Birth-strikers¹ are a group of people who believe it is immoral to have children because children contribute to climate change, and climate change is going to fuck the planet.² The birth-strikers have started a procreative rebellion; they refuse to reproduce until the climate crisis is averted.
Though they have been around for a while, you have probably heard about the birth-strikers in recent weeks. In particular, The Guardian love this shit. Extinction Rebellion dumped 200 litres of artificial blood on the ground outside 10 Downing St to symbolise the ‘death of our children’ from climate change; some of them did so as part of the birth-strike movement. Blythe Pepino has started a protest group, BirthStrike, to promote the movement, and her efforts scored her an interview with Fox News’ Tucker Carlson. And Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez also endorsed the birth-strike in an Instagram livestream. “It is basically a scientific consensus that the lives of our children are going to be very difficult”, she said, “and it does lead young people to have a legitimate question: is it OK to still have children?” We don’t know if Cortez is a birth-striker herself; nonetheless, her thinking is shared by millennials who are terrified of life on a sweltering planet, and who therefore refuse to bring children into our world.
At heart, the birth-striker attempts a logical, moral argument. A 40 y.o. mother, quoted in The Guardian on November 27th, succinctly captures their motivations: “I regret having my kids because I am terrified that they will be facing the end of the world due to climate change.” Essentially, the birth-striker worries that child-rearing will a) accelerate and worsen climate change, that b) the worsened climate change will inflict possibly unendurable suffering upon their offspring. Procreation, in their eyes, will contribute to the impending environmental disaster, and the children they create will be the ones who suffer most. Their brief lives will be snuffed out, or, failing this, they will be wholly occupied by existential anguish we can scarcely imagine. Their’s will be a world of ‘wars over limited resources, collapsing civilisation, failing agriculture, rising seas, melting glaciers, starvation, droughts, floods, mudslides and widespread devastation’, to quote one anxious birth-striker, again from The Guardian.
In essence, the birth-striker believes our children will not have the lives we have had. The inter-generational drop in the quality of life will be catastrophic, and the more we breed, the worse it will be. Hence, it is our duty not to bring life into the world. The moral dilemma is clear: to breed, or not to breed? A cogent thought; yet, I wonder if there isn’t a less suicidal solution to our environmental problems.
My questioning comes because, in my eyes, these catastrophe ethics are ethically catastrophic. Nietzsche proclaimed as nihilistic all moralities that constrained the will to power: to live, flourishing wildly, thriving at the highest tenor. Birth-striking is an obviously nihilistic approach to the climate crisis. Abstaining from procreation for political reasons is life-denying in the most literal sense.³ It posits genetic suicide on a broad scale as an antidote to the problem of unregulated industry. By birth-striking, individuals subordinate their biological and familial urges to a crisis of political economy and consumption culture. A sense of powerlessness lies at its core, and it is, I think, a stance utterly devoid of hope. It contains a despair, forced upon the weak by those who are both powerful and indifferent.⁴
Aside from its nihilism, birth-striking individualises the solution to the climate crisis. We have been unable to hold our governments and multi-national corporations to account thus far. And despite our talents for innovation, technological solutions to the crisis have not come quickly enough. Both, I think, are failures of capitalism: of money, continuously funnelled into the wrong locations. Whatever the case, people are disturbed by the disjunct between scientific consensus and political action. Terrified, they are persuaded to take drastic action. Responsibility has fallen into their hands, so they take the most extreme action they could: vasectomies and tubal ligations to fight climate change. To preserve the species, they wipe out the evolutionary line that stretches backwards from them to the first stirrings of life on earth. The seriousness and the tragedy of their protest, I think, can’t be overstated. But neither can the inequity of their solution: to destroy one’s bloodline for the irresponsibilities of governments and corporations is manifestly unfair. Those who lose share little to none of the blame: the individual is, at best, a marginal contributor to climate change, and the unborn certainly did not cause the problem.
My qualm is not with the logic of birth striking; indeed, I sympathise with it. I simply abhor the willingness of people to adopt this mantle of responsibility. Their choice shocks me in the way all political suicides do. Self-immolations against oppression, blowing one’s brains out for freedom and the like. They feel like non-violent protests gone wrong. And I wonder if there isn’t another equilibrium — something more just than self-destruction.
In this mind, I offer my solution: have your child, and shoot a banker instead. If overpopulation and overconsumption are our problems, reproduce, and gun down a fossil fuels executive. Set the scales straight: kill a politician for each kid you have. Bomb the conference for oil industry lobbyists, and start your family. If you see a slow suicide as your responsibility, why not murder instead? Balance can be achieved in different ways. To birth-strike, I think, only punishes ourselves, and deprives the unborn of their chance to live.⁵ Why not deprive those responsible of their life instead?
Those in power are already sacrificing the next generation with their inaction: birth-striking obliges their logic. Instead, why not turn the tables on them? Why don’t we sacrifice those in power to protect the most vulnerable, those most deprived of a political voice — our potential babies who are yet to come? For the sake of their interests, the powerful would love it if we ceased breeding; it suits them perfectly if we declare it immoral. Our morality would wipe out their competition and liberate them from their responsibility. Participating in the birth-strike, we destroy the possibility of our family to serve their selfish indifference and their entitlement. And what, I ask, is more immoral than forsaking the innocent to protect the powerful? In my eyes, the only greater crime is to make the mistake that the powerful will care that you abstained. The birth-strikers relieve them of their responsibility; they will be overjoyed at your generosity. You will have fulfilled their unstated hope for your death.
Eco-terrorism, then, really is more life-affirming than the birth-strike. If birth-strikes are permitted, we should have more eco-terrorism.
Psychological arguments further support our case. Psychoanalytic theory, for example, tells us that suicide is often murder in a different guise. Suicide kills the part of the other that lies within our hearts: as Sloterdijk writes, ‘there are suicides who are basically murders of someone else.’⁶ If our aggression really is towards the other, why not get our target right, and take them down in the world instead?
Lastly, certain humanist philosophies also conclude in our favour. As Camus argued in The Rebel, once life is recognised as a good for one man, then it becomes one for all. Inversely, if suicide is enabled, so is murder. These violences are equivalent: morally speaking, then, the birth strikers are not better than the businessman who callously destroys the environment on which we depend. Political violence, on the other hand, would lay the responsibility for climate change in the right place. In this way, shooting a banker would be more just than the birth-strike. No? At the very least, I suspect it would be more effective.
Now, I digress: I must speak seriously for a moment. The above was entirely ironic. In truth, I believe that both murder and suicide are entirely immoderate positions. I deplore each of them equally. While they may appear more radical than inaction, neither option directly addresses the cause of the crisis; I have severe doubts as to their pragmatic powers. And most importantly, having children is a profoundly hopeful act; the responsibility it entails only encourages our demand for climate action.
Accordingly, I ask you to be constructive with your blues: use your aggressive energies to hold those in power to account. Nothing will stop the relentless engines of industry and consumption except firm, proper accountability, enforced by the masses. We must aim towards a genuine responsibility: we need democracy in our political economy. I believe our goal is not so far away as we might think. If the birth-striker has both the power and abilities of abstract reasoning sufficient to decide to wipe out their evolutionary line, then surely they can muster the energy to protect our planet in a more meaningful way.
I conclude, then, by reminding us that atrocities occur only with the consent of the masses. We must withdraw our consent to the ‘species suicide’⁷ of climate change. To our political economy where catastrophe appears inevitable for absurd reasons. And to our world where ridiculous thought experiments of this kind have any value whatsoever. Only then can we feel optimistic about the world where human life must exist.
¹ By this, I don’t mean the formal group, BirthStrike, founded in 2018. I mean people who agree with the sentiments expressed below, of whom I have been aware of since 2016. According to Google’s Ngram viewer, usage of the term dates to before World War I. Birth-strikes, it seems, have occurred for different reasons throughout history.
² Note that these are not the same group as the antinatalists, whose ridiculous position is secured by sham metaphysics and hidden assumptions.
³ A counterpoint: bringing life into the world only for it to die horribly could also be construed as life-denying. Perhaps breeding itself in the current context is nihilistic; another reason to protest against climate change.
⁴ Obviously, choosing not to have children if you don’t want to have children is not nihilistic. If you don’t want children, and then have them for moral reasons, one could argue that this is closer to nihilism than abstaining. My argument is directed towards those who want children, but deny themselves their desires.
⁵ Christine Overall, quoted in Elizabeth Kolbert’s New Yorker article, ‘The Case Against Kids’, apparently believes that ‘nonexistent people have no moral standing.’ I have to disagree. With Derrida, I feel a responsibility for all other others — including those yet to come. To suggest otherwise imposes a limitation on our responsibility, and I don’t see how one could justify doing so.
⁶ Critique of Cynical Reason, p. 91.
⁷ The words are Blythe Pepino’s, from her interview with Fox News’ Tucker Carlson.