Anti-natalism: the birth of a tragedy

Image description: Mother and child smiling at each other


With Veganuary only barely over and Donald Trump’s attack on Greta ‘prophet-of-doom’ Thunberg in Davos still ringing in our ears, it is impossible to forget our duty to treat the environment with respect. This is all the truer for those who have passed St. John’s recently and seen the occupiers and their banners attempting to coerce the college towards divestment from fossil fuels. Most people would agree that by eating meat and burning non-renewables we are propelling our planet towards and early grave but having a baby or two…?

Anti-natalism hit the BBC headlines back in August 2019 and since then it has been gaining ground in the mainstream media as the most effective way of staving off climate change. Fewer of the planet’s current population procreating means fewer people to pollute in the years to come. It’s a simple and nigh-on indestructible argument and yet for so many, it just doesn’t sit right.

Giving up cheese is one thing but future children? The Voluntary Human Extinction Movement, founded in the US in 1991 by Les Knight, advocates the adoption of anti-natalism under the motto ‘live long and die out’. They explain on their website’s homepage that ‘phasing out the human race by voluntarily ceasing to breed will allow Earth’s biosphere to return to good health.’

Except this isn’t just the ideal of environmentalists. German academic Hermann Vetter and US philosopher Jan Narveson are proponents of negative utilitarianism: minimising suffering is more immediate moral imperative than maximising happiness. By this ethics-based logic therefore, because it cannot be guaranteed that a child will not suffer during their lifetime, not having the child in the first place is the only moral course of action.

Argentinian philosopher Julio Cabrera and South African philosopher David Benatar argue that it is in keeping with Kant’s practical imperative – that man should never be more than an end in himself – to not have children. Like Vetter and Narveson, they believe that it is impossible to bring a child into the world for its own good and that therefore, when parents decide to have a child, they are using it as a means to their own ends, at least in part.

Cabrera proposes inevitable physical pain, moral impediment (we cannot do anything without in some way harming others) and discouragement, namely taedium vitae and depression as the reasons for which a child can never be born for its own good. Benatar identifies anti-natalism’s greatest impediment to itself: evolution.

As he sees it, though life is suffering, both physical and psychological, pessimism – and thus a refusal to abide a painful existence – is not naturally selected for. Simply put, most of us are not quite existentialist enough to drive us towards self-destruction, but rather we let evolution steer ourselves in the, by definition more life-affirming, direction of procreation.

As contrary to biology as it may be, anti-natalism also faces – and will continue to face – opposition from the members of many religious communities who believe that life is a gift and the existence of the human race, divine will. For this reason, the Catholic Church in the US has been vocal in decrying The Voluntary Human Extinction Movement’s raison-d’être.

Religious or not, however, I personally, do not believe it is possible to support the anti-natalist endeavour without also acknowledging the frighteningly blurred lines between this and other methods of population control. China’s one-child policy, once in practice, was not without its ethical controversies and therefore we should be cautious before adopting an attitude that, in effect, devalues life. The birth rate in the UK is falling, anyway…

Maybe I am not the best person to attempt to assess the validity of the anti-natalist movement. After all, I did have a mental breakdown upon reading Sartre for the first time, so plagued was I by the bleakness of his existentialist outlook. But philosophical arguments aside, I cannot help but admire those who pledge effective sterility for the sake of the planet.

Though I could not possibly rule out the option of having children of my own – not least because I have teetered dangerously on the edge of infertility and now see the ability to reproduce as a biological blessing – I will doff my metaphorical cap to the ‘child-free’ who decide to forego the gift of offspring, most often for environmental reason.

The difference between these people and anti-natalists is the degree to which they insist all others follow their lead – they don’t – merely wishing to plant ideas and set tentative examples. Just as the best vegans are the ones that avoid the militant carnivore-bashing, so too are the most admirable among those under the ‘child-free’ umbrella those who do not actively demonise parents.

Mother and child – Robert Whitehead