Ecological antinatalism: worth another look.

The more analytical types, like myself, who were brought on board antinatalism by Benatar’s book and his logical arguments seem to consider ecological antinatalism (e.g. VHEMT) the red-headed stepchild of antinatalism (or as “useful idiots,” to borrow the Soviet term). I admit I used to think like this as well. I always knew that Nina Paley was an ecological antinatalist, but that’s about it.

Ecological antinatalism is the position that procreation is wrong because of the inherent environmental damage caused by human beings, especially insofar as it inflicts suffering on other sentient organisms. Or as VHEMT would formulate it, the Earth and its lifeforms would be better off without us.

From a logical perspective, this may at first seem spurious. What does it matter if the Earth would be better off? Why should we care about other organisms? We are far removed from the suffering of human beings. Indeed, we humans think we alleviate our suffering by delegating it to other organisms: in fact, making other animals work for us has been one of the bases for human progress.

But antinatalists are very much concerned about all suffering, not just human suffering. For example, most antinatalists are vegetarians because they don’t want to add to the atrocity of factory farming. Antinatalism takes a global perspective on suffering, and is not limited only to human reproduction. Insofar as we coerce reproduction in other species as well, we create suffering in those species.

We may start from the premise that humans and their suffering are more important than other species. But are they really? How exactly should we evaluate importance? By intelligence? But using low intelligence as an attack against children, women and other minority groups is a long-standing tactic. By the impact we’ve had on the planet? Then fungi, bees or plankton should be considered far more important than humans.

One may argue that we need population control, not antinatalism. This is an attractive “middle ground” solution for many who are repelled by what they see as the depressingly pessimistic nature of antinatalism (a feeling which comes more from their imagination than from antinatalism itself), but there are two obvious replies to this line of reasoning:

1. The argument is not that mankind as a whole is doing too much environmental damage, but that each of us individually must cause environmental damage just to live. Population control cannot change that fact because it is as true about seven hundred people as it is about seven billion people.

This is, of course, true of all animal species, not just of humans. So people may accuse me of artificially separating humans from nature and labeling any other damage caused by other species as natural. This is not the case. All suffering inflicted on sentient life is bad, regardless of who or what is inflicting it. This is why antinatalism is against all sentient procreation, not just human procreation.

2. Population control is a pipe dream as long as humans hold to the notion that they are entitled to have children, or as we call it nowadays, “reproductive rights.” This is a powerful “progressive” argument and it’s unlikely to go away any time soon.

The problem can be extended to life itself. From what we know, life, once it gets any foothold, is extremely resilient. Even if all sentient life was snipped from this planet, it would probably re-emerge again a few million years later. Even if all life was snipped from this planet, it could hypothetically seed from another planet through ejecta hitting the Earth as it goes around the galaxy. This seems extremely unlikely, but when you talk about scales of millions of years anything that’s even remotely likely can eventually happen.

I do agree that it’s a nice theetie-wheetie liberal concept that we could just cut down population to a nice, I dunno, five hundred million people (roughly the current population of North America, less than the population of Europe) spread all over the world and live in harmony with nature, never deplete our natural resources, keep tinkering with our technological toys, and everyone would have all the space they could ever want and there’d be no more mass wars and genocide. Fine, but until then…

There is no doubt in my mind that the liberal environmentalist should be childfree, if ey is to be consistent, and that any such person who has children is a hypocrite at best. Everyone, I think, is aware, at some level, that having children is by far the worse thing you can personally do to the environment. If they are not aware of that, then they need to be, and pronto! Let’s put those granola-eating, recycling bin junkies to good use!

As my disdain probably makes clear, I have little to do with those types. I agree with radical environmentalism, which is more of a reaction to the failure of mainstream environmentalism than a worldview in itself, although radical environmentalist organizations typically advocate the use of violence in order to disable or paralyze the industrial apparatus of control over the environment.

I think this position is compatible with ecological antinatalism, in that ecological antinatalism has as premise that humans are no more important than any other form of life on this planet, and that we should prevent other forms of life from being harmed by humans. It also appeals to our notion of fairness towards future generations: if future generations are to exist, as they will, despite the antinatalist’s desire, then we should seek to reduce the suffering inflicted on them by our aggressive destruction of the environment today. Since future generations have as much a right to exist as we do, we are justified in using violence in service of that right.

11 thoughts on “Ecological antinatalism: worth another look.

  1. pol March 1, 2015 at 15:31 Reply

    I am personally committed to never having children, however, here’s something I think about sometimes…

    There is a reason that, unlike recycling and buying organic food (or being vegan or vegetarian for that matter), procreating is not a subcultural pratice of import. It is not a marker of status or “belongingess” in (most) radical environmentalist communities, much less liberal environmentalism.

    The reason is that procreation is a part of human life that can’t be removed neatly, the way we could conceivably easily& simply excise “using plastics” or even “eating meat” from our lives.

    If one views procreation as on par–at the species, not individual level–with sociality and with ‘eating,’ or ‘play,’ one can picture modifying its practice, but not eliminating it. Being vegan is a modificaiton of eating, not an attempt to excise it.

    Now the analogy is obviously imperfect, because people to a (wo)man will literally die if they do not eat at all, and not procreating won’t kill any individual person. But can you see what I’m getting at? On the species level, procreation is more like eating than using plastic, and is certainly not something that can just be simply removed (despite VHEMT’s arguments) from human life. Why? Because it is so tied in with human sexuality, sociality, and community–all of which humans would die without as much as they would die without food or water. That isn’t to say that I think humans could never, under any circumstances, choose en masse not to procreate. But I think to be realistic in this specific historical and cultural moment is to understand that procreation is constitutive part of human life, not an appurtenance that can be clipped off simply and easily, through an act of will.

    • Brian L March 5, 2015 at 21:49 Reply

      Actually, it is being discussed a bit more…AN as a viable, ecological practice, that is. Both by vegans and environmentalists. But yeah, good luck with that making the full rounds.

      • pol March 10, 2015 at 00:38 Reply

        you did not respond to the substance of my comment at all. It is “being discussed a bit more” may or may not be true, but it doesn’t contradict the fact (which I pointed out) it has never been a practice of import in any movement of reasonable size (there’s always some tiny subculture somehwere…). And I had some thoughts about why that might be–you did not respond to those either.

        I have no idea what you mean when you say “good luck with that making the full rounds.” I’m not making any rounds. I’m not sure, but it seems like you’re implying that I’m attempting to disseminate some knowledge from on high, perhaps on a mission to convince a lot of people of something… for the record, I’m not. I made a comment on a blog post. That’s it.

        • Brian L March 11, 2015 at 11:23 Reply

          I was agreeing with you that antinatalism will generally not be accepted, though, as I merely stated, it is being talked about more. Don’t look for things I never implied.

          Besides, I’m not the blog host. I don’t feel I have to address everything you say. Your dissatisfaction is not my concern.

        • Brian L March 11, 2015 at 11:28 Reply

          And I didn’t imply you were making rounds. I was referring to the concept of antinatalism making the rounds. That statement was an affirmation of what you said. Saying ‘good luck with that’ was saying it generally won’t.

    • Francois Tremblay March 10, 2015 at 01:38 Reply

      “There is a reason that, unlike recycling and buying organic food (or being vegan or vegetarian for that matter), procreating is not a subcultural pratice of import.”

      I agree! Recycling and buying organic foods are individualistic practices which do not put into question the capitalist system or people’s lifestyles. Since environmentalism is mostly made of liberal organization, it’s not too surprising that this is the case. Deep Green Resistance does talk about this issue, but they rightly point out that exhorting people not to have children will not alone end our ecological problems.

  2. ardegas March 2, 2015 at 22:40 Reply
    • Francois Tremblay March 3, 2015 at 01:21 Reply

      I have no interest in utilitarianism or any form of consequentialism, so his reasoning does not take any hold on me. That being said, I do agree that VHEMT is not an optimal approach. Still, that’s not really what I’m analyzing in this entry.

    • Brian L March 5, 2015 at 21:53 Reply

      It’s actually a good read. Besides Francois, he’s another of my favorites. The two see things quite differently though.

      • Francois Tremblay March 5, 2015 at 23:31 Reply

        That’s a fair statement. :)

        • Brian L March 6, 2015 at 11:44 Reply

          Yeah. He’s on record as being a statist, amongst many other differences. ;)

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