Jordi Casamitjana, the author of the book “ethical vegan”, looks at the intersection between vegans (who are against animal exploitation) and antinatalists (who are against human procreation), to decide if he is a vegantinatalist.
It all started a long time ago.
Not in a galaxy far away, but right here, on this planet. Somewhere in southern Africa, a special baby primate was born about 300,000 years ago. Let’s call her Gui. She was slightly different from either parent. Different enough, that you could feel it in her bones. Feel it and see it. Gui did not look like her tough cousins from the North, the Neanderthals. She did not look like her strange cousins from the East, the Denisovans. She did not look like her small cousins from the faraway islands, Homo floresciensis. She did not look like her old ancestors from her neighbourhood, Homo heidelbergensis or Homo naledi. She looked like us. Gui was the first anatomically modern human. The first Homo sapiens sapiens.
Without her birth that day, none of us would have ever existed, and yet, not everyone would celebrate her birthday — if we knew when it was. Some people don’t’ like any human being born. Not all of them mind the birth of other animals, but they don’t like the birth of humans. They call themselves antinatalists, as this term derives from nātālis, the Latin for “birth”.
Antinatalism is the ethical view that human procreation is morally wrong, and therefore people should abstain from it. Why? Several reasons we will discuss in a minute, but for now, let’s just acknowledge their existence. Most likely, there have never been more antinatalists than today.
On the other hand, the number of ethical vegans like myself (or people who fully subscribe to the philosophy of veganism), has also increased with time, and it’s probably safe to say that, although we are still a minority in the human race, there has never been more vegans in this planet. Is this the only thing that these two humanity’s cohorts have in common, their record increase in numbers? No, these two groups intersect, and their intersection is not devoid of meaning. In fact, there is a term for it: Vegantinatalism.
Am I a vegantinatalist? Let’s find out.
What is Antinatalism?
The term antinatalism is quite new. It was probably first used by the Belgian writer, philosopher and activist Théophile de Giraud in his 2006 book L’art de guillotiner les procréateurs: Manifeste anti-nataliste. The idea that humans should not procreate, though, is much older. For instance, you find it in ancient Indian religions such as Hinduism and Buddhism. The Buddhist attempt to leave behind the circle of the suffering of birth and re-birth (Saṃsāra) by following the Buddha’s fourth novel path that leads to Nirvana, could be interpreted as an antinatalist view (but avoiding reincarnation rather than avoiding procreation). Theognis, Sophocles, and many other ancient Greeks wrote about the idea that “the best thing is not to be born, and the next best thing is to return quickly to where we came from.”
The Marcionites and the Manichaeans were ancient dualist religions that considered this world to be evil and therefore procreating in it was the work of evil too. You could see the same approach in the Bogomils and Cathars, dualist offshoots of Christianity from the Middle Ages, who believed in a good god and an evil god.
Arthur Schopenhauer, the 19th-century German philosopher, talked about sparing future generations the burden of existence. Also, the philosopher who wrote under the pseudonym Kurnig published a book called Neo-Nihilism in 1903, which was the first book entirely devoted to anti-procreationism.
In 1991, the Voluntary Human Extinction Movement (VHEMT) was formed, which encouraged people to stop having children for environmental reasons. They define themselves as “a movement advanced by people who care about life on planet Earth. We’re not just a bunch of misanthropes and anti-social, Malthusian misfits, taking morbid delight whenever disaster strikes humans. Nothing could be farther from the truth. Voluntary human extinction is the humanitarian alternative to human disasters.” They hope that the alternative to the extinction of thousands of species of plants and animals is the voluntary extinction of just one species, Homo sapiens. And, for them, the ethical way to achieve this would be for everyone to voluntarily decide not to have any children — while the unethical way they do not condone would be genocide, in all its variations.
Today, an anti-natalist group in Reddit has more than 140,000 members and a few anti-natalist Facebook groups count thousands of followers. The South African philosopher David Benatar is probably the most well-known current antinatalism advocate, which he defends in his book Better Never to Have Been: The Harm of Coming into Existence. In 2021, Blake Hereth and Anthony Ferrucci defined antinatalism as follows: “Anti-natalism is the view that it is morally impermissible to bring a child into existence. Anti-natalism is a moral position concerning prospective procreation. As such, it is a moral thesis against procreation for the purposes of bringing new humans into existence.”
Not everyone takes it to the same extreme, though. There are different types of antinatalists. For instance, Local Antinatalists, who oppose birth in particular cases or under certain circumstances, and Global Antinatalists, who oppose human births anywhere. Philanthropic Antinatalists are against having children because they love humans and don’t want them to suffer. Misanthropic Antinatalists, on the other hand, opposed all births because they hate humans (for what they do to themselves, or others). And some antinatalists go beyond humans believing that all sentient beings should not be born (some of whom may be vegans against rewilding as they say it creates more suffering, which I disagree with).
Antinatalism is not the same as voluntary childlessness, which is increasing all over the world. There are many reasons why people don’t want to have children without thinking that there is anything wrong with other people having them. For instance, progress in society has created the phenomenon of decreasing fertility rates correlated with increasing women’s education. Also, some lifestyles are not conducive to parenthood, and women’s empowerment in the workplace may lead to more of them preferring to concentrate all their attention and energy to work. Other factors may be the increase of availability of contraceptives, urbanism, the weakening of the idea of the indispensability of nuclear families, secularisation, the rising cost of childrearing, and the loss of the stigma of being childless. And not to forget that in some countries the State has pushed towards a reduction of procreation — as is the case of the controversial one-child policy in China.
Arguments for Antinatalism
Antinatalists have been accumulating an impressive list of arguments to justify their ethical stand. Religious, philosophical, social, ecological, and political arguments. Let’s look at some of them.
The strongest of all is, in my opinion, human overpopulation. We are expected to reach 11 billion people on Earth by the year 2100. The planet may not be able to sustain so many, so, in a way, it is possible that human extinction is inevitable, and reaching it in our terms sooner than later may cause less suffering to people and other sentient beings. When a few weeks ago I interviewed the author and fellow ethologist Jonathan Balcombe, he mentioned this issue: “We have to address the human population. This is something that we don’t hear on the news, almost ever. It’s really frustrating that this issue is not presented as a good thing. To work to lower our procreative rate and to lower our numbers. Everything else being equal, even if we are making progress in other areas, if there are more of us, we need to take more resources. It’s worst for climate change. It’s worst for pandemics if this goes on.”
Related to this argument is the notion that human existence is the major cause of the current climate crisis, and from all the mitigating actions responsible people can take (becoming vegan, stopping flying, using public transport, etc.) not creating more humans is the most impactful. Climatologists Kimberly Nicholas and Seth Wynes concluded that there is nothing better an individual can do to curb their greenhouse gas emissions than have fewer children. I believe them.
Another argument is the reduction of human suffering. More than 56.5 million people die every year, many of them from painful diseases, so the fewer people are born, the fewer people will end up suffering. There is a devastating logic in that.
An interesting argument is the realisation that birth is non-consensual. Up to an extent, giving birth could be, but the person being born did not ask to be born. It could be argued that the lack of consent, and the inability to predict if the future life of the person being born will be good or bad, should lead to the abstention from procreation. In a way, when we humans figured out what sex does, that knowledge cannot be ignored and the consequences of it should be taken seriously. If, after pondering enough, couples conclude that they are not sure whether their potential children will have a good life and would be content in living it — rather than attempting suicide at one point — then the precautionary principle should apply, and abstinence of reproduction could be the moral thing to do.
The possibility — or even the imperative — of adoption is a good one too. In a world with so many children who need a family, it seems morally wrong to have a child instead of adopting a child in need. Especially when many institutions facilitate the process, and when we know that the sense of belonging to a family can be as strong in adopted children (especially if they don’t know they are adopted) as in biological ones.
Vegantinatalism Is a Real Thing
These days, you can find vegans in all types of people, and with time I expect even more. But now and then, the intersection of veganism and something else seems to “react” in such a way that both groups cross-fertilise each other. For instance, in another article, I have argued that board gamers and vegans seem to have some sort of “chemistry” that make “vegan board gamers” a distinctive new phenomenon. The same can be said about antinatalists and vegans, till the point that an entirely new word has been created for their intersection: Vegantinatalism.
The first time I read this term was a few months ago when someone commented about my article on single-issue campaigning. He said: “I read some of your article, it’s well-written. As a vegantinatalist, I do have a problem with the lack of coverage for antinatalism by fellow vegans. Most vegans are apathetic about antinatalism, even though it is the single greatest way to reduce our negative impact on Earth.”
If you google it, you will find it used in several antinatalist pages. And, of course, there is also a Facebook group for it. It is not surprising, because if you look at the arguments listed in the previous chapter, many are very similar to arguments we vegans use to justify veganism. For instance, we vegans abstain to buy and consume non-vegan products to drive demand down for them and eventually create a paradigm shift in which the industries of animal exploitation collapse. This “demand” tactic would also work if instead of avoiding animal products, we avoid creating new consumers of them. Considering that we vegans are just a small majority of the humans on Earth, we may reduce the demand for animal products faster by reducing the human population size by abstinence of procreation than by convincing others to become vegan.
Eco-vegans entered the vegan world through the environmental gateway, so they care a lot about the environment and the current climate crises. Rejecting animal products is a good step towards reducing our contributions to greenhouse gases, but as we saw in the previous chapter, reducing procreation is even better. A vegantinatalist does both, so as we ask environmentalists to become vegan as just reducing the use of fossil fuels or plastics is not enough, vegantinatalist may say the same to vegans who still procreate once they know the effects of the existence of humans. Not having children is bound to reduce both our Carbon and Blood Footprint, if we consider the footprint that our potential children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren may have.
Animal Rights Vegans prioritise their veganism in preventing animal suffering by actively rejecting all animal exploitation. When faced with probing vegandeniers asking them what would happen to all the farm animals if the world became vegan, the standard answer tends to be: “it will not happen overnight, as farmers will stop breeding animals, and eventually, no animals will be born into animal exploitation anymore.” Isn’t this the very same “reducing suffering” argument the antinatalists use?
Even more strikingly similar is the “non-consensual” argument. One of the main reasons for animal rights vegans opposing all animal exploitation, not only exploitation that causes death or severe physical harm, is because all exploitation is a violation of body autonomy and is done without the informed consent of the animals. The same could be said about forcing new human beings to be born, with whatever genetic makeup their parents unconsciously choose (including any genetic abnormalities or predisposition to some diseases).
And finally, the adoption. Do you remember “adopt, don’t shop”? Who hasn’t heard vegans saying that adopting a dog from a shelter is a very vegan thing to do, considering how many require help and are at risk to be executed if they don’t find a home soon? How different this really is from an orphan human child in need in a war zone, for example?
I must say, the more I write about this, the more I realise that the compatibility between antinatalism and veganism is strong, and I am wondering whether it would be as incoherent not to be vegan if you are an environmentalist as not to be antinatalist if you are an ethical vegan. I am an ethical vegan for most of the reasons ethical vegans can be (the animals, the environment, social justice, and health), and not only have I never had a child, but I never wanted one — and I haven’t changed my mind on this. Am I a vegantinatalist, then?
Time to Come Out?
At first sight, it does seem that I fit the vegantinatalism profile. I do think there are far too many humans on this planet, and if we reduce our population considerably, not only we could stop our worse crises sooner (world’s hunger, deforestation, species extinction, climate change, animal suffering, human displacement, wars, etc.), but we could do better in any of our endeavours. I also find most of the antinatalist arguments quite convincing. And I never wanted to procreate, not only now that I am getting too old for it, but when I was in my biological prime.
But before taking the step, let’s dig a bit deeper.
The overpopulation argument is strong, but it fails to address one of its causes. One cause is socio-political, while the other is biological. Most societies have traditionally held the view that the bigger is your tribe, the more power you are going to have. You will have more workers to make stuff, and more soldiers to win more wars and expand your territory. But when nations began moving away from empire-building and slavery and began developing welfare policies where the State looks after its citizens (no matter how needy they may be), it became too expensive to look after big populations. This socio-political cause is no longer justifiable, then.
But what about the biological cause? What about the instinct to reproduce humans have? Just because I don’t seem to have it, it does not mean other people does not have it either. Look at the length infertile couples go to reverse their infertility. Look at the extreme parents go to help their children to prosper as if their lives are more valuable than their own? Look at the bond parents claim to have with their biological offspring which not always is replicated with their adoptive counterparts (which addresses the adoption argument as well). The brain seems to care more about who carries your genes than who carries your wheelchair, and that makes evolutionary sense.
If you, like me, don’t have a strong reproductive drive, it’s hard to understand the behaviour of those who do. I have met several people who clearly had a strong desire to have children, even if their circumstances were far from favourable for it. I could see it in their eyes. For them, it’s not a social convention or an economic strategy. It’s a gut feeling. A biological imperative, no different than the one we found in any other non-human species which fight as much to reproduce than to survive.
This is an important point. We are not talking about a “false” instinct here, as the one carnists claim to have regarding wanting meat. It’s a real one. So, is it morally wrong to follow a biological instinct? If it is, we could argue that killing a plant to eat is morally wrong; or killing a predator in self-defence may also be. We, vegans, argue that people should become vegan because it’s not really a sacrifice. We are not “wired” to consume animal products, and if we choose a vegan diet not only that would be a better ethical choice, but it will be healthier for us too. Becoming vegan does not go against any biological instinct. But stopping procreation may, at least in some people who have a strong urge to breed.
So, just because I have a weak procreation instinct, does this give me the right to criticise those that have a strong one and cannot help succumbing to it? Does this give me the right to say they act immorally? I can criticise a meat eater who insists on eating meat after knowing the reality of animal exploitation and environmental destruction. But I don’t think I can criticise breeding humans for having been unable to stop their reproductive instincts. And if I cannot criticise them for it, I cannot say that human reproduction is morally wrong. It may be unfortunate, and something we wish did not exist in its current rampant form, but not intrinsically wrong.
Then we have the argument of the climate crisis. Bringing more humans to this world can indeed increase your Carbon and Blood footprint, but what about bringing new eco-vegans to this world? What if you raise your family under a low footprint paradigm, and because of that, they become well-adjusted leaders of the future that change policies and laws that affect the behaviour of many people at the same time. What if, in the future, one politician successfully champions a bill to ban animal agriculture and another to ban the use of fossil fuels. What if she achieved this great milestone only because she grew up in a fully eco-vegan family, which maintained the eco-vegan tradition for generations? In other words, if you are a vegan couple, how much good you could do for the planet if you start an eco-vegan dynasty? Would the alternative, leaving the carnist dynasties to run things as usual, be a more morally sound option?
And what would happen if all vegans became vegantinatalists, while the carnists don’t? Would we ever reach the vegan world then? Of course not. After one generation, there would not be a single vegan left, and if some nostalgic “woke” people become vegan later in the new 100 % carnist human population, their philosophy would be gone when they die. None of the historical communities with antinatalist policies have survived more than one generation — not surprises there.
It’s not that we live in an antinatalist world and vegantinatalists are trying to convince the rest of vegans to join them. We live in a pro-natalist world. Most carnist want to breed, and the worst of all, those who don’t care about the environment, animals, marginalised communities, and even the welfare of their offspring, even more. These will take over the world again if decent people with good values stop having families. In fact, a valid strategy to get sooner to the vegan world would be to ensure ethical vegans breed more than everyone else until there are enough of us. We can then begin to have a significant effect in politics and legislation and accelerate the inevitable change.
We need more vegans, not fewer vegans. Actually, what we need is more vegans for life, not people eating a plant-based diet for January. And where do vegans for life come from? From vegan families. All the vegans from birth I know come from vegan parents who raise them in a vegan household. I have interviewed some of these who are still vegan more than 50 years later, and so are all their family members. That is because those vegan families have vegan values, not just plant-based habits, which you would need considering is unlikely you will learn them at school. I would say it is more likely you will be a vegan for life if you were brought up as a vegan than if you just joined hoping to become more attractive during your middle-age crisis.
Regarding the non-consensuality of being born, it is true that parents act disregarding whether their offspring have given them consent to be born, but this does not mean that they acted immorally. They took a risk, a calculated risk, but they did not act immorally. If they were decent folks, they will have bread only when they thought they could provide for their offspring, but even if they overestimated their capabilities, they may try to compensate for that with an extra effort in giving their children the best upbringing they can provide (which not always depends on physical assets, but also moral ones). After all, if you ask most people if they want to live, they will say that they do, so the couples’ gambling would have good odds in their favour. If that was not the case, the death penalty would not be the ultimate deterrent to crime. Most people may be unsatisfied with the life they have, but I don’t think they would prefer not to have been born. I am certainly happy I was born. I am grateful to my parents for my existence — I have seen many times the amazing sight of a dog smiling or a flower feeding a bumblebee, for free — and I don’t think I am different from most people.
As far as the argument about the reduction of suffering is concerned, it has a significant weakness. It ignores content, happiness, and bliss. It’s not that I am an optimist that I always see the glass half-full. I have seen suffering and despair, but I have seen many more instances of sentient beings, including humans, being content than being suffering. And I have seen — and experienced too — the joys of pleasure. I feel it every morning when I eat my porridge, even if sometimes that may be the highlight of the day. I feel it every time I hear a C Major chord from a perfectly tuned piano, even if the sound fades quickly. I feel it every time my brain gives me a shot of dopamine when I flip up my social media screen. The more humans there are, the more could feel all those things too.
So, am I a vegantinatalist? I don’t think so. Am I a vegan-pro-natalist then? No, I don’t think so either. What I am, them?
I Am an Ethical Vegan
Those who have read my work may notice that I often mention ahimsa as the basic principle of veganism. This Sanskrit term that means “do no harm” is limitless. It means far more than “you shall not kill” or “you shall not bear false witness against your neighbour”. It means try not to harm anything that can be harmed. Yourself, your family, your neighbour, your compatriots, other humans, other animals, and even the environment.
This is the principle that I try to apply to everything I do, and with time I try to increase the scope of how I am applying it, constantly expanding the circle of entities I strive not to harm. But ethical veganism is more than just systematically and coherently applying ahimsa. There are three other principles built on top of ahimsa that are the pillars of ethical veganism. One is considering that all animals are sentient beings, the second is considering that all animal exploitation harms the animals exploited, and the third is that we should not discriminate against animals because of the species they belong to, as doing so would be speciesist — and ethical veganism is intrinsically anti-speciesist.
Therefore, as a fervent believer in all these four principles of ethical veganism, I cannot treat sentient beings better or worse just because of the species they belong to. And, for me, that includes the species Homo sapiens, and its sub-species Homo sapiens sapiens. If I advocated for its extinction in favour of the survival of other species, I would be speciesist, and transgress the principles I hold “sacred”. That’s why I can neither be a Misanthropic nor a Global antinatalist.
This does not mean denying what humans are doing to other sentient beings and the planet or avoiding humanity’s responsibility to correct its mistakes. It means that I cannot blame individual humans for what other members of their species have done. It means I cannot deny to such individuals the same rights I grant to individuals of other species — especially if they are ethical vegans for life who do as much as they can to minimise their blood and carbon footprint, but they just happen to belong to the disappointing human race.
Even more, if I would try to justify some form of anti-natalism only targeted to human beings, the first obstacle I would find is defining what a human being is. Remember Gui, the first anatomically modern human I named in the preamble? Well, you may have heard of Eve. No, I am not talking about the Biblical Eve, but the Mitochondrial Eve. If we look at the genes that we found inside mitochondria (small energy-producing organs inside all animal cells) in humans, and we try to develop an ancestral tree of humanity based on that, it turns out that all current humans are descendants of a single woman (mitochondria are passed from generation to generation only via the maternal line). Scientists call her Mitochondrial Eve, and she probably lived about 200,000 years ago around Makgadikgadi, a vast wetland in northeastern Botswana.
Gui (which means “one” in the Hoekhoe language of the Khoisan people of northern Botswana), was one of the ancestors of Eve. Gui may have had many children, which in turn procreated and expanded into several lineages. But all of them became extinct, except one. Only Eve’s lineage survived to the present day.
If I was a humane vegantinatalist with a time machine, I could go back in time and try to find the first human to sterilise her, thus preventing “humanity’s sins” — Terminator-style. Who should I try to sterilise, Gui or Eve? Or would it be Lucy, the Ethiopian female Australopithecus afarensis who lived around 3.2 million years ago and, for a while, was considered the “spokesperson” of the first hominids?
To be human, or not to be human. That’s the question. And the answer is quite arbitrary. In fact, the definitions of species are all pretty arbitrary, made by scientists to organise their data better, but constantly changing when new scientists prefer different classifications. Biological evolution does not work like this. It does not create a discrete set of different species at different times, as buying a new set of dinner plates when they no longer match the new curtains. It’s all about gradual change, sometimes slow change and sometimes fast, but always gradual. Gui’s mother could have been the one chosen as “the first”. Or her grandmother. We may have chosen Gui because of the morphology we decided to assign to “anatomically modern humans”, but we could have chosen different traits, as many paleoanthropologists have done in the past, “creating” new species by lumping or splitting the available data into different groups. The “first” could be Eve if we ignore the morphology of the bones and concentrate on the mitochondria. Or it could be someone else if we had fossils of skin and muscle rather than bones and discovered other differences that do not show up in the skeletons. Or it could be Lucy if we mean “hominid” when we say “human”. In other words, the line between species is blurred, and, in many respects irrelevant, because species themselves do not exist, only individual animals we lump together for convenience based on some relatively arbitrary — but agreed — similarities.
So, that intrepid time travel antinatalist could choose different “first” humans to sterilise, but in the end, the chances are that it would not make much of a difference. Why? Look at the current pandemic. Remember Omicron? Remember that it was the virus’ variant that replaced Delta? And Delta replaced Alpha? This is how biological evolution works, and the speed viruses reproduce allow us to see in two or three years what in mammals may take millions of years. What we call humanity today is the variant of humans we could call Eve’s humans, which replaced the others that came before. But if we had eliminated Eve, then the others would not have been replaced, and those other types of humans could be those we would find today. And who knows if they would have been better or worse than us. And if we had made extinct all “humans” of the genus Homo, perhaps the “humans” of the genus Australopithecus (all extinct today for having been replaced by the other hominids) would have taken our place. The same can be said about modern humans. We know how bad we are for the planet, but if we disappear altogether, how do we know that the next species that evolves to reach significant technological advances may not be even worse? We don’t. We are not that special. The chances are that, if a big asteroid had not fallen onto Earth about 85 million years ago, mammals would never have evolved any primate at all — let alone one who drinks decaf soya lattes in plastic cups.
Working for the extinction of one species in favour of another is speciesist, and assuming that the extinction of Homo sapiens sapiens guarantees that no other species, primate or otherwise, will not evolve to end up overpopulating and heating the Earth because only the exact combination of genes created with the first anatomically modern humans is the only one that can do that, is pretentious. Is, in fact, anthropocentric. The kind of selfish ignorant inner looking characteristic of carnists or supremacists, not ethical vegans.
Naturally, we have a moral responsibility to control our personal and collective behaviours and stop harming ourselves and others. And controlling our population rate to reverse the current growth must be part of it. Transitioning towards a plant-based economy, making veganism our default ethics, and moving into ahimsa politics, is something we all should be advocating for. But championing humanity’s extinction instead, looks like not wanting to take responsibility for our mistakes and just trying to bail out without correcting them. Humanity’s suicide, even if in the form of preventing human births other than ending humans’ lives, seems more an act born from individual desperation than collective responsibility. Significantly reducing our population and abolishing our harmful habits is the way to go, by all means. But voluntary extinction seems a step too far.
I have made my mind now. I cannot define myself as a vegantinatalist as I feel that most people under this label may be speciesists who discriminate against one species they have arbitrary defined. But I am not a pro-natalist either because there are far too many humans and reducing our population to a much lower level would be beneficial for all. Much lower, but not zero. Much lower, but not to a handful of inbred privileged elitists. Enough to have sufficient biodiversity to continue evolving on this planet, like everyone else.
And to help to achieve that, I will voluntarily maintain my childlessness status if I can, because I am lucky enough that, so far, my procreative instinct has either been diverted into creating other things rather than humans or was never fully developed during my puberty for whatever reason — perhaps something I ate.
I salute those who also can, but I know others may not have been so lucky, and I can’t accuse them of acting immorally for their lack of fortune.
I may need to thank them if they manage to start a vegan dynasty that takes humanity to the vegan world sooner.
There is always a chance.