Adherents view life not as a gift and a miracle, but a harm and an imposition. And their notion that having children may be a bad idea seems to be gaining mainstream popularity
February, a 27-year-old Indian man named Raphael Samuel announced plans for an unusual lawsuit. He was going to sue his parents for begetting him. “It was not our decision to be born,”. “Human existence is totally pointless.”
Samuel recently told me over Skype from Mumbai that his is a good life, and he is actually close to his parents. His complaint is more fundamental: he believes it is wrong to bring new people into the world without their consent. He wanted to sue his parents for a symbolic amount of money, such as a single rupee, “to instill that fear among parents in general. Because now parents don’t think before having a child,” he told me.
Samuel subscribes to a philosophy called anti-natalism. The basic tenet of anti-natalism is simple but, for most of us, profoundly counterintuitive: that life, even under the best of circumstances, is not a gift or a miracle, but rather a harm and an imposition. According to this logic, the question of whether to have a child is not just a personal choice but an ethical one – and the correct answer is always no.
Since his announcement, the lawsuit has not gotten off the ground. “I have been clearly told by a sitting judge that I will be fined by the court for wasting its time,” Samuel said. Still, his lawsuit gave the anti-natalist movement a boost, even earning a bemused mention by Stephen Colbert. In May, Dana Wells, a 37-year-old Dallas-based woman who goes by “The Friendly Antinatalist” on YouTube, posted a video featuring the Colbert clip and congratulating Samuel. “We all owe you a round of applause,” she said. “It feels like we’ve arrived. It feels like the big time!”
The notion that having children may be a bad idea seems to be gaining mainstream popularly. But when we hear about it, it’s most often in the context of the climate crisis: activists are worried about bringing children into a world threatened by rising seas, mass displacement and other calamities. Anti-natalists, however, believe that procreation has always been and always will be wrong because of life’s inevitable suffering. What is similar about both anti-natalists and climate activists is they are seeing an increase in attention due to general pessimism about the state of the world, giving both more opportunities to gain support.
In 2006, the South African philosopher David Benatar published a book which is widely credited with introducing the term anti-natalism. In Better Never to Have Been: The Harm of Coming into Existence, Benatar quotes the Greek tragedian Sophocles (“Never to have been born is best / But if we must see the light, the next best / Is quickly returning whence we came”) and the text of Ecclesiastes (“So I have praised the dead that are already dead more than the living that are yet alive; but better than both of them is he who has not yet been, who has not seen the evil work that is done under the sun”). These quotes suggest that the sentiments at the heart of anti-natalism have been around for a very long time.
In modern history, another strain of thought emerged, warning against the dangers of population growth. In the late 18th century, Thomas Malthus sounded the alarm that the population would outstrip the food supply. In 1968, a Stanford biologist named Paul Ehrlich published the bestselling book The Population Bomb and co-founded the organization Zero Population Growth, arguing that the growth in global population would lead to famines and ecological crisis. He also suggested that people have no more than two children.
One member of Zero Population Growth struck out on his own with a much more radical agenda. A man named Les Knight launched the Voluntary Human Extinction Movement (VHEMT) with the goal of “Phasing out the human race by voluntarily ceasing to breed”.
While Benatar also sought to discourage reproduction, his ideas grew out of different premises. The objective of anti-natalism, as Benatar sees it, is to reduce human suffering. Since life inevitably involves some amount of suffering, bringing another person into the world introduces the guarantee of some harm. He argued that “the quality of even the best lives is very bad – and considerably worse than most people recognize it to be. Although it is obviously too late to prevent our own existence, it is not too late to prevent the existence of future possible people.”
Benatar told me recently that he has heard from many readers of his book who “have often felt that they were alone in the world. It was a great comfort to them to read a philosophical defense of a view they found intuitively correct.”
Dana Wells, the Dallas-based YouTuber, felt validated by Benatar’s work. About five years ago, she reunited with her biological brother (she was adopted), and he grilled her about why she didn’t have children. Feeling annoyed after their meeting, she searched online for books – “I’m a reader. I’m a nerd,” she says – in hopes of finding out about others who didn’t want kids.
For the first time, she encountered the terms “childfree” and “anti-natalism”. She began “to see that this life game is an imposition”. For her, it was simple: “Living things can be harmed. Non-living things cannot be harmed.”
As “The Friendly Antinatalist”, she posts videos with titles like First American Use of the Term ‘Antinatalism’. The answer to that question is yes, Wells says, looking into the camera. “It would be great if all anti-natalists could be childfree, but the world just doesn’t work out that way, you know? Especially for people who have recently learned about anti-natalism … you can’t fault those people for having children in the 70s, 80s, or 90s.”
She also discusses the distinctions between true anti-natalists (those who believe that creating new life is always wrong); the childfree (who don’t want kids themselves but don’t necessarily consider procreation unethical); and “denatalists” (who disapprove of procreation only under certain conditions such as people with genetic disabilities they will pass on to offspring, though this disapproval doesn’t usually transfer to racial or ethnic groups). Real anti-natalism, Wells emphasizes, means opposing all births, under all circumstances.
Wells also uses her videos to address tensions among true anti-natalists. “The biggest rift is between the vegans and the non-vegans,” she told me. To Benatar and his followers, the values of anti-natalism – that is, the imperative to avoid harm – apply not only to humans but to all sentient beings.
This brings us to perhaps the most unexpected aspect of anti-natalism: taken to its logical conclusion, it implies that not only humans but all sentient beings should be spared from life. As Benatar writes toward the end of the book, “it would be better if humans (and other species) became extinct.” As a result, many, but not all, anti-natalists are vegans. (The Antinatalism page on Facebook has about 7,000 followers; the Antinatalist Vegans page has more than 13,000.)
The challenge for anti-natalists – especially those who believe that not only humans but other species would be better off nonexistent – is how to achieve their goals without imposing additional suffering.
While anti-natalists believe that life is a curse, climate activists are primarily concerned about inflicting the ecological state of the world of today – and especially of tomorrow – on a child.
In 2015, two American climate activists, Meghan Kallman and Josephine Ferorelli, founded a network called Conceivable Future. They organize house parties throughout the country for people to share their considerations about having children, given the realities of the climate crisis. They upload videos from these gatherings to their website and encourage others to post their own “testimony”.
In one video, a 31-year-old elementary school teacher says: “I feel such fear and guilt and shame and sadness already … I find the loss of animals and plant life, the loss of water and air, just sad.” Others are more concerned about inflicting a child or rather the emissions the child would inevitably produce on the world.” In another video, a young man asks: “Do I really want to bring someone else into the world who’s gonna consume those fossil fuels?”
The Conceivable Future co-founders do not advocate any particular choice about childbearing. Instead, they want to open the space for these painful conversations. “We had noticed that the climate movement really lacked heart,” Kallman told me. Drawing the connections between the issue and these intensely personal decisions was a way to illuminate the stakes of climate change. “Every successful social movement in history has been successful because people can see what it means for them,” Kallman said. “We see our job as giving people the emotional grounding to do the work.”
In March, the British singer-songwriter Blythe Pepino began organising a group called BirthStrike, made up of about 600 people globally who refuse to have children as a result of the climate breakdown. Pepino has said that she wants to be a mother, but reluctantly decided that ecological circumstances were too dire. Like the founders of Conceivable Future, BirthStrike adherents don’t stand for population control but rather for calling attention to the severity of the climate crisis.
Anti-natalists and climate change activists have intersected in some ways, and each has drawn more attention to the other. Anti-natalist forums, for instance, often include information about how childlessness can reduce carbon footprints. But ultimately, the goals of the two camps diverge sharply. BirthStrike grew out of a group called Extinction Rebellion, which is protesting against the threatened extinction of millions of species, potentially including our own. By contrast, for true anti-natalists, extinction is the dream.
In a way, anti-natalists can offer some useful perspective for the rest of us. It may feel like a scary time to bring a child into the world, but, as Anti-natalists I spoke to pointed out, it always has been. “It’s not clear to me that the world is getting worse,” Benatar said.
“At all stages in human history, life has been filled with enough unpleasantness, enough badness, and of course always ending in death.” In some ways, children in the past before vaccines and anesthetic and laws – faced more risk and pain than they do today. Perhaps anti-natalists can help us appreciate that uncertainty and pain are an inherent part of sentient existence even if we disagree with them about whether the bargain is worth it.