In the August issue of Elle, the singer Miley Cyrus revealed how she feels about having kids in the future. "We’re getting handed a piece-of-shit planet, and I refuse to hand that down to my child," the recently separated and longtime vegan told Elle. "Until I feel like my kid would live on an earth with fish in the water, I’m not bringing in another person to deal with that. "
When the Elle interviewer, Molly Lambert, agreed that this is a sentiment many millennials can relate to, Cyrus said, "Yeah. We don’t want to reproduce because we know that the earth can’t handle it." While this save-the-planet-don’t-have-kids mindset might sound like some fringe concept that only hardcore vegans or celebs like Cyrus would follow, it’s not. More people, millennials specifically, are drawn to a similar idea that suggests that procreation is problematic. It’s called "antinatalism," and proponents believe it’s the environmentally friendly and morally ethical thing to do.
Technically, "antinatalism" was coined by David Benatar, a South African philosopher who wrote a book called Better Never To Have Been. In it, he posits that the only way to prevent all suffering is to never bring human life into the world in the first place. Though the book came out in 2006, Benatar’s concept has taken on a new life, so to speak, among Redditers, YouTube communities, and vegan advocacy groups. Online, antinatalists have created a safe space to talk about their experiences, share memes about natalism, and geek out about philosophy.
"In my mind an antinatalist is someone who opposes procreation or finds procreation morally problematic in many instances for any number of reasons, not limited to ending human suffering," explains Tina Rulli, PhD, assistant professor in the philosophy department at the University of California, Davis. For example, some antinatalists believe that procreating comes at the opportunity cost of helping a child up for adoption. Others worry about the strain that a new person would have on the environment. And a few antinatalists oppose procreation because they believe "existing people cannot consent to existence [for others] and all the harms that life inevitably brings with it," Dr. Rulli says.
As far-fetched as it seems, it makes sense that some millennials are drawn to this reasoning. Amidst today’s political realities, climate change, and financial burdens — such as crushing student loan debt and high childcare costs — the world today does seem somewhat shitty. We want to have some say in our future, and this seems like one way to do it.
Amanda Sukenick, a 36-year-old filmmaker and artist from Chicago, first stumbled upon antinatalism while watching YouTube videos in 2010, and recalls feeling "deeply inspired" by the concept. "I spent a long time thinking about the idea of antinatalism being sort of this very elegant, simple, brilliant method of alleviating suffering," she shares. Before then, she hadn’t thought much about whether or not she wanted kids, but suddenly she had clarity. "It seemed like such a magnificent and un-chewed-upon piece of intellectual gristle," she says. These days, she runs a YouTube channel about antinatalism, and has been strictly vegan for the past two years.
To Sukenick, the idea that antinatalism could swiftly and effectively "end suffering," and not expose sentient beings to pain is the most appealing part. Although she has people in her life who have kids, she sees their decision to do so as naive and arrogant. "People sort of are addicted to these narratives of what their child will experience, what life will produce for them, and what they’ll be able to control as far as their child’s experience," she says. "The fact of the matter is, we don't have any control over that."
If you’ve never heard of antinatalism before, or if you’re someone who has kids, then it’s only natural to balk at the philosophy — or at least have lots of questions. Who will take care of you when you’re old? Don’t you want to continue your family line? What about all the good in life? Isn’t it natural to want kids? Why do people suddenly hate babies? This inquisition is something that many antinatalists refer to as "bingoing," because the questions are so predictable that they say you could fill up a "BINGO" board with each one.
Of course, someone who has gone through the effort of getting pregnant, staying pregnant, and giving birth to a child would take offense to someone questioning the morality of their decision. A decision that some say literally defines us all, is embedded in our DNA, and innate in all beings. This is one reason why antinatalists struggle explaining their decisions to those who don’t agree with them. While many are outspoken online, others don’t talk publicly about their beliefs because they don’t want to be misunderstood by the children in their lives or judged by online "mommy gangs." The irony, Dr. Rulli points out, is that people call those who choose not to procreate selfish, when "procreation itself is usually done for self-regarding reasons."
Dana Wells, a 37-year-old contract processor from Dallas who runs the YouTube channel, "The Friendly Antinatalist," recalls being bingoed when she met her biological brother at an adoption reunion five years ago. It was the first time she met him, and he immediately questioned her childfree lifestyle. "I didn't appreciate having to justify my decision to this near-stranger, which I had never had to do before, and the whole conversation left me with a nagging, uneasy feeling," Wells says. "Why did he feel the need to persistently question me about my decision and use my answers to try and persuade me about how great parenthood was and all that I was supposedly missing out on?" This conversation and pushback only solidified what Dana believed to be true: "People really do procreate for only selfish reasons — never for the sake of the child."
Some advocates find that "antinatalism" is a misnomer, because it implies that the issue is around giving birth, rather than the whole act of procreation. Of course there are other options available for people who want to have kids or start a family, such as adoption and foster care, that allow people to raise children. Wells says she wishes antinatalists wouldn’t "refer to adoption as if it were a simple and easy alternative solution to creating biological children." There are several nuanced arguments like this within the antinatalist community, but most agree that you have to think carefully about what reasons you have to create other people and understand that you don’t need to engage in a procreative act to have a fulfilled or complete life. "There should be a moral priority on meeting existing needs over creating new ones," Dr. Rulli says. And, for the record: antinatalists are very pro-sex.
When I ask Sukenick what a "perfect world" looks like to her, she doesn’t pause before saying, "A barren universe. A place where no sentient beings can be harmed." For the record, she assures me that she’s very engaged in life and loves a lot of things about her own. Still, she adds, that all of those things come at the cost of suffering.
Who knows if the world that Cyrus described is exactly the same world that Sukenick, Wells, Dr. Rulli, and other antinatalists envision. But if nothing else, the concept has given people who choose not to have kids an opportunity to articulate their views and feel seen by others who don’t identify with the cultural and societal pressure to procreate. There are some obvious logistical flaws to the movement: if everyone adopted this mindset, the human race would effectively end. That runs contrary to humans’ biological desire to survive, so it’s not a philosophy that most of us would be likely to sign up for. Then again, as antinatalists argue, none of us signed up to be here in the first place.