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"Sentience just opens everyone up to suffering, whether they're human or animal."
Some of us might have wailed "I never asked to be born!" at our parents while in the grip of teenage angst. But what if you took this as a statement worth examining instead of writing it off a phase? What if you followed it through to its conclusion—that it's morally wrong to have children at all?
Welcome to antinatalism, a previously obscure branch of philosophy that has developed a cult online following. While the decision to remain child-free has become more common generally—a record number of women in the US now don't have kids—antinatalists go beyond simply not wanting to reproduce due to personal or environmental reasons. According to the Reddit forum /r/antinatalism, they "assign a negative value to birth" and believe that, because the world is so full of suffering, it's unfair to force that on another person by bringing them into it.
Ultimately, they advocate the extinction of the human race.
Twitter user @Roxxane_cams, a 36 year old who goes by the name of Laura, is one of the movement's most vocal online supporters. As well as tweeting daily about her beliefs, she also likes to start debates while working her day job as a camgirl. "I'm probably the world's first and only antinatalist webcam model," she laughs. "I've got in debates about it all over the internet."
Like most people I speak to, she says she felt this way long before realizing there was a word for it. "I've been certain since childhood that I didn't want kids," she explains. "[But] I knew there was a deeper side to it, for me, rather than just having more money or free time... I just had this weird feeling that something wasn't right about life." When Google searches led her to antinatalism, "it basically summed up everything I'd felt my entire life."
According to Kenqwi, a moderator at the antinatalism subreddit, most people discover the community in a similar way. "New members usually write an introductory post saying how great it is to finally have a word for their convictions," he says. "We have 4,000 subscribers, which is still relatively small, but it's a very active community."
Rust Cohle (Matthew McConaughey) in True Detective. Screencap via YouTube
The term "antinatalism" was first coined by David Benatar, professor of philosophy at the University of Cape Town, whose book Better Never to Have Been is the seminal text on the subject. Although considered an outlier position within philosophy circles, it received an unexpected promotional boost when True Detective creator Nic Pizzolatto cited it as an influence for the nihilistic character of Detective Rust Cohle.
"In one sense the show has done more for it than anything else," Paul Ennis, assistant professor of philosophy at University College Dublin, tells me. "Previously, a bunch of obscure antinatalists were only to be found in the dustiest corner of the library. Now you can see transcripts of their work on Reddit." Antinatalists frequently post gifs of Cohle, or share clips of him discussing why human consciousness is an error.
But while it seems common sense for prospective parents to take into consideration the type of life their child might lead, why take it to such an extreme conclusion—why advocate human extinction rather than just, say, a smaller population? "I'm pro the extinction of everything because I think sentience just opens everyone up to suffering, whether they're human or animal," explains Laura. "I know that's unrealistic. But I'm against creation because it's essentially gambling with another person's life." Another antinatalist who calls herself Charlotte says that she simply thinks extinction "would be kinder. It'd be kinder for humans, and definitely kinder for the environment."
Although the community doesn't necessarily align itself with a political stance—"I'd say most [antinatalists] are apolitical because they have a problem with life itself and don't think there's a system that works," explains Kenqwi—there are a few themes that crop up. Environmentalism, reproductive rights, and horror at the upcoming Trump presidency are frequently discussed.
At first I thought it was kind of sad, but after the year we've had [in politics] I've started warming up to the philosophy.
Savannah, 21, who's never wanted children, was introduced to antinatalism through her now-husband: "At first I thought it was kind of sad, but after the year we've had [in politics] I've started warming up to the philosophy." Living in Kentucky, deep in the Bible belt, she often struggles with the anti-abortion, pro-procreation culture surrounding her.
"There's that joke that the only things you have to do are pay taxes and die—now it almost feels like, you have to pay taxes, have a child, and die," she sighs. Savannah's husband has recently found a doctor willing to perform a vasectomy on him, after initially being dismissed on the grounds that he'd "change his mind." They're planning on toasting the event with a vasectomy party: "We'll have some champagne, wine and cheese on the table, and celebrate with lots of drinking. My family are so dead-set on carrying on the bloodline and being grandparents that it's really difficult to speak to them about it."
It's not just friends and family that antinatalists may struggle to discuss their views with. Unsurprisingly, they can attract a fair amount of online abuse. Laura and Charlotte tell me the most common retort from trolls is "why don't you just kill yourselves?"
"That pro-natalists respond in such a way shows a real lack of empathy to me," says Laura. "Suicide is painful, and most antinatalists don't want to do that to their families. We don't want to further contribute to suffering."
However, depression and suicidal thoughts do appear to be common amongst the community, even if they are by no means a prerequisite. "My impression is that most of our members are suicide positive, if you can word it like that," considers Kenqwi. "Because our consensus is that, as we don't have a choice in our birth, we should at least have a say in whether and when we want to die."
Charlotte adds: "I think some depressed people may be attracted to [antinatalism] because it's the first time they've heard someone say, 'The way you see the world is correct.' But you don't have to be depressed to believe in it. Still, I think people who are depressed are realists. I think our culture disregards depressives without listening to our insights. Instead it's like, 'There's something wrong with you, let's get you fixed.'"
But isn't it quite a struggle, to constantly see life as so inherently painful? "It's challenging to have this worldview," admits Charlotte. "It's difficult not to sink into despair. But in a way it helps me appreciate smaller things—like a cup of tea, or a walk in nature—because I'm not constantly striving for that next level of happiness. I'm not concerned about my legacy. I know life is meaningless."
I try to see the other point of view, but once you look at the world this way it's really hard to go back.
Ennis says that he doesn't think antinatalism, as a philosophy, is particularly helpful for its followers. "I would consider distraction from these insights more beneficial than not," he advises. "There's something a bit grim about loitering around a set of ideas that remind you how pointless your life is. However, I fully understand the impulse to dive into it. There are times when just knowing the thoughts are shared is helpful."
Psychotherapist and couples counsellor Hilda Burke tells me that if she heard a client express these views, she'd be interested in exploring whether they were indicative of some kind of life trauma. "In one way it's quite like Buddhism—the idea that life is suffering," she says. "Yet it's also quite an immature way of seeing the world; it's very black and white. Any form of extremism is worrying."
But the antinatalists I speak to are adamant that there's no return for them. "I try to see the other point of view, but once you look at the world this way it's really hard to go back," says Laura. And Kenqwi admits: "I'm always looking to dismiss these views, I'm always looking for the pro-natalist argument that will convince me. Because honestly, it's a difficult philosophy to have. You get very lonely."
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