D.H. Lawrence isn’t as popular as he once was, but this ‘beautiful clean thought’—given memorable expression by Rupert Birkin, Lawrence’s proxy, in his novel Women in Love (1920)—is very much in fashion. The anti-natalism movement also contemplates a world empty of people: wouldn’t it be an immeasurably better world than the one we’re currently cooking to a cinder? And we don’t have to destroy anybody; we could empty the planet of our destructive species simply by not having children. In a generation or three, we’d be gone. If you’ve already had children, you can mitigate your harmful effect on the planet by deciding not to have any more.
Anti-natalism counts The Duke and Duchess of Kent amongst its adherents. The couple publicly announced that two were enough following the birth of their second child, Lillibet. But Prince Harry first divulged their plans in an interview with the famous primatologist, Jane Goodall, a couple of years ago: ‘Two maximum! I’ve always thought: this place is borrowed. And surely, being as intelligent as we all are, or as evolved as we all are supposed to be, we should be able to leave something better behind for the next generation.’
In recognition of their decision, the royal pair have been awarded, well, an award, by the Population Matters charity: ‘Having a smaller family reduces our impact on the Earth, and provides a better chance for all our children, their children, and future generations to flourish on a healthy planet. We commend the Duke and Duchess for taking this enlightened decision, and for affirming that a smaller family is also a happy family.’
Prince Harry and Duchess Meghan and their fellow anti-natalists believe that the best way to save the Earth is to tread more lightly upon it, and the best way to achieve that is to have fewer children, or none at all.
No two ways about it, our planet is getting hotter. The Great Barrier Reef is dying. The island nation of Kiribati is disappearing beneath the waves. Forest fires are raging in Siberia. A recent article in The Guardian noted that the amount of water produced by the melting Greenland icesheet in a single day would cover the entire State of Florida in two inches of water. Even conservative projections of future rises in global temperatures, and consequent rises in sea levels, entail unimaginable suffering, mass extinctions, food shortages, refugee migrations, and shrinking habitats. Runaway climate change—the result of the release into the atmosphere of huge amounts of methane trapped beneath thawing permafrost—could lead to the extinction of all life on Earth.
Sometimes it all seems so overwhelming, the problems so vast and insoluble. Nonetheless, various solutions are proposed. I talked to senior lecturer at Auckland University’s law faculty, Marcus Roberts, and Auckland writer and former deputy editor of MercatorNet magazine, Carolyn Moynihan, who have concerns about the anti-natalism trend, and who critique the problems the movement seeks to address.
I asked them both about the rapid, more-than-exponential increase in human population over the last hundred years, from 2 billion in 1921 to just over 7.8 billion today. Isn’t that rather a lot? How can our planet sustain so many people?
‘Yes, the human population is increasing,’ says Marcus, ‘but the rate of increase has slowed dramatically in recent decades, especially in Western countries. Fertility rates have declined, as women are choosing to have fewer children, and to have them later in life. Other parts of the world are following suit, and there are now only a very few countries where birth rates continue to increase.’
Carolyn agrees. ‘Population pessimism has a long history,’ she says, ‘going back at least to the turn of the 19th century with the publication of Thomas Malthus’ Essay on the Principle of Population. Malthus thought that, unrestrained, the human propensity to procreate would always outstrip food supply resulting in famine and disease among the (prolific) poor. The same resource argument was resurrected by Paul Ehrlich of The Population Bomb fame in the 1960s.’
Carolyn points out that the mass-starvation scenario of Malthusian predictions has not, in fact, occurred (and where starvation has occurred, it has been largely due to political instability). “The industrial revolution and a rolling ‘revolution’ in agriculture culminating in the ‘green revolution’ in the mid-20th century demonstrated that human ingenuity could prevent such catastrophe.”
What about climate change? I asked them. The Great Barrier Reef? The Greenland icesheet? Carbon and methane emissions? A cooked Earth?
Carolyn agrees that “technical progress has brought its own problems, including a contribution to climate change, which presents more challenging issues than previous crises concerning resources and productive capacity.” But, she says, “we should not jump to the conclusion that human population increase is the problem, or a major problem. It is slowing in all but a handful of countries and could peak as early as 2064, according to one projection.”
“The problem,” Marcus says, “is not how many of us there are, but how we live.” Birthrates in Western nations have declined steeply in recent decades, yet the consumption of resources and the volume of emissions in these same countries—including New Zealand— continue to grow. Judging by our carbon footprints, we are nations of sasquatches. Marcus points out that the few parts of the world where birth rates continue to rise, such as sub-Saharan Africa, have comparatively very small carbon footprints per capita.
Both Marcus and Carolyn suggest that, just as innovation has saved us in the past from a Malthusian catastrophe, so too it may help us combat climate change. Philanthropic billionaire Bill Gates
is funding start-ups that specialize in such innovation—aviation fuel with zero carbon emissions, for example, or the capture of carbon dioxide released during the manufacture of concrete products, or even the spraying of solar reflective dust into the atmosphere.
More down-to-earth solutions include changing to more sustainable lifestyles—we could eat less or no meat (the farming of animals for food is a major contributor to carbon and methane emissions), or cycle more, or reduce waste. More people are collecting water off their roofs, installing solar panels, and composting—actions that at least make us feel like we are making a difference.
At the same time, we in the West continue to consume more resources and burn more fossil fuels. If we were told that cold water showers instead of hot would reduce carbon emissions and ameliorate some of the worst consequences of climate change, how many of us would switch to cold water? It’s as if we want less developed nations to have fewer children to address problems of our making, and to allow us to carry on as we are. “Population alarmism has led to draconian fertility control measures in countries like India and China,” Carolyn says, “with gross violations of human rights, and imperialist birth control policies towards and within African and other developing countries.”
Developing countries already serve as toxic waste dumps for the West, as cheap labour for multinationals, as sources of raw materials—now we who have so much want those who have so little to make further sacrifices. And this has a eugenicist tinge. Emboldened white supremacy groups and their amplifiers in media talk about declining birth rates in the West creating a vacuum—a vacuum being rapidly filled by influxes of immigrants and refugees. This is the so-called ‘Great Replacement’ theory.
What respectability does anti-natalism have as a philosophical position? What is that position? Surprisingly, it is wedded to the value of choice, or consent. A child does not consent to be born. To be brought into a world where pain is as inevitable as death is not something one is given a choice about. To have children is inconsistent with Kant’s categorical imperative that we treat other human beings not as means towards our own ends, but as ends in themselves. This is the kind of argument that gives philosophy a bad name, and Carolyn has little patience with it. “Life is a gift from a loving God,” she says.
You don’t have to have a religious faith to embrace the idea that life is an intrinsic good—that it’s better to be alive, with all the travails and joys that life brings, than not. Anti-natalism is a philosophy that is nihilist at its heart: it offers no hope.
In Thomas Hardy’s last novel, Jude the Obscure, Jude’s eldest child, nicknamed ‘Little Father Time’ because of his melancholy dis- position, kills Jude’s other two children and hangs himself because he believes the family’s woes are the children’s fault. The note he leaves behind reads simply: “Done because we are too menny.” It’s still shocking over a century later, but as the novel makes clear, Little Father Time is wrong. The problems Jude and his family face are systemic ones. The global issues we face today are grave, but they are systemic too. We must learn new ways of living with the planet rather than against it: for our planet’s sake, and that of our children.