How Declining Sperm Counts Have Seeded A Crisis of American Individualism

The right-wing fixation with male reproductive calamity and civilizational decline is a distraction that leads to consumption and despair rather than the systemic change we need.

Tucker Carlson’s 2022 Fox Nation special The End of Men begins by showing us Americans of yesteryear—hale California teens performing calisthenics, daring construction workers lunching atop a skyscraper. We then glimpse an array of modern Americans depicted as a horde of overweight bodies led astray by an incoherent octogenarian president. There’s the requisite gendered joke about “man boobs,” the body shaming intentional. The close-ups of torsos flexing and sweating. An uncomfortable fixation on supple, youthful, white bodies as the picture of health; a disquieting revulsion at body fat, old age, infirmity.

The special features a montage of virile, muscular white men engaging in canonical acts of masculinity: wrestling, firing guns, grilling steaks. It then cuts to a static shot of an illuminated naked human, arms and legs spread like the Vitruvian Man. Unlike da Vinci’s sketch, however, Carlson’s caricature of a man is slightly more modest: his genitals are obstructed by an appliance emanating a red light. It is a “testicle tanner” intended to combat nothing short of an existential threat to mankind, or more particularly, men. The half-hour special repeats ominous refrains about this looming disaster. Conspiracy theorist and 2024 presidential candidate Robert F. Kennedy Jr. makes a cameo in order to proclaim that “we’re headed for a calamity.” 

What is this calamity that has befallen men? It isn’t climate change or an ongoing global pandemic that has killed upwards of 7 million people. Instead, it is declining sperm count, and the only hope for men is to irradiate their testicles with infrared light. 

The science is clear: male fertility has fallen over the last 50 years, with sperm counts now roughly half of what they were in 1970. The cause of this phenomenon remains unclear, although many suspect changes in diet, lack of exercise, pollution, and endocrine disrupting chemicals as potential factors. Female fecundity, too, has declined over the same period.1 But other measures of female fertility, such as increasing miscarriages and diminishing ovarian reserve, have also been observed, the latter among those seeking assisted reproductive technology.

To those on the left who are often mindful of environmental and corporate deregulation, the decline in sperm count may be yet another consequence of pollution and environmental damage. If nothing else, it is an opportunity to bring further attention to the systemic injustice of climate change and to galvanize collective action. To Tucker Carlson et al., however, the fixation on declining sperm counts is a crisis of the individual, or more precisely, the individual white man, whose vanishing sperm and thus vanishing “masculinity” spell the end of man.

Conservative media has jumped on every opportunity to publicize this calamity. Online, Fox News has published a consistent stream of headlines on the looming crisis of male (in)fertility:

In the words of Fox News, this is nothing less than “chemical warfare on our country.”

Many have been quick to lampoon Carlson’s End of Men special and its endorsement of testicular tanning. For example, New York Magazine’s online outlet the Intelligencer quipped that “Tucker Carlson talking about nuts is better than him talking about his nutty ideas.” Testicular tanning is unimpeachably funny, and since the episode aired, Carlson has been booted from Fox News. But beyond the scrotal squabbling is a deeply troubling ideology: a transmutation of existential angst about humanity into a gendered fear surrounding masculinity. Testicle testiness recalls classical patriarchy. It’s a bad-faith invitation to opine about men stripped of their manhood and how this emasculation threatens empire.

Much of the contemporary discourse around declining sperm counts can be traced to the work of epidemiologist Shanna Swan. Although researchers in reproductive health have been aware of the trend for at least a couple of decades, the topic entered the mainstream in 2017 when Swan and colleagues published “Temporal Trends in Sperm Count: A Systematic Review and Meta Regression Analysis.” They observed “a significant decline in sperm counts….between 1973 and 2011, driven by a 50–60 percent decline among men unselected by fertility from North America, Europe, Australia and New Zealand.” The paper was the genesis of the catchy statistic—soon to take off on cable news—that sperm counts had dropped 50 percent in the last 50 years.2Swan has since expanded on these ideas in her 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.

Swan et al.’s primary claim, that sperm counts have fallen, has been criticized. Some argue that the data is imprecise, or that earlier studies overcounted sperm. Andrologists have noted that there is no established “optimal” sperm count and that doubling one’s numbers does not lead to a doubled chance of pregnancy. Others have suggested that sperm counts might fluctuate widely between populations over time and that the decline measured by Swan and her colleagues is no reason for alarm. Finally, some note that while sperm counts might have fallen, they remain well above the World Health Organization cutoff for a “normal” sperm count of 15 million/milliliter. Most critics, however, seem to accept that sperm counts are reduced; they simply disagree about the extent and the ramifications of this decline. 

And that’s where discussion of the “trend” comes in. While sperm counts are lower now, people are worried about where they are going. RFK Jr. says, “If we continue at our current rate…” and Erin Brockovich extrapolates out from the present to predict 0 sperm in the year 2045. Trends don’t always continue, of course. It is possible that there is a lower bound to the population’s sperm count in aggregate, although any individual’s sperm count can reach zero. Swan recounts laborers on farms and in chemical manufacturing plants who, due to chronic, high level exposure, had sperm counts of practically zero, which rendered them unable to have children. On the whole, men are nowhere near that level yet, but the questions still linger: what explains the drop we’ve observed so far? And, will we ever get to sperm count zero?

As a brief medical refresher, sperm are the male reproductive cell, half the genetic material necessary to make an embryo, or an early developing human. Sperm are produced in the seminiferous tubules of the testicles starting in puberty and continue to be made for the duration of a man’s life. Sperm production is dependent on chemical messengers stimulated by hormones released from the brain. This cascade operates under the principle of feedback loops. That is, when one component of the chain is deficient, signals go back upstream to spur the hormones needed to make more of the deficient element. As a result, this system of communication, called the endocrine system, lies in delicate balance and can be easily thrown out of sync. Environmental compounds may also mimic or interfere with essential sex hormones (estrogens and androgens), thereby altering an individual’s endocrine system. 

Ample evidence suggests that lifestyle factors can alter the reproductive system. Obesity, smoking and exposure to secondhand smoke, excessive alcohol consumption, certain foods (like processed meats and dairy products, which usually contain the residues of hormones and pesticides; and fruits and vegetables, which contain pesticide residues), too little exercise, too much stress, and certain pharmaceutical medications can all reduce fertility. Excessive heat can negatively impact sperm, which is why saunas, prolonged sitting or biking, tight-fitting underwear, and occasionally laptops and cell phones have been linked to lower sperm counts in some studies. It’s important to note that because sperm regenerate every 60-70 days, most of these effects can in theory be reversible if the exposure is transient in adults.

The other major sources of endocrine disruption are industrial chemicals, which humans may come into contact with by eating, breathing, or absorption through the skin. After World War II, the production and dissemination of chemicals for consumer use surged. These products promised “better living through chemistry” and are responsible for many of the goods and conveniences we have come to rely upon: children’s toys, food packaging, plastics in cars and computers, cosmetics, fragrances, home cleaning solutions, and the pesticides that enable industrial food production. Of the more than 85,000 chemicals that have been produced for commercial use, most have not been tested for safety. When it comes to consumer chemicals, regulation is scant, and products are assumed to be safe until proven otherwise. 

There are a few broad classes of endocrine disrupting chemicals (EDCs). Phthalates are found in plastic, vinyl, nail polish, perfume, soaps, and shampoos. They are set to be totally phased out of the E.U. (and partially banned for food packaging in the U.S.). Bisphenols, like BPA, are used in metal equipment, piping, non-skid coatings, plastics, electronics, and receipt paper. They have known estrogenic effects; Swan cites a study by Kaiser Permanente in China which found that factory workers with high levels of BPA in their urine were up to four times as likely to have lower sperm counts compared to those with low BPA levels. Flame retardants (polybrominated diphenyl ethers) are similarly associated with a range of disruptions to the endocrine system including thyroid dysfunction, pregnancy complications, and altered puberty. 

A major obstacle facing the regulation of these chemicals is what some have called “regrettable substitution.” Facing backlash over one compound, manufacturers substitute another chemical which has equal, if not worse, effects on the human body and the environment. A canonical example of regrettable substitution, as explained by Swan, is the story of DDT, a pesticide originally marketed as a safer substitute for lead arsenate but which had significant environmental and human toxicity. Due to public backlash, DDT was taken off the market only to be replaced with organophosphate pesticides, which also have neurotoxic effects. Similarly, it is common to spot water bottles labeled BPA-free due to a general public awareness that BPA is “bad.” What most people don’t know is that BPA has been replaced by BPS, a compound suspected of promoting, based on animal studies, “premature puberty, obesity, and damage to a woman’s eggs.” Swan concedes that for many environmental scientists, crusading against EDCs feels like playing a game of Whac-A-Mole. 

Although many EDCs are not permanently stored in human tissue, their levels in our bodies remain roughly constant due to our nearly continuous exposure to products that contain them.3 Americans ingest somewhere between 70,000 and 120,000 microplastic particles each year. A Dutch study found that 80 percent of healthy volunteers had microplastics in their blood. Microplastics are found on all seven continents. They are found in the deepest trenches of the ocean and on the heights of Mount Everest. And now, they are with us from birth. Microplastics have been documented in human placentas.

A persistent rallying cry of the right concerns the decline and fall of the white man. Just consider Senator Josh Hawley’s recent Fox News op-ed proclaiming that “America’s men are in crisis.” We are told that men are left behind, and the end of man is imminent. His idea recalls the fascistic tendencies embedded within Nietzsche’s “super man” (Übermensch) and his foil, the “last man” (Letzter Mensch), repurposed under the poisoned ideology of National Socialism. In the myopic eyes of Tucker Carlson and friends, the modern Übermensch is the virile man capable of sustaining and building an empire; the contemporary Letzter Mensch is out of shape, tired, and absent of viable sperm. 

The obsession with manhood is accompanied by a fixation on the male body: its strength, its form, its maintenance. It is no coincidence that American media perpetuates this fixation. In her Blood Knife essay “Everyone is Beautiful and No One is Horny,” RS Benedict details how “modern action and superhero films fetishize the body, even as they desexualize it.” Benedict explores why “when a nation feels threatened, it gets swole,” with post-9/11 America a glaring example. A heavy emphasis on militarization and, more recently, neofascism, has bled into austere, desexualized idealizations of the male body in superhero and action movies, which are often produced in cooperation with the Department of Defense. The right’s fixation on the male body—Carlson’s shirtless, (predominantly white) “ripped” men—renders this monomania explicit. White nationalists are co-opting fitness and martial arts groups for recruitment, using body shaming as an insidious tactic to call men to arms. Of course, the sperm count discourse is an important extension: how can the shirtless and flexing American Übermensch be perpetuated if he is incapable of reproducing?

illustration by mike freiheit

The factors that have contributed to declining sperm count are, in fact, detrimental to the reproductive health of both sexes, although you would not know it from watching Fox News. Environmental toxins have potentially contributed to earlier menarche in girls, as well as other problems in the reproductive tract in women. (Swan even claims, for example, that 25-year-old women today are less fertile, in terms of the health and number of their eggs, than their grandmothers were at 35.) Of course, the threat posed here is equally existential to women but is given no attention by people on the right. Why? Because low sperm count reflects poorly on manhood, a sign of the end of man not just existentially but ideologically.

Whenever we hear white men discussing a crisis of reproductive capability, a more sinister argument surrounding who should reproduce is lurking in the shadows. The fixation on sperm count and virility is also a euphemistic attempt to invoke eugenics. The sperm count crisis facing all men is recast as a problem surrounding those pre-ordained for empire building. Surprisingly, even Swan’s research distinguishes between “Western” men and “others.” The End of Men emphasizes how “a few hundred men can conquer an entire empire,” invoking the violence of colonialism and reminding viewers that the threat to mankind is actually a threat to white nationalists with an interest in preserving the American empire. 

The co-optation of sperm count discourse draws a clear through line between environmental destruction and who survives in the anthropocene. Fox News acknowledges the roles of pollution and microplastics in catalyzing the sperm count crisis, but this environmental cause is weaponized to argue how we should respond and to suggest who ought to survive. As climate change wreaks increasing havoc on our daily lives, from raging fires to unbreathable air to unprecedented floods, we must recognize the ways in which climate change is laundered to support the right’s ideologies. Testicular tanning, then, is not just a joke but rather a clever distraction.

What becomes clear the more one researches EDCs is that we live in a toxic world in exchange for cheap goods, from indestructible bottles to exquisitely scented lotions. If we desire to address declining sperm counts, as well as women’s fertility, cancer, and everything else, we will need society-wide changes. Swan indulges a kind of poisonous individualism when she suggests that men and women who are trying to conceive “clean up their act.” She admonishes readers that “only you can give your body the care it needs, from both the inside and outside.” 

Individuals would likely benefit by avoiding smoking and binge drinking, working out more, and reducing stress (if not for their endocrine system, then for their general health). And, it is conceivable that Swan’s suggestions to eliminate antibiotic-laden meat, plastic food storage, cosmetics with fragrances, and air fresheners could improve reproductive health at an individual level. “It requires diligent efforts to learn to bob and weave through the minefield of disruptive chemical influences in our midst,” she says. “This is your opportunity to protect your future and your family’s.”

But, surely, individual solutions are not enough. Swan contends that one can be exposed to EDCs from accepting a paper receipt at checkout, from carrying a plastic bag, and even from microscopic airborne particles. Most people are unable to change the physical constraints of their housing, let alone the very air that they breathe. This is the same foisting of responsibility on the individual we see in active shooter preparedness training as a woefully inadequate alternative to gun control, or in condescending mindfulness rhetoric at undeniably stressful workplaces. 

Although Carlson and company acknowledge that chemicals in the environment might be behind falling sperm and testosterone levels, they fail to mention the possibility of holding corporations accountable. The recent chemical disaster in East Palestine, Ohio, may have been caused, in some part, by years of lobbying by the freight industry to deregulate safety protocols. The people of East Palestine are already suffering from a growing list of physical ailments and will undoubtedly face significant health problems in the future.

To be fair to Swan, she does end her book with a robust, if nonpartisan, call for more regulation. She advocates for a regulatory environment more akin to the European Union’s, which would be undergirded by a “precautionary principle.” She proposes that chemicals be rigorously tested before coming to market, as is standard with pharmaceutical drugs, rather than waiting for scientific consensus to build after they’ve already caused harm. She recommends testing chemicals at various concentrations, because chemicals are often deemed safe at “low doses,” even though little is known about their effects over long periods of time at those doses. Finally, Swan endorses the Tiered Protocol for Endocrine Disruption (TiPED), an approach to chemical manufacturing aligned with the “green chemistry” movement that identifies and removes possible EDCs early in the design process. 

These changes would require time, patience, and a confrontation with the moneyed interests and lobbying efforts of multinational corporations. They would also require more governmental regulation and a break-up with the romantic American ideal of rugged individualism. Reeling in the rampant harm of EDCs would require accepting that we won’t be able to buy something—a pill, a testicle tanner—to get us out of this mess. Fox News routinely advertises health supplements in between their scheduled screeds on left-wing regulation. We want cheap and easy fixes, so this is what we get: people like Alex Jones hawking male enhancement products, some of which contain heavy metals like lead that definitively will not enhance health and may even decrease sperm.

What we need is more than incremental reform, which will be too little, too late.

“Civilization is like a woman wooed,” Tucker Carlson offers creepily in the opening minutes of The End of Men, as the camera cuts between shots of the Statue of Liberty and a bemused Joe Biden. “She’s won by the love of the strong man and lost by the impotence of the weak one.” 

Waxing about bygone American grandeur is of course a mainstay of modern conservative rhetoric. At first blush, Carlson’s insistence that Americans have become “weak” appears to be part of the predictable nostalgia-fueled Boomer daydream that keeps Fox afloat. But Carlson’s truism that the very structure of society is maintained by the literal strength of biological males is more than usual conservative media pandering. It’s part of a deeper narrative about human history and the direction of America’s future. It animates the anxiety of a rising rank of the right, a group that believes they have to train and harden themselves in order to save society.

Early on in his special, Carlson cites the concept of anacyclosis, a theory of civilizational rise and decline attributed to the ancient Greek historian Polybius. We’re not told many details about Polybius, or his Histories, but Carlson summarizes with a syllogism:

“In ages past a cycle began

Hard times made strong men

Strong men made good times

Good times made weak men

Weak men made hard times”

Many of the men in Carlson’s special take this mantra literally, decrying the creature comforts of modernity and offering ruggedness as an antidote. One fellow who chops wood shirtless and plunges into an ice bath suggests doing “one hard thing a day” in order to “increase testosterone.” One gets the impression that he is not talking about the Saturday crossword.

The impulse to blame our challenges on the sweetness of success is not new and has rendered frequent comparisons to the fall of the Roman Republic. A certain brand of pundit has long critiqued the moral and physical degeneracy of American society. What the anacyclosis acolytes propose, however, is slightly different: that we are victims of our own prosperity. Out of shape, too content, and nearly spermless, we are sitting ducks.

We fixate on sperm counts not merely as an issue of reproduction but as a symbol of something more existential: a fear of annihilation. Whether it is a subconscious acknowledgment of the planet’s despoliation or a half-baked attempt to stave off the creeping terror that everything we know and love comes to an end, the testicle tanners plunge on in their quest of self-hardening. They yearn for a time when physical dominance ensured political subservience and power was concentrated among a select few. 

The conservative New York Times columnist Ross Douthat recently published the book The Decadent Society, in which he argues that America has entered an era of “economic stagnation, institutional sclerosis, and cultural repetition at a high stage of wealth and technological proficiency.…” To Douthat, our unprecedented security and prosperity has lulled us into a cultural malaise. There was a time, we are told, when Americans dreamt big, built cars, went to the moon. Of course, animating America’s period of “rise-and-grind” #hustleculture were economies boosted by a world war and then the constant fear of nuclear annihilation. But still, there is something that resonates in Douthat’s sketch of “gridlock, stalemate, public failure, and private despair.”

There’s a reason that in addition to tending meticulously to their scrota, most of the men in the special spend inordinate time working out, practicing riflery, and coordinating combat drills. They labor under the belief that soon their skills will be needed. They are afraid. But they are also committed, because to reiterate their words, “a few hundred men can conquer an entire empire.” 

Conservatives who prattle on about anacyclosis would be wise to consider Polybius’ theory in full, which proposed as inexorable the iteration between monarchy, aristocracy, and democracy. Polybius believed that each mode of governance slipped into its degenerate form before starting the cycle anew. Monarchy gave way to tyranny. Aristocracy eroded into oligarchy. Democracy declined into ochlocracy—mob rule. “For then, being inflamed with rage, and following only the dictates of their passions, they no longer will submit to any control, or be contented with an equal share of the administration,” Polybius wrote.

Perhaps the better litmus test for our civilization, then, isn’t our fertility, or as Tucker Carlson and friends would suggest by extension, the number of push-ups we can do. Instead, it might be our ability to tell fact from fiction, to maintain hope in the face of fear, to not retreat from the challenging work of broad societal change into the bitter and defeatist world of consumption and despair.

There is a long current of interest in cataclysm in popular media—for example, the entire disaster movie genre—which appears to feed and sustain some primal human fascination with oblivion. The possibility of extinction by infertility is no exception. It is, for example, a plot point in the novels The Handmaid’s Tale and Children of Men, both of which were adapted for the screen. Unlike catastrophe from an asteroid or nuclear bomb or viral pandemic, annihilation by infertility is slow and nonviolent. There is no unusual amount of death, just fewer births, less input into the vital equation. A slow, painless euthanasia. 

It would be poetic justice, in some sense, if we went extinct because of the pollutants we had extruded into the planet. It would be hamartia, our fatal flaw. Are we willing to accept that the totalizing force of the Anthropocene that is destroying the Earth is also chipping away at our endocrine system?

It seems significant that many of the proposed solutions to falling sperm count embody clear technological solutionism. We are asked to consider a future in which sperm counts fall precipitously low, near zero, and few couples can conceive naturally. But for the wealthy elite, sperm could still be harvested for conception. Swan admits a future in which humans can only reproduce with technology: by 2050, couples using eggs and sperm that are created from other cells in the lab. 

Others, too, are murmuring that there will be a technofix. In their lengthy article on declining sperm counts, GQ concedes to the techno-fatalist-savior solution: because there is no way to give up on plastics now, we might as well accept a future in which in vitro fertilization is necessary (of course, we know who would have access and who wouldn’t). A workaround handed to us by capitalism for a problem of our own creation, like geo-engineering the environment to offset the carbon we’ve been unable to quit. 

When that new human, the child of the late 21st century, asks her parents where she came from, how can we respond? We’ll tell her that her parents were part of the lucky few, the privileged minority wealthy enough to conceive. The world’s polluted, we’ll say, and we weren’t able to clean it. Why? We’ll point around the room. All this. We couldn’t give it up. 

  1. Population and reproductive scientists make a distinction between fecundity and fertility. Fecundity refers to the biological potential to produce viable offspring, whereas fertility refers to the actual rate of births in a population. Changing reproductive behavior, like the widespread use of contraception or delayed childbearing, has surely impacted fertility rates worldwide. The claim of Swan, and many others, is that fecundity has also decreased. In other words, even when people try to have children now, they are less able than prior generations. It has been difficult to determine how much the changes in fertility are due to fecundity versus social behavior, however one approach is to analyze rates of pregnancy complications or ovarian reserve among women who seek assistance with reproduction—the assumption being that these are all people who have tried to have children in the first place. 

  2. When we speak of sperm count, we are referring to four crucial parameters: concentration (or how many sperm are in one standard unit of semen), vitality (what percent of sperm are alive), motility (the sperm’s ability to swim), and morphology (the sperm’s shape and size). The claim is that modern sperm are worse both in quantity and quality. 

  3. In an experiment conducted for their book Slow Death by Rubber Duck: How the Toxicity of Everyday Life Affects Our Health, Canadian environmentalists Rick Smith and Bruce Lourie designed a “test room” that contained average North American products with EDCs. They used personal care products, antibacterial soap, canned goods and canned soda, and sat on a couch treated with Stainmaster. After four days they had markedly higher levels in blood and urine of their test chemicals, many of which, including monoethyl phthalate, were known to cause male reproductive problems. 

More In: Uncategorized

Cover of latest issue of print magazine

Announcing Our Newest Issue


A superb summer issue containing our "defense of graffiti," a dive into British imperialism, a look at the politics of privacy, the life of Lula, and a review of "the Capitalist Manifesto." Plus: see the Police Cruiser of the Future, read our list of the summer's top songs, and find out what to fill your water balloons with. It's packed with delights!

The Latest From Current Affairs