The world’s richest man and SpaceX CEO Elon Musk has long-dreamt of taking people to Mars to save humanity, warning that civilisation could crumble – but an expert has told Express.co.uk there is a slim chance of the billionaire’s dream ever becoming a reality. The world’s population reached eight billion last week, and the figure is expected to keep soarin to 9.7 billion by 2050 and to 10.4 billion by the end of the 21st century. But despite this, Mr Musk has repeatedly argued that there may “not be enough people” for humans to keep surviving on this planet.
Speaking at the Wall Street Journal’s annual CEO Council, he said: “I think one of the biggest risks to civilisation is the low birth rate and the rapidly declining birthrate.
“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. It’s completely the opposite. Please look at the numbers — if people don’t have more children, civilisation is going to crumble, mark my words.”
This, he says, proposes the perfect opportunity to take people to Mars. In fact, he claims it could be humanity’s only shot at survival. He previously tweeted: “Mars has a great need for people, seeing as population is currently zero. Humans are the custodians of other life on Earth. Let us bring life to Mars!”
But Dr Stephen Cave, the director of the Leverhulme Centre for the Future of Intelligence and a Cambridge University professor, explained to Express.co.uk that it is unlikely that Mr Musk’s plan will ever work out.
But he did agree it is possible at some point civilisation could indeed collapse, despite it being clear that the population is growing.
Speaking exclusively to Express.co.uk at Sky News’ Big Ideas Live event, he said: “What is interesting about overpopulation is that it only requires a fairly small increase in life expectancy for the effect to be really dramatic and potentially catastrophic because it is about the number of generations alive at any one time.
“Our basic life model as humans is that we expect roughly three generations of humans – children, parents and grandparents – to be alive at any one time. But if we extend lifespans by 20 years or so, then you add extra generations and a third more people on the planet.
“People’s responses to this vary. Some people would make a point which is certainly true that the carrying capacity of the Earth is related to our technology. 100 years ago, we could not have supported nearly as many people as we do, but because of certain of agricultural and industrial revolutions, we can support this many people.
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“But at the same time, we also know that we are reaching a crisis point in the environment. A collapse in biodiversity, global warming and so on. I think it would be naively optimistic to hope that advances in science would just cure these problems.”
But according to Dr Cave, who also oversees the CSER (Centre for the study of Existential Risk), population growth is not the only threat to civilisation that should be taken into account.
“At the Centre for the study of Existential Risk, we study the possibility of existential, civilization-scale catastrophes that could end the human race and try to mitigate them and it is something I take very seriously.
“Every day that civilisation doesn’t collapse is a success for me and the team. But it is worth taking seriously, there are a lot of threats. New ones like AI, but also old ones like nuclear weapons have not gone away. Preserving civilisation is work.
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“But Elon Musk’s back-up plan is to go to Mars and that’s a terrible idea…it is deeply unrealistic. The least habitable parts of this planet – on top of the Himalayas, the bottom of the oceans, the desert – are also vastly more habitable than Mars.
“It is kind of unimaginable that things would get so bad here that Mars would seem like a good idea. If Musk wants to go there that is fine, but it is not a good backup plan for humanity. Taking care of this planet is a much better idea.”
Dr Cave noted that he was echoing the argument made by Lord Martin Rees, Astronomer Royal, who was also present at Sky News’ Big Ideas Live event over the weekend.
During a panel discussion, dubbed Exploring Space: Why are we still racing to Space?, Lord Martin said: “Elon Musk says he wants to die on Mars, not on impact.”
He added: “The practical need for sending humans into space is more or less eliminated because robots can do the exploring with enough AI and they can fabricate big structures in space. My line is that space travel is an adventure and should be left to the private sector. I don’t think, if I was an American, I would want any public money to go towards NASA’s human spaceflight programme. That’s because it’s of no practical value now and also, if NASA does something it’s very expensive because they’ve got to be very risk adverse.”
Dr Cave’s book Should We Want To Live Forever, is set to be published by Routledge for release in 2023.