Antinatalism, agency, and social movements
Fertility rates are declining in developed countries, dipping below replacement rates. 1 in 4 childless American adults cite climate change as a major or minor reason for not wanting to have children. This seems bad, but why?
For all the public conversation that’s been had about having, or not having, children, I find that pronatalists and antinatalists seem to talk past each other. Pronatalists assume that it should be obvious why we ought to have children, and yet…there are still antinatalists. I’ve also noticed that “antinatalism” encompasses a wide range of motives, from personal to societal, and wanted to get clarity on what exactly we’re arguing about when we talk about the importance of having children. So I wrote a blog post about it; excerpt below.
I didn’t always know that I wanted to have kids. I wasn’t against it, necessarily – for awhile, there were just more reasons in the “why not” column than the “why”: uncertainty about whether I’d be a good parent, fear of losing my identity, a lack of maternal instinct. Those reasons gradually faded away as I grew older and got to know myself better.
I imagine this is not an unusual experience. Some people knew they wanted to have kids their entire lives; they were raised with big families, or traditionalist values, or otherwise found it to be perfectly natural and obvious. For others, it takes a little more time to conquer your messes and realize that if you can figure out how to get yourself together, you can probably figure out how to be a parent, too.
All that is to say: as excited as I am to have kids now, I still understand and respect others’ decisions to not have children. I’m intrigued by the philosophical arguments for antinatalism, such as those made by Sarah Perry in Every Cradle is a Grave. As far as I can tell, these arguments are a personal exercise in morality: for example, the idea that it is unethical to bring a human into the world without their consent, or that a child might experience extreme suffering in their lifetime, or cause extreme suffering to others. These questions have been asked for literally thousands of years, and are a useful inquiry into the purpose of man and civilization, if only to reaffirm one’s faith in procreation.
But today, there is a newer strain of antinatalism weaving its way into the conversation. Unlike these deliberate ethical inquiries, this newer version of antinatalism appears to be a byproduct of social movements, a deeply encoded worldview that perhaps children are not worth having. It is not a decision being weighed against one’s personal moral code, but passively transmitted through a widely-held set of social beliefs.
Antinatalism as a byproduct of social movements
The climate crisis is probably the most prominent example of a social movement whose natural conclusions have led people to not want to have children. One survey of roughly 600 American adults between 27 to 45 found that while 60% of respondents were “very” or “extremely” concerned about the carbon footprint of having children, their bigger concern (cited by 96.5% of respondents) was their children’s well-being in a “climate-changed world.”  In the words of one 31-year old respondent: “I dearly want to be a mother, but climate change is accelerating so quickly, and creating such horror already, that bringing a child into this mess is something I can’t do.”
But the climate crisis isn’t the only social movement with antinatalist externalities. Effective altruism (EA) and AGI (artificial general intelligence)/x-risk – social movements which attract overlapping groups of people, but are distinct – also have implications for society that lead to antinatalism.
None of these movements are explicitly antinatalist. Some parts of EA, for example, are even pronatalist. Will MacAskill, a founder of effective altruism, believes that children have the potential to “innovate” and be “moral changemakers” (though he personally does not plan to have children). The longtermism branch of EA, which is focused on improving our long-term future, can be understood as pronatalist, though it is not explicitly, nor uniformly, so. MacAskill affirms this position in his most recent book about longtermism, What We Owe the Future.
On the other hand, among adherents to we might call “classical EA,” the value of having children has been frequently debated. EA derives its philosophy from utilitarianism, and some argue that children are not “cost-effective”: that the time and money spent on raising children could be better spent on reducing suffering in the world. In “The Cost of Kids”, Brian Tomasik states that while “there might be utilitarian benefits from having a kid…I wouldn’t count on it,” suggesting that one could become a sperm or egg donor, or spend their time “inspir[ing] some of the billions of other young people in the world” instead of raising children. Liz Kaye notes that some EAs “point out the very low likelihood that any given potential child…would do more good than that same amount [of money] going towards the Against Malaria Foundation to save dozens, perhaps even hundreds, of lives.”
Among those who are preoccupied by the risks presented by AGI or other global catastrophes, there is a belief that because humanity will be seriously threatened in the next few decades, we need to be primarily concerned with saving ourselves now, instead of having children, who will suffer immensely if they are brought into this world. For example, one anonymous poster explains that “as a 23 year old man living in the UK…the probability that I die [in the next 30 years] due to AI x-risk is 41%,” and that AGI is strongly incompatible with longtermism. With those odds, it’s understandable why one would not plan to have children.