British activist and musician Blythe Pepino coined the term “birth strike” in early 2019 to describe pledges people make to not to have children until significant climate justice is achieved.
She says such decisions are a “radical acknowledgment” of the threat that climate change poses to our futures. She does not consider birth strikes to be a solution to climate change, an option for everyone, or a permanent choice. She distinguishes the idea from anti-natalism, which advocates having no children to decrease the overall population. That school of thought is widely credited to the South African philosopher David Benatar, who argues that procreation is unjustifiable because life is painful. His ideas were not inherently linked to concern for the climate, but are gaining prominence through climate activism.
For her part, Pepino simply wants birth strikes to spread information about the climate crisis. But this very conception of birth strikes as simply an awareness-raising activity—and the media coverage of this movement, if it is indeed one—point to the idea’s inherent problems: the focus on individual responsibility, and white Westerners who are already the least affected by the realities of climate change in the here and now.
It’s hard to know how many birth strikers there are—as of June 2019, Pepino’s BirthStrike group had 330 members—but the movement has been covered by many prominent media outlets includingThe Guardian,VICE, and CNN. Those media accounts tend to center young, middle- to upper-middle class white and able-bodied cisgender women.
These women perform concern in a self-referential way, living manifestations of performative climate activism. As s.e. smith wrote, it’s easier to take part in things like straw bans as opposed to long-term organizing; the former provides instant gratification, while the latter requires us to confront our privileges and how we might benefit in the current system. The same thought can be applied to birth strikes and anti-natalism, which provide an illusion of participation in the fight for climate justice.
Ultimately, birth strikes rely on tired narratives of individualism to accomplish nothing productive. They blame the individual, thus requiring individual-level solutions, instead of looking at systemic reasons for the climate crisis. They don’t acknowledge, for example, that the 2017 Carbon Majors Report concluded that 71% of greenhouse gas emissions are coming from just 100 companies and that little action has been taken against those corporations. Furthermore, as Simon Hannah pointed out at Open Democracy, the 1% will be the last to experience the effects of climate change, despite being a big part of the reason we are facing this problem.
For Pepino and other birth strikers, climate change is a threat still looming on the horizon. I’m not suggesting that people should ignore their feelings of hopelessness and have kids because they might have it “easier” than other people. But they aren’t currently experiencing the direct and dire effects of climate change, so it is careless to equate their anxieties to those who have been feeling the effects of environmental injustices for decades.
Similarly, anti-natalists also incorrectly assign blame and responsibility on an individual level. The Guardian quotes an anti-natalist who says, “Plastic waste is being dumped and minerals are being mined not because of bad people, but because of people. Having fewer of us, there will be less of those effects.” We know that fewer people doesn’t mean fewer problems, and that a small cadre of world leaders and businesses are making decisions that put their thirst for power and profit above the health and livelihoods of ordinary people and environments.
It’s no surprise, in a world where wealth and power are so concentrated in the hands of a few, that more attention is being paid to white, privileged subjects in stories about birth strikes. Such coverage laments a future in which their precious children might be affected by climate change, negating the fact that many Indigenous, racialized, and poor people all over the world are very active in the current fight for environmental justice.
Finally, birth strikes and anti-natalism are inspired by the idea that overpopulation is at the root of climate change. The ideology of overpopulation is heavily imbued with ideas of eugenics, colonialism, and imperialism. Racist, misogynistic, and ableist ideas create an impression of which populations are “good” and “bad” in the fight for environmental justice. People in the global South—and sometimes, racialized people in more industrialized countries—are blamed for having large families; if they are struggling, they’re blamed for their own conditions. Asian and African countries are seen as particular burdens on the planet due to high populations, despite the fact that the average American’s carbon emissions rate is more than four times higher than that of an average person in China. In this media and political economy, the West preserves the Orientalist conception of non-Western populations being more responsible for the degradation of the Earth, all in order to continue making business and political decisions that are worsening the climate.
We don’t have to look to Asia or the global South, though, to see how dangerous and damaging the ideas of population control have been to Black, Indigenous, and racialized populations, as well as religious minorities, the poor and homeless, and people with disabilities. Thousands upon thousands of Native and Latinx residents of the United States and Canada have been forced to consent to sterilization procedures—while in labour, on operating tables, being told that they would not be allowed to see their babies until they signed. Even into the 20th century, involuntary sterilization was seen as a cure for “feeble-mindedness”—then a catch-all term for many disabilities. The idea that people with disabilities are a burden still persists; in late 2019, the BBC published an article stating that asthma inhalers are just as detrimental to the environment as eating meat. (In response, writer Whitney Lee pointed out how her asthma attacks are triggered by air pollution, calling for us to put pressure on corporations and governments for causing pollution rather than on people who are simply trying to survive it. Yet, disabled people continue to be scapegoated in conversations regarding climate change and our resources.
Even if done with “good” intentions, birth strikes and anti-natalism turn women’s bodies and reproduction itself into bargaining chips. Knowing that population control has long been a way for colonial governments to maintain power, it’s cruel to even consider this as an option. For example, American eugenicist Harry Laughlin created a program that eventually led to the sterilization of a staggering one in three Puerto Rican women by the late 1960s. His work is just one example of many U.S.-led or -supported population control efforts that have attempted to reduce so-called “unfit” populations in America. These efforts are ongoing—recently, Trump’s “public charge” immigration rule went into effect, allowing the United States to deny visas or green cards to people who may require government assistance. Any agenda focused on population control works as a tool to reaffirm colonialism and bias, primarily affecting Indigenous people, Black people, women, the poor, and disabled people.
Instead of scaring youth and people thinking of having children into believing they are contributing to the climate crisis, we should consider how central young people have proven to be in climate justice movements. With the growing prominence of activists such as Canada’s Autumn Peltier, Flint, Michigan’s Mari Copeny, Greta Thunberg of Sweden, Uganda’s Vanessa Nakate and many other youth leaders, it’s difficult to imagine how or why one cannot see the importance of young and future generations in our ongoing dialogue and organizing against climate change.
Ultimately, birth strikers and anti-natalists’ sheer misanthropy is unnerving. People don’t need to “die out” to save the rest of the planet, as anti-natalist organization Voluntary Human Extinction (VHEMT) states. Environmental justice is not just about the welfare of plants, animals, and the air. It’s about people. Namely, it’s about Indigenous, Black, and other people whose lives have been impacted by corporate greed and environmental racism for centuries. Not only are they already heavily affected, they are also leading global conversations and movements for environmental justice.
The birth strikers’ nihilism is boring and insular, an excuse to do little outside their own privileged bubbles. Student and climate activist Grace King put it well when she said, “Cynicism does not win social goods. That kind of criticism does not win a livable planet, Indigenous sovereignty, or status for all.”