Humanity can’t continue to reproduce accumulation, but it can continue to reproduce humanity. Against this truth, we are constantly told a different story — namely that we, a flawed species, are engineering our own demise, and the act of creating new, flawed people through child rearing will hasten our spiral into extinction. As articles and comment-pieces proliferate around humanity’s cliff edge, human life itself is framed as carbon-costly. But what remains unsaid is that this unhappy prognosis stems from a specific understanding of reproduction as the replication of capital (I use ‘capital’ here to refer to both wealth and advantage). In such an understanding, replicated genes function as a facet of the reproduction of patriarchy and ethno-nationalism, containing wealth and resources (biological and otherwise) within the rigid borders of family and nation. As is evidenced by the centrality of the gay family unit in the legitimation of imperialist states, these borders also extend beyond genetic reproduction. I would like to suggest that the contemporary anxieties we see around creating new life in fact stem from these unspoken protocols of legitimate reproduction. The real problem is not with reproduction itself, but with the way reproduction is imbricated with historical racial and class dynamics. Thus, if we wish to preserve life, the point is not to restrict reproduction but to shift the ways we reproduce.
My interest in this growing sense of reproductive unease has been nourished by research into the impact of housing insecurity on millennials’ intimate lives. Here, generational inequality generates feelings of thwartedness across a range of experiences — romantic partnerships are doomed by the inability to leave a parental home, barriers to parenting are erected by high rents, tuition fees, and heightened border control. Still, discussions around generational inequality are often hampered by a lack of social-class analyses, made more conspicuous by the continued desire to compare the gains made by the victors of the post-war consensus and the losses endured by the children of neoliberal crisis. I see this pervasive sense of generational disenfranchisement as frequently generating what Lauren Berlant calls ‘cruel optimism’ — the desire for things that are really obstacles to your flourishing. In our intimate lives, this might include millennial nostalgia for a ‘traditional’ nuclear family. Indeed, writing in The Guardian on generational divides, Rhiannon Lucy Cosslett confesses that she craves marriage and home ownership ‘because they seem so off limits.’
In the midst of escalating climate change, ideas around generational inequality implicitly impose reproductive constraints. Millennials don’t perceive child-bearing to be as unproblematic as previous generations did. Often attaching a sense of civic honor to abstinence from procreation, carbon equations are calculated that suggest life itself is synonymous with consumption. This idea both feeds into and is fed by academic scholarship; a study by Swedish and Canadian researchers suggesting that having ‘one fewer child’ could radically reduce individual carbon footprints received wide journalistic coverage , for example. The apolitical nature of this idea has been given fresh emphasis by Prince Harry, whose environmental rationale to limit the number of his royal heirs sits somewhat jarringly with his multi-million-pound net worth and constant private air travel. Such discrepancies highlight the absence of any social-class analysis in conversations around capping offspring to curb climate catastrophe. Even where responsibility for climate change is assigned to institutional inaction rather than personal choice, the individualisation of reproduction looms large. For example, ‘Birthstrike’ founder Blythe Pepino once stated in a BBC interview that she is just one of many too terrified of global environmental collapse to ‘have a family,’ and that as a result she and fellow Birthstrikers are ‘refusing’ to procreate.
Birthstrike openly distances itself from the Malthusian politics of ‘overpopulation.’ This position also resonates with that of Extinction Rebellion (XR), a social movement focused on preventing social and ecological collapse. Indeed, climate crisis lawyer Farhana Yamin — who in April glued her hands to Shell’s London office — has affirmed that XR is focused on the redistribution of abundant resources, rather than the ‘toxic mythology’ of overpopulation. Still, demographic unease is not wholly absent from XR and affiliated movements’ discourses. For example, ‘mass migration’ is listed as a key component of future climate catastrophe in XR’s official declaration, rather than as something that has shaped the experience of environmentally displaced people for centuries. It is clear that undergirding this concern around migration is resistance to such displacements. However, coupled with XR’s inattentiveness to race, their demographic concerns may still evoke a sense of threat around racialized new arrivals diminishing the resources of existing populations. At a time when the relationship between the movement of people and environmental degradation is at the core of contemporary eco-fascism, such phrasing matters. Indeed, prior to killing 22 people in an El Paso Walmart, Patrick Crusius cited environmental concerns as rationale for diminishing the ‘number of people in America using resources.’ Again, we see concerns around reproduction acting as a cover for what are historically white supremacist concerns.
Beyond this more blatant Malthusianism, anxiety around the arrival of new bodies can also be related to a colonial understanding of reproduction in more subtle ways, as is the case with the framing of reproduction as the replication and proliferation of specific kinds of genes. Crucially, this form of reproduction is often understood to be mediated by genetic paternity to be considered legitimate. From the piteous figure of the fatherless child in Victorian literature to Iain Duncan Smith’s maligning of single mothers in UK austerity policy, ambiguous or absent paternity has occupied a central role in the reproductive imagination of Empire. At the heart of this discourse is the notion that wealth is also illegitimate when it has not been mediated through patrilineage — hence the hateful tabloid figure of the unmarried ‘benefit queen’, whose child-bearing is equated with financial manipulation of a paternal state (‘All that she wants is another baby, she’s gone tomorrow boy…’). Through identifying this continuity between genetic paternity and the reproduction of wealth, the embedded racial and class politics of movements like Birthstrike are made more salient; the premise of reproductive ‘refusal’ both ignores and reflects the fact that the state desires some births and resents others.
In literature, the reproduction of genes as a device for the reproduction of capital has been frequently romanticized, with the discovery of genetic origins often involving revelations around wealth. Arguably the most famous parentless character of the last twenty years, Harry Potter is escorted to Gringotts Wizarding Bank after being informed of his magical blood-ties. There, he is presented with his financial inheritance — an affirming symbol not only of his entitlement to the wizarding world, but also of the capital that he had obliviously carried in his DNA throughout his childhood. Such narratives suggest that the fetishization of reproduction as genetic replication is also a fetishization of reproduced wealth — it is not simply a matter of who is reproduced, but what and how. Moreover, since the conflation of reproduction as genetic replication allows for the containment of resources within sanctioned lineages, the substance of this ‘what’ incorporates all forms of capital — whiteness and able-bodiedness, in particular. This implicit understanding of reproduction as the reproduction of capital entitlement explains the prevalence of pro-natalism and anti-natalism across ethno-nationalist states. Israel, for example, both emphatically encourages the genetic reproduction of Jewish settlers and obstructs the child-bearing of Palestinian prisoners.
If it is the case that the creation of new life and the arrival of new persons are seen as a threat to resources across the bordered terrain of the imperialist world, ,then it is little wonder that apocalyptic narratives around the end of humankind have gathered so much purchase in mainstream discourse. A well-funded cycle of messages that both individualize environmental responsibility and amplify impending extinction deliver a clear message: making more people is bad because we are all personally failing to save ourselves as a species. Again, this message is not intended to be equally heeded by all. I scroll past a recycling campaign by Barclay’s bank, knowing it has multi-billion pound fossil fuel investments, I refresh a news website and it implies that such injustices won’t matter once this extinction event is over. By encouraging us to accept our annihilation as self-inflicted, our tools of resistance turn into last wills and testaments, and we forget that people are indeed turning up and being born: here, today and tomorrow. As a result, we see life as temporally fixed, contained within progressively burdened generations whose potential and reach are hemmed in by the terror of impending catastrophe. Framing reproduction as genetic paternity — in other words, as the replication of material, cultural, genetic capital — transmutes our desires for familiar networks of caring and kinship into a future battle for resources. But this is a battle that we are already engaged in, and that some of us are already winning.
In Joyful Militancy, Carla Bergman and Nick Montgomery comment on the flourishing of conviviality during insurrections and after natural disasters, whereby interrupted dependence on ‘Empire’s stifling infrastructures’ shifts assemblages of relationships. In this same vein, I believe that the present moment of ‘collapse’ has created an opening for an ethics of reproduction that is grounded in the remaking of kinship beyond the biological family, and the undoing of contained, inherited advantage as manifested in race and class. As the threat of the newcomer — and with it the framing of experience as generationally defined — is revealed to be a deflection from the unjust containment of resources, different forms of relatedness may emerge. Rather than considering the desire for a family as inevitably related to the reproduction of capitalist consumption, we are confronted with the transformative potential of our desire for close relationships of caring and dependency, within and between generations.
Instead of viewing the ‘making’ of life as a deliberation around who gets what and why, we are faced with its unstoppability, and thus with the necessity to figure out the best ways of distributing and practicing nurture. Through reframing reproduction in this way, we have the opportunity to radically readdress entitlement to resources: what is passed on to whom, what kinds of resources and privileges circulate within our chosen constellations, who is being left on the outside. To go even further, an ethics of reproduction grounded in nourishing desires for kinship and resisting replicated capital strips any real meaning from the concept of ‘new’ life, since life is always in process and always emerging — and we’re not all dead until we’re all dead. Nowhere is this emergence more evident than in the compassionate grief we all feel around our extinction.
Faith Taylor is a PhD researcher at the School of Geography in Queen Mary, University of London, exploring the political economy of reproduction and intimacy. She is also a musician and music educator. Twitter: @faith_e_taylor