Dire predictions of a collapse in male fertility have finally become mainstream, years after fringe figures warned that the increasingly toxic environment we have created for ourselves could be our undoing. Just how bad is the problem? Might the only effective response to declining male fertility be to create a sperm and egg bank on the moon to preserve man’s reproductive capabilities; or are there simpler things we can do to preserve the continuation of the species?
A group of scientists at the University of Arizona recently proposed creating a sperm and seed bank on the moon, in a bid to protect the planet’s species from extermination – and that includes humans as well.
Under this ‘modern global insurance policy’, the reproductive cells of nearly 7 million species, including humans, would be stored in an ‘ark’ below the moon’s surface. The ark would use pits in the surface of the moon, thought to be channels through which lava once flowed, to store the reproductive material using cryogenic technology.
These pits penetrate up to 100 meters underground, and, according to Jekan Thanga, leader of the group, ‘provide readymade shelter from the surface of the moon’, which would otherwise prove hostile. Extreme temperature variation, solar radiation and meteorite strikes would all pose a threat to a surface-level facility.
Male Fertility: Under Threat
An artist’s impression of the lunar ‘ark’ that would store the reproductive cells of some 7 million earth species, including humans
But why go to the moon in the first place to build such a facility? After all, isn’t there already a similar facility in Norway? Do we really need another?
Unlike the proposed lunar ark, the Svalbard Global Seed Vault, buried in the side of a Norwegian mountain, houses only plant species (around 1 million, to date). In recent years, it has apparently been threatened by global warming, causing flooding of the entrance to the vault; although the seeds themselves have so far escaped damage. If global warming continues, the arctic conditions that made the site at Svalbard perfect for the preservation of seeds may soon no longer obtain. Once designed to operate without the help of humans, conditions in the Global Seed Vault now require 24h monitoring.
The Svalbard Global Seed Vault: once thought to be a failsafe site for the storage of precious seeds, the Vault is now apparently under threat from a changing climate
Falling Male Fertility Rates: a Catastrophe in Waiting
And it’s the threat of planetary catastrophe – not just global warming, but nuclear war, drought, asteroids and massive volcanic eruptions like the eruption of Mount Toba 75,000 years ago – that motivated the team from the University of Arizona to propose the moon and to include a far greater diversity of species than at Svalbard.
A true planetary-scale disaster could see the loss of a majority of all plant and animal species on earth. The moon-based facility would preserve its samples, says Thanga, ‘until the tech advances to then reintroduce these species – in other words, save them for another day.’
The inclusion of human reproductive cells may seem the least plausible, or most surprising, aspect of this plan. For one thing, if humans are eliminated from earth by some massive catastrophe – a nuclear war, say – what good will a load of frozen human sperm and ova on the moon be? Humans are the linchpin of the project and if they – we – disappear, surely there won’t be a thing that can be done about it?
In fact, the notion that we might soon need to keep a global store of human sperm and ova to stave off a catastrophe appears more and more sensible by the day; although not necessarily for the reasons given by Thanga and his colleagues. A much more insidious, less spectacular, process is at work threatening the survival prospects of humankind. Perhaps it won’t be an asteroid that makes man go the way of the dinosaurs, through declining male fertility, but the everyday products we know, love and rely on so heavily.
Once upon a time, not all that long ago, it was considered the sole preserve of cranks and conspiracy theorists to claim that industrial chemicals found in the environment, especially the drinking water, were causing serious reproductive effects in animals and humans, particularly affecting male fertility levels. In 2015, Alex Jones, the host of Infowars, was roundly mocked for a rant in which he uttered the now famous line, ‘I don’t like ‘em putting chemicals in the water that turn the friggin’ frogs gay!’
The rant that launched a thousand memes
Now, though, just five years later, those previously fringe concerns have well and truly gone mainstream, accompanied by some truly dire predictions. On March 10, Politico ran an article with the headline, ‘No more babies? The hormone-altering chemicals threatening human procreation’, particularly affecting male fertility, to coincide with the release of a new book on the subject by Dr Shanna Swan, a world expert on reproductive health at Mount Sinai, New York.
Dr Shanna Swan. Her new book Count Down: How Our Modern World Is Threatening Sperm Counts, Altering Male and Female Reproductive Development and Imperiling the Future of the Human Race is out now.
By 2045, Swan claims, the majority of men may no longer be able to reproduce because of the effects of harmful chemicals from a variety of sources. ‘We’re about 40 years behind global warming, in terms of awareness’, she notes, and yet the threat to human survival is just as great as, if not greater than, our concerns about greenhouse gas emissions.
According to Swan’s projections from available data, in 2045 the sperm count of the median man will reach zero, meaning that one half of all men will have no sperm at all, and the other half will have an amount that is barely more than zero — pointing to an almost non-existent future for male fertility levels. The implications are obvious: no sperm, no babies. Such a scenario has already been dubbed ‘Spermageddon’.
The root cause of the massive (59%) decrease in the sperm count of the average Western man between 1973 and 2011 appears to be the growing exposure to endocrine (i.e. hormone)-disrupting chemicals, such as pthalates and bisphenol A, which are now ubiquitous in the modern developed world. Plastics, electronic goods, packaging, pesticides, cosmetics, personal hygiene products and, yes, the drinking water and food supply all contain such chemicals that disrupt male fertility.
Yet another addition to the endangered species list?
Many of these chemicals are referred to as xenoestrogens, because of the way that they mimic the effects of the hormone estrogen. The endocrine-disrupting effects of Atrazine, a pesticide which is banned in the EU but still widely used in the US, have been known for some time. Beyond human male fertility, in 2006, a statement was made before the House Committee on Government Reform about the increasing number of male fish observed to be bearing eggs in the Potomac River. Industrial run-off, as well as contamination by personal care products and contraceptives, was identified as the likely cause.
Pthalates, first introduced on a wide scale in the 1950s, with the introduction of PVC, are linked to a variety of negative reproductive effects. They are used to increase plastic flexibility, and as a result have a huge variety of applications: in food containers, water bottles and children’s toys, as well as foams, solvents, perfumes, pesticides, nail polish, adhesives and lubricants. Studies have shown that prenatal exposure to pthalates, i.e. through the mother, may cause feminisation of baby boys and result in smaller penis size, among other defects surrounding male fertility in later life.
Some of the other most commonly encountered xenestrogenic chemicals, and their sources (in brackets), are:
- 4MBC (in sun lotion)
- Hydroxy-anisole butyrate (a food preservative)
- Bisphenol-A (a food preservative and plasticiser)
- Dieldrin (a pesticide)
- DDT (a pesticide. Although it is banned in the US, it is used in countries that export food to the US)
- Erythrosine (a red dye)
- PCB (in lubricants, adhesives and paints)
- P-nonylphenol (in PVC and by-products from detergents and spermicide)
- Parabens (in lotions)
Yes, that’s right: the spermicide on the condom you’re wearing to prevent unwanted pregnancy may, in the long run, be preventing you from ever getting anybody pregnant – condom or no. So temporarily disabling male fertility male have future ramifications.
But it’s not just xenoestrogens that are responsible for the precipitous decline in male fertility we’re witnessing. Swan also points to a variety of other factors that seem to be at work, including the use of contraceptives, obesity, smoking and ‘cultural shifts’, a rather vague term which would have deserved further explanation. Could it be that as men behave – or are given less room to behave – in less stereotypically manly ways, they may actually become so? There may be other biological factors at work too, she suggests, pointing to the collapse in testosterone levels in western men over the last half century.
Although falling testosterone levels are a fact of life for all men as they age – after the age of 30, a man can expect to lose 1% of his natural testosterone every year for the rest of his life – this natural reduction pales in comparison with the society-wide collapse in T levels that has occurred over the second half of the twentieth and the first quarter of the twenty-first century.
Men today have considerably less T than men of the same age even a single generation ago. A 2007 study in the Journal of Clinical Endocrinology and Metabolism showed a significant reduction in the T levels of men since the 1980s. A 60-year-old American man in 2004, for example, had 17% less testosterone than a 60-year-old American man in 1987. These findings were corroborated in a study of Danish men, who displayed a two-digit decline between the 1920s and the 1960s.
While the collapse of testosterone is likely to be linked to the ubiquity of the xenoestrogenic chemicals Swan warns about, sedentary lifestyles and the consumption of phytoestrogens are also likely to be playing a large role.
While the role of phytoestrogens, natural compounds such as soy and hops that also mimic the effects of estrogen, requires like further explanation, the role of fat tissue in hormonal balance is not widely appreciated enough. In basic terms, fat tissue is naturally estrogenic, and the more of it you have, the more of the hormone your body will produce. All in all, it adds up to a witch’s brew of environmental, social and biological factors that are making it ever harder for men to maintain their masculinity and fulfil their biological purpose.
Obesity is one of the leading causes of hypogonadism, or chronically low levels of testosterone contributing towards a decline in male fertility.
And don’t think that women get off lightly either. Miscarriage rates have increased significantly over the last two decades, and women are experiencing puberty at ever younger ages. Such changes will only serve to amplify the male fertility problems modern men are facing.
So what’s the solution? Is there any way we can avoid the dreaded male fertility destroying Spermageddon?
Here at Herculean Strength we believe nothing is inevitable. What we advocate is a targeted approach that reduces our exposure to endocrine-disrupting substances, whether industrial or natural, as much as possible, and encourages a healthy, active lifestyle and diet that maximises natural testosterone production — and, in turn, boosting male fertility.
We’ve already devoted a series of articles to the dreadful effects of low testosterone, including its effects on mental health; the industrial compounds such as xenoestrogens and microplastics that are disrupting our hormones; foods that will boost your testosterone and foods that will lower it; and testosterone-boosting natural compounds. These articles, which include practical guidance on how to rebalance your hormones and optimise your masculinity, will serve as the basis for a full book on the subject, which we have tentatively named Reclaim Your Masculinity.
Regarding dropping male fertility: act like the fate of the species depends on your choices – because this time it really might.