Image by Ivy Sanders Schneider

An Unholy Alliance

Gaby Del Valle

To exist is to suffer; to bring another person into this world to suffer alongside you is an act of inexcusable cruelty. So says David Benatar, an anti-natalist philosopher who argues that procreation is inherently immoral. His fringe ideology, debated on digital fora and in graduate school classrooms, has yet to gain much real-world traction. But as ice caps melt and global temperatures rise, a different sort of anti-natalist sentiment is making headlines. A slate of articles and recent books, like Gina Rushton’s The Parenthood Dilemma and Elizabeth Rush’s The Quickening, question the ethics of having children in a world beset by once-unfathomable natural disasters. 

Environmentalist anti-natalism predates both Benatar’s brand of nihilism and today’s popular anxieties about climate catastrophe. The organization Zero Population Growth (ZPG) — whose name succinctly explains its mission — was cofounded in 1968 by biologist Paul Ehrlich, author of the enormously popular book The Population Bomb, released the same year. Ehrlich saw the post-World War II baby boom as an existential threat and predicted mass famine, water wars, and ecological collapse within a generation. To prevent these calamities, he called for wider access to birth control, voluntary and forced sterilization, and economic disincentives, including luxury taxes on cribs and diapers. ZPG’s decentralized chapters soon flourished on college campuses across the country, where young feminists and environmentalists largely focused on the issue of birth control. 

Today, anti-natalism is a marginal movement, and a shrunken ZPG has rebranded itself as Population Connection. In a 2021 Pew survey, when Americans were asked why they don’t plan to have children, roughly two percent cited environmental reasons. (The most common reason was simple preference, followed by medical and financial concerns.) Another recent survey found that 81 percent of people with outstanding student loan balances delayed “key life milestones,” including starting a family, because of their debt. 

In response to decreased fertility rates, a right-wing cohort of pro-natalists has emerged to counteract the trend. Pointing to dropping birth rates in wealthy countries with robust social safety nets, this group argues that government intervention alone cannot convince young people to reproduce. If generous parental leave and Scandi-style baby boxes can’t solve the problem, the logic goes, then the only way to prevent human extinction is by changing the culture.

A recent reporting trip brought me to Austin, Texas, where I and a hundred or so attendees of the inaugural Natal Conference gathered to listen to an unholy alliance of wealthy tech entrepreneurs and Christian nationalists discuss what they see as our depopulation quandary. Though pro-natalists blame the selfishness of millennials and the erosion of traditional gender roles and family structures, the solution some conference speakers offered was not to encourage the child-skeptical to procreate. Instead, they want to build their own “high fertility subcultures” to beat out others. A less populated future will, they hope, be one in which there are more people who think and look like they do.

Racial anxiety about the birth rate is nothing new. In fin-de-siècle America, social scientists worried about an Anglo-Saxon “race suicide.” Hard-hearted young women and soft-handed young men, the theory went, were being outbred by undesirable immigrants from Southern and Eastern Europe, whose “swarthy” genes threatened to pollute America’s superior germ plasm. It’s no coincidence that, ever since, waves of pro-natalist fervor have coincided with periods of high immigration rates. 

Neither the anti- nor the pro-natalist tradition has much to offer those of us interested in improving the lives of the already living. Anti-natalists are inclined to see human beings as vehicles for, or causes of, suffering, while pro-natalists regard them as numbers on a balance sheet, pawns in a demographic contest, soldiers in racial and holy wars. Conjuring fantasies of social collapse, anti- and pro-natalists alike deflect from the real horrors that the world’s children face. While browsing the anti-natalism hashtag on X, for instance, I came across posts chastising Palestinians for “breeding exponentially in their harsh conditions.” The only way to prevent human suffering in Gaza and elsewhere, apparently, is to stop creating human life altogether.

Now and then I think about my hypothetical future children. I wonder what their names will be, whether they’ll be interesting and kind, or if I’ll accidentally raise little assholes. Will they visit my childhood home in Florida, or will the ocean have swallowed it up? Will they play outside? Will they be able to breathe the air, to drink the water? Should they even exist? Though anti-natalists champion “family planning,” and pro-natalists claim to champion “the family” — to protect it from the corrosive influences of an increasingly selfish, atomized culture — both these groups’ anxieties stretch far beyond the home. Most of the time, starting a family is neither political nor ideological. But it is a bet on the future.

Gaby Del Valle is a writer living in Brooklyn.