term. A free market economy organically determines what it needs to pay someone to get them to not spend time with their family or their spouse; it naturally selects the minimum amount to pay to get the maximum amount of time.
When we look at the data, there is no intrinsic reason to have two kids or more, only exogenous reasons. What is relevant to us as pronatalists is the people that want to have big families. If you have one-third of the population having no kids, which is about typical in developed nations, and one-third only having two kids, then the final one-third has to have four kids or more for the population to stay stable.
AG: Can you describe the process whereby nations (mostly African) in poverty may lower their birth rates?
MC: If you look at the African immigrant community, you see what you see in the rest of the world. Once they arrive in prosperous nations, their birth rates drop. As for the remaining high-fertility African nations, either they become prosperous and begin rapidly depopulating, or they will remain in poverty and become irrelevant as the developed world begins collapsing and no longer invests in them in order to extract resources. To the extent Africans come to the U.S. and do keep a high birth rate, they will be conservative Christians. They may become the biggest defenders of Christianity.
AG: Coming back then to the developed world, you have used the term “sterilizing mimetic packages.” What does that mean?
MC: Mimetics is how we look at ideas and concepts as evolving entities. Mimetic packages coevolved with humans and became symbiotic. They positively modified human fitness. For example, across religious traditions, you see arbitrary denial rituals such as Lent. Every culture has an immune system to protect people from sterilizing mimetic viruses, but when you go out today and look at the modern Unitarian Universalists, Progressive Reform Jews, or feminists—scratch beneath the surface, they all hold the same views and values about the world. This was not true 30 years ago. They have been hollowed out by the virus.
AG: What do you mean by “the virus.”
MC: What happened is our culture, in academia and social media, now confronts an alliance of movements that are all the same religion beneath the surface. Some call it wokeism, but that understates the scale of the forces arrayed against us. It is difficult to fight. This alliance of movements has created what is analogous to a hospital that has evolved a superbug, a mimetic virus that infects humans and convinces them that all they should do with their lives is spread the mimetic virus of wokeism, and signal to others how infected they are. People may think of the virus as wokeism although the sterilizing effect it has is more complicated than that.
In the past mimetic sects used to just burn heretics at the stake, but the presence of wokeism is so pervasive that if it is stopped in one place, the virus starts rerouting itself to the remaining nodes within a network. If one node falls prey to an antivirus, the other nodes just disconnect. To stop the superbug we face today, you have to cut once and cut deep, everywhere.
AG: How will some people and groups escape this and how do we avoid what you have referred to as “authoritarian population clusters” being a consequence of that?
MC: People who are resistant to sterilizing mimetic packages are usually people who have more of a propensity to dehumanize people different from themselves and outside beliefs they don’t immediately share. They have an intrinsic disgust reaction to people who aren’t part of their cultural unit. This prevents them from being deconverted, i.e., infected with values that contradict their belief—typically either faith-based or tribal—in traditional families and childbearing. Our challenge is to help communities and cultures develop an immunity to the woke supervirus without having to rely on the dehumanizing extremes that have evolved over millennia as a survival mechanism.
AG: What are you doing to create clusters of above replacement communities?
MC: We have to create a new culture. Our goal is to experiment with this. Can it be done? The answer is maybe. So far, nobody has ever created a birth rate stable multicultural system in a post-prosperity world.
Ways to Increase Birth Rates
The concept of exponential growth easily quantifies just how decisively a single cluster of high-birth-rate individuals can change the population trajectory of the world. With three children already born, and dozens of healthy frozen embryos waiting for activation, Malcolm and Simon Collins intend to have a large family. A very large family. And the math works, as he pointed out. If one family with eight children can spawn descendants that themselves all have eight children, after 11 generations—in less than 300 years—they would number 8.5 billion.
For this reason, Collins believes that over time, religious communities will again become the dominant demographic group in America and around the world. White evangelical Christians, an endangered and embattled minority in present-day America, will outbreed their progressive antagonists. This could be reflected in voting results within a generation. Within a century or two, based on current trends, devout Christians, along with devout Jews, may inherit the earth.
Collins was emphatic, however, that the message they are attempting to spread was not exclusionary. Their goal is to help people overcome the barriers to having children to preserve all cultures. South Korea is only one obvious example of population collapse. Within the United States, much smaller subcultures—for example, the many tribes of Native Americans already small in number—face population collapse.
The pronatalist organization the Malcolm and Simone Collins have established, with the unsubtle URL “pronatalist.org,” is devoted to making it easier for people to have children. The organization, still in its early stages of development, aims to offer resources on several fronts. They are working with partners to make reproductive technology more widely available, as well as egg and sperm donation and surrogacy. At the same time, they are engaging in fertility planning advocacy based on a concern that most women aren’t aware of how soon they should either bear children or freeze their eggs.
Pronatalist.org is also working to develop urban daycare programs based not only on a shortage of affordable daycare services but also the lack of high-trust institutions in cities. They are developing a “full stack” education system that will help rescue children from the sterilizing effects of public school indoctrination while building high-trust urban communities of like-minded parents. Finally, they are partnering with a dating application that focuses on matching people who are mutually interested in long-term relationships, including children.
Criticism of pronatalism is predictable and consistent with the sterilizing mimetic packages of wokeism that have compounded the already existential problem of post-prosperity population collapse. Reports on what the Collins are doing range from bemused: “New kids on the block: geeky, wealthy, entrepreneurial pro-natalism activists,” published on Bioedge.org, to an overtly hostile report, “Why Wealthy Tech Elites Believe It’s Their Mission to Repopulate Earth,” which makes an unwarranted accusation that pronatalism is synonymous with “the return of eugenics.”
Preemptive strikes aside, a fervent and effective pronatalist movement may be the only hope if humanity is to avoid total demographic collapse. Contrary to Paul Ehrlich’s predictions, the late 21st century will bring with it unavoidable turmoil as nation after nation confronts not too many people, but instead, an aged dependent population dying en masse, with almost no youth left to replace them.
The demographic Titanic is going to hit the iceberg. We may be thankful that some people on the ship are building lifeboats while there is still time.
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Edward Ring is a senior fellow of the Center for American Greatness. He is also is a contributing editor and senior fellow with the California Policy Center, which he co-founded in 2013 and served as its first president. Ring is the author of Fixing California: Abundance, Pragmatism, Optimism (2021) and The Abundance Choice: Our Fight for More Water in California (2022).
Photo “Crowded New York City Street” by Pablo Costa Tirado. CC BY-SA 3.0.