Image Credit: American Museum of Natural History Library / Wikimedia Commons
Asagi is neat, scrawny, quiet, and on-time. When I met him for the first time in Ikebukuro, Japan, he promised to take me to his favorite place in the city, which turned out to be a cemetery. As we wound our way between graves, Asagi stepped carefully, holding his camera and soaking in the landscape. “It’s calm and peaceful,” he explained. “And there are cats here.”
Death does not disturb Asagi. If anything, he thinks, it should be life that frightens us. Life is where pain happens. It is where war and disease, and dying, happens. Death, which comes after dying, is by contrast, “calm and peaceful.”
Asagi calls himself an anti-natalist, which means he believes that creating new life is morally wrong. He’s not the only one.
The anti-natalist movement had its cultural baptism in early 2019, when an Indian man named Raphael Samuel attempted to sue his parents for birthing him. His reason: they had not acquired his consent. As the video of his attempt went viral, the media flocked to the scoop. “The first day I endured 14 interviews,” Samuel told me. “The second, 16. The third, 12. Much to my relief, it was only five a day for the rest of the month.”
A judge warned Samuel he’d be fined for time-wasting if he brought the case to court. It’s true the suit was a stunt. Samuel wasn’t seeking compensation from his parents: instead, he wanted to challenge would-be parents to think twice about bringing new life into an arguably hostile world. By that point, the concept of child freedom had been percolating in India’s urban centers for years, especially among feminists, who questioned the naturalness of childrearing. As anti-natalist organizations in other countries emerged, media coverage began to place them under an umbrella of social movements—such as BirthStrike and Extinction Rebellion—responding to the climate crisis.
It has been two years since Asagi started his Japan-based spinoff.
“Growth has been decent,” he told me, but “obviously we could hope for more.” There are still only 54 people on their Discord server. “I just accept things as they are and not get emotionally affected too much.” But emotional or not, he recognizes that the movement suffers from an image problem.
Procreative family remains an essential life stage in most countries, and for most people. Challenging such an essential cultural practice might seem Sisyphean, if not downright silly. Other activists who seek substantive political change consider anti-natalism and child freedom movements little more than distractions. But there may be a simpler reason for anti-natalism’s apparent lack of appeal.
Two months after our initial meeting, I found myself approaching Asagi again outside Harajuku station, where he stood with six other anti-natalists. Before I could introduce myself, one of them eagerly handed me a sign imploring passersby not to have children, the source of all new suffering. I awkwardly accepted the sign and joined their ranks, unable to speak Japanese well enough to explain that I was there as a scholar, not a supporter. Embarrassed, I stepped back to hide behind Asagi. Luckily, a nearby busker playing bass captured most of the local attention—so much so that the woman who gave me my sign began to dance along.
Pedestrians, if they noticed us at all, passed by with sidelong glances and hushed snickering, at once bemused and nervous. This was the image problem Asagi had mentioned. But it was more than that: these passersby hadn’t taken long to grasp the implications of anti-natalist philosophy. Taken to its end, anti-natalism spells the end of the human species. Extinction. Who would want that?
Extinction seems to be everywhere: the extinction of species, ecologies, languages, cultures, and histories. It is the object of scientific study, the subject of popular media, and the target of state policies, each feeding into the increasingly popular belief that the end is nigh. According to one poll, 39 percent of people in the United States now believe that we are living in the end times—and our species’ extinction is unavoidable.
David Harmon, co-founder of the conservationist organization Terralingua, explained this feeling of crisis is driven by the conviction that we are rapidly approaching the point of no return: “a critical amount of biological and cultural diversity will have been lost, never to be regenerated.” The urgent call to mitigate this “point of no return” has become a persuasive rhetorical move in numerous political domains, including as an illustration of how diverse cultural practices are lost to globalizing forces.
Yet critics like Shaylih Muehlmann have questioned this simplistic equation, pointing out the harm perpetuated by extinction narratives. For instance, when the Cucapá people living by the drying Colorado River were forced to become farmhands and factory workers, their native language fell out of use as subsequent generations learned Spanish—a condition of their employment. As Muehlmann reported in her paper “‘Languages Die Like Rivers:’ Entangled Endangerments in the Colorado Delta,” once they had deemed Cucapá extinct, U.S. government officials refused to grant preferential fishing rights to this community that was no longer “indigenous enough.”
Extinction narratives still thrive in the pernicious provinces of racial and religious politics. In 2021, the chief of the Vishnu Hindu Parishad diagnosed 50 remaining years for Hinduism before its “extinction,” unless Muslims are made to assimilate or leave. In the United States, the Great Replacement theory continues to foment white racial anxieties, only now extinction stands in place of old metaphors of blood impurity. “Whites are trending towards extinction,” said the conservative commentator Matt Walsh, before remarking sarcastically, “The preservation of the hummingbird community is more important than the preservation of the white race.”
Human extinction in its most absolute form is also the beating heart of the moral philosophy called longtermism. An offshoot of the effective altruism movement, longtermism holds that the moral and political imperative of altruism is to help as many people as possible, including all generations still to come. This means prioritizing the prevention of species-wide “existential risks,” from volcanic eruptions to rogue AI. As part of effective altruism, which grossed $420 million in 2021, study of these existential risks commands massive funding.
Neither has existential risk escaped the attention of political bodies. A joint report by the United Nations and the Simon Institute for Longterm Governance put the probability of an existential risk occurring this century somewhere between 1.9 percent to 14 percent, supposedly higher than ever in human history. Nations, the report concludes, must reorient their priorities toward risk-mitigation. The threat of extinction can motivate people (and funding) from all ends of the political spectrum into action. Should it?
Extinction is not a new concept, although like any other idea, it changes, adapts, accretes new uses and sheds old skin.
In 1796, fossil deposits in the Paris basin led French naturalist Georges Cuvier to propose massive extinction events in the history of life on earth. Cuvier’s interpretation was correct—but he couldn’t explain how these extinctions had come about. His “catastrophism” could do little to upset the theologically based principle of plenitude, which carried over to the brand of evolutionism we are most familiar with.
Charles Darwin’s famous works built not on Cuvier’s research, but the research of his rival, Charles Lyell. In an extension of the idea of plenitude, Darwin and Lyell believed that species extinctions were balanced by the appearance of new species, preserving nature’s essential equilibrium. In their view, extinction observed natural law, taxa remained stable, and species’ extinctions made room for the better adapted, making their deaths “meaningful.” Such a conception of extinction hardly called for alarm. The death of Darwin’s gradualism came only towards the close of the twentieth century.
The discovery of the Chixculub crater in 1978—left 66 million years ago by the asteroid that wiped out the dinosaurs—brought catastrophism back into the fold. Cold War scientists tracing nuclear fallout discovered atmospheric flows with rampant disregard for human boundaries, and Americans were confronted with the concept of “nuclear winter” for the first time. If it happened, nuclear war would be our own Chixculub asteroid, sending us on our way to the dinosaurs.
The total, instantaneous, permanent, and meaningless extinction we know today emerged from this trajectory, as scientific research turned from the deep past to a terrifying future. The twenty-first century culture of the Anthropocene had only added a dose of guilt and misanthropy to the mix.
When the ornithologist Alfred Newton set off for Iceland in the 1850s in search of the great Aauk, the species had already become extinct. His investigations in Iceland spurred him to activism, but he was careful to distinguish his own preoccupations from the concerns of the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (RSPCA). He worried that the RSPCA was too sentimental, too focused on individual suffering. Newton believed extinction a threat to the progress of science, and thereby, a threat to the hypothetical benefits science would accrue; the stakes were higher than mere cruelty.
Frances Power Cobbe, an unabashed Victorian sentimentalist, had the opposite opinion. She held that our moral duties to animals were predicated precisely on our sympathies with their pleasures and pains. Science, unmoored from our sympathetic instincts, led us morally astray. One had only look to the dreadful practice of vivisection. When Newton begged lay naturalists to capture alive any great auk they found, Cobbe might have questioned whether captivity was preferable to extinction. That is, whether a bad life is preferable to no life at all. Contemporary anti-natalists pose this dilemma to us anew.
As I walked Asagi back to Ikebukuro station, I asked him where he thought anti-natalism was headed. I said I had a hard time seeing the point: a few signs weren’t going to change the world, much less convince our species to go extinct. “Well, it’s the right thing to do,” he replied dryly.
As for Cobbe, the point for Asagi is to care for the sentient beings—human and non-human—around us, those that exist already, as well as those yet to be.
“Nature has no inherent value,” Asagi reminded me. The species of auk is a concept; an individual bird is not. It was individuals that we ought to care about, because only they could feel, and therefore, suffer. Therefore the continuation of a species life matters little compared with individual suffering. No wonder that anti-natalists have allied themselves with the vegans who rally against “life in a slaughterhouse.
When pressed, most anti-natalists admit that extinction is, all in all, a good thing. No one can suffer if no one is alive, after all. But unlike the Voluntary Human Extinction Movement, anti-natalism considers extinction as incidental to the moral duty not to bring more individual suffering into the world.
This disinterestedness can seem like a return to social Darwinism. Indeed, one anti-natalist I interviewed spoke in uncomfortable terms about the “uneducated masses of breeders” who would be better off gone. And scholar Romi Mukherjee has mounted a related critique of anti-natalists as the “comfortable global middle class” who observe the “extinction porn” of apocalypse from a comfortable distance and theorize about it “in lieu of seriously engaging with questions of mitigation and adaptation.”
But small though the movement is, the lives of anti-natalists are too diverse to be bracketed in these terms. In some cases, principles of “mitigation and adaptation” are precisely what motivates them. As Anugraha, a Marxist anti-natalist in India pointed out to me, deliberate infertility is antithetical to the infinite expansion of capital. New anxieties around the de-population bomb, expressed by world leaders and industry giants, seem to prove his point.
Asagi, who works as a taxi driver, doesn’t have time to watch the world end. Between work and photography and activism, he’s too busy living in it.
Jack Jiang is a PhD student in Anthropology at The New School for Social Research.