Issue #139 Never Born

Never Born

Shane Greene

Decapitated statue of the 11th Century poet and philosopher Abu al-Alaa al-Maarri, Syria.

Issue #139
October 2023


The Grave and Cradle, the untiring twain,
Who in the markets of this narrow lane
Bordered of darkness, ever give and take
In equal measure—what’s the loss or gain?

—Abū al-ʿAlāʾ al-Maʿarrī

Decades of passion have been spent, anger expressed, and political battles won and lost over abortion. In June 2022, the US Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade, returning the issue to states and radically unsettling all who believed a woman’s right to choose was more or less a given in US democracy. By contrast, between December 2020 and February 2022 Argentina, Mexico, and Colombia all moved to legalize abortion in a region still dominated by a Catholic culture full of sin, confession, and guilt. Amid the heated exchanges, a figure was born, the figure of the unborn child. Even the most pro of pro-choice feminists must concede a fertilized female egg represents the potential of new life while defending her rights to bodily autonomy. As she should. As I too do.

Today I present a different figure, something like the unborn child’s bizarro cousin who is both real and unreal at the same time—the figure of a human life never even conceived. I call it the never-born. It exists but only in the minds of the already born and possesses no material manifestation whatsoever. No sperm hooking up with egg, no embryo, no fetus, no natal development, no forty weeks, no moment of birth, no child to care for, no adult in the making, no mortality to face.

Children and the future have long been synonyms in modern society—for better and for worse. Protests against the way that current generations are destroying the planet for future ones, encapsulated by the image of teary-eyed Greta Thunberg castigating silver-haired global leaders at the UN with lines like “How dare you!,” is the better version. Decades, centuries, maybe millennia of reducing sex to the act of reproduction, obliterating the validity of queer sex and love and a vast world of sex as pleasure, is the worst.

The short of this story is this: While contemporary anti-natalist activism is still a marginal form of politics, discussions of it are on the rise, gaining visibility in mainstream venues.1 Ecological anxieties are often central in the current questioning around reproduction, given the decades-long scientific consensus that the world is careening toward a climate disaster caused by anthropogenic changes to the earth’s environment. Add to this scenario the fact that there are few, if any, truly revolutionary shifts away from fossil fuels or clear signs of a movement to decisively reign in the endless expansionism on which capitalist hegemony relies. It makes perfect sense that people are starting to wonder if producing future generations is a good idea. As David Wells-Wallace shows in The Uninhabitable Earth, they are already guaranteed to experience substantial transformations in human-environment dynamics; at the upper end of projected global temperature rise, the landscape turns decisively apocalyptic.2 It’s unsurprising then that in the more overtly ideological versions of contemporary anti-natalism, one also finds proponents calling for a voluntary extinction and thus a die-off of the entire human species.

Rossana Mercado-Rojas, Never Born, 2023.

Simultaneously, there are widespread misunderstandings of global trends in human population numbers; the projections describe a proximate demographic decline, despite the overpopulation panic that feeds global ecological anxiety. There are also emergent problems around human fertility. The future of human reproduction is thus not only defined by politics and ecological scenarios but also by biological matters—namely, human bodies are growing increasingly infertile in industrial societies. From one angle, there are those who actively advocate for humans to forsake reproduction for the good of the planet. From another, there are those telling us that the industrial life capitalist modernity has foisted upon many, still spreading around the globe through development ideology, might be pointing us toward a world of infertility.

Of course, studied critiques of contemporary anti-natalism exist, like those of Ben Ware.3 In a tour de force that starts with a reinterpretation of Freud’s death drive and ends on a familiar note of Marxist optimism about social transformations still to come, he suggests anti-natalism is really just another product of the modern West: a totalizing nihilism that promotes solipsistic pessimism in lieu of the typical narrative of capitalist progress. His distaste for it is so exhaustive that he sees anti-natalists as the flipside to today’s techno-utopians, something like Elon Musk’s alter-ego.

In contrast to such a reductive reading, I want to insist that anti-natalism be understood as necessarily heterogeneous on a number of grounds. Even when it takes on distinctive contemporary forms, some of the core sentiments of anti-natalist thinking can be found in antiquity and across highly diverse contexts, from early Christianity and Buddhism to ancient Greece and China, as Théophile de Giraud has shown.4 Anti-natalism is not restricted to the great centers of capital accumulation or “the West”—that frequently mentioned monolith that exists largely as an object of intellectual critique and arguably in no other discernible form.5

In the broadest sense, contemporary anti-natalism is what it sounds like: an active stance against having kids; an umbrella category that includes all sorts of positions, plenty of internal disagreements, and not as much novelty as one might think. There are those who explain their desire not to have children as a personal decision. They sometimes group themselves under the self-affirming banner “childfree,” in opposition to the stigma and presumed lack implied by “childless.” The “childfree” concept has been around since at least the 1970s. It experienced a revival in the 1990s when Leslie Lafayette started the Childfree Network, and is now deployed in multiple languages across the world.6

Although I know it mostly in an esoteric academic iteration (“anti-social queer theory”),7 there is also a long history of queer people who prefer to embrace their outcast status rather than present demands (or express desires) for certain kinds of mainstream inclusion. This is not exactly synonymous with anti-natalism but it includes an emphasis on how queerness is predicated in part on not having reproductive sex and, for some, on lacking any desire to pursue children by other means (adoption, surrogacy, etc.). This is a fundamentally different stance than the one adopted by some members of the LGBTQ+ community who demand access to normative institutions like marriage, children, a nuclear unit—in other words, the basic hetero family package.

There are those so deeply convinced of the colloquial negativity “life is pain” that the only rational conclusion appears to be a voluntary extinction of human life itself. This position veers into provocative territory and some might label it extremist, though I have yet to see a proposal for political violence or mass suicide cults from the anti-natalists I have come to know. As we’ll see, there are some uneasy overlaps with eugenicist thinking, particularly when uncritical overpopulation arguments come into play. Yet if one takes the time to listen to the anti-natalists mentioned here, few, if any, live under the delusion that this philosophy has a chance of becoming mainstream politics. It’s embraced more as a stance of self-marginalization than a drive towards power.

Take, for example, a recent conversation between Amanda Suckenick, host of the Exploring Anti-Natalism podcast, and Mark Laita, who runs Soft White Underbelly, an interview series known for engaging with the most marginal members of US society (sex workers, gang members, unhoused people, addicts, drug dealers, and so on). Suckenick offers an idealistic vision of her anti-natalist views: “There’s no need for any violence. There’s no need for anything nasty. Can we just collectively decide we’re not going to produce more of ourselves?” Mark replies, “You’re going to have a hard time getting everybody to get on board with this.” Then Amanda says, “Absolutely [laughs]. There’s no question about it. There’s no question about it at all. What I believe is that it is the right thing to advocate for.”8

If this overtly pessimistic version of anti-natalism has a main spokesperson, it is almost certainly the South African philosopher David Benatar. In his controversial 2006 treatise Better Never to Have Been, Benatar claims to have discovered an underlying asymmetry between the good and bad of human existence that suggests, logically speaking, we would be better off never having to live through it.9 Personally, I prefer the way Jim Crawford, a short-order cook and poet, sums up Benatar’s argument in his entertaining memoir, Confessions of an Antinatalist. It’s a confession because he has children, and that too is another dimension: you can reproduce and wish you hadn’t. It’s actually a rather common predicament, one that’s taboo to talk about. I would know, since I count myself as a failed anti-natalist. When I say as much in mixed company, the most common response is awkward laughter.

Crawford adds some light-hearted humor to Benatar’s sour form of pessimistic reasoning:

1. The presence of pain is bad.


2. The presence of pleasure is good.


3. The absence of pain is good, EVEN if that good is not enjoyed by anyone.

Bring me someone who experientially disagrees, then bring me a non-someone who experientially disagrees, and we’ll talk. Otherwise, I’m sticking.

4. The absence of pleasure is NOT bad UNLESS there is somebody for whom this absence is a deprivation.

Again, bring me a non-entity, and I’ll get the exclusive interview concerning his experiential state of deprivation.10

I prefer to think of this argument as the proverbial tree falling in the woods with nobody around. If there were no humans, constantly struggling to experience more positive than negative, to whom or to what would it matter? No one and nothing, because only humans can feel the mattering. Needless to say, anti-natalists of this variety don’t tend to have faith in God or explain the world in terms of higher moral powers at work. Those are just more signs of human error.

Negative arguments about existence have been pushed even farther in certain underground circles to include nonhumans and to define the evolution of sentient life as the underlying problem. This stance is sometimes called “efilism” (“life” spelled backwards + “ism” to make it sound like philosophy). A YouTuber named “Inmendham” appears to be the coiner. While he sometimes comes across as just another angsty incel ranting at the universe from an obscure dugout of self-imposed solitude, there are moments when he makes gut sense. I’m not ready to buy his basic idea that the universe can be boiled down to mechanical matter randomly morphing into self-replicating DNA and then into species sentience. Still, like most contemporary anti-natalist thinkers I’ve read or heard, Inmendham is not promoting a violent takeover of anything. He’s a guy working through the pain:

What constitutes the meaning of spelling “life” backwards is understanding that life doesn’t run a profit and that it fundamentally can’t run a profit because there’s absolutely nothing, nothing in the universe that needs humans. There’s no broken that humans fix. There’s no broken that a possum fixes. Living things can’t fix anything that’s broken in the universe.11

Pessimism of this sort is not new. The Romanian philosopher E. M. Cioran published The Trouble with Being Born in 1973. He had been lamenting the horrors of being human—and living deliriously through chronic insomnia—since his 1934 book On the Heights of Despair. Cioran’s style of distrust toward being couldn’t be more different than Inmendham’s. He isn’t out to persuade with ostensibly logical argumentation or present a rational breakdown of a cold universe that has no need for us. Instead, he relies on charged emotions and memorable aphorisms.

My idea of the never-born was inspired by Cioran. Amid provocative dirges about books as “postponed suicide,” nescience as “the basis of everything,” and misfits as the only people who have “glimpses” into the future, he offers this banger: “Never comfortable in the immediate, I am lured only by what precedes me, what distances me from here, the numberless moments when I was not: the non-born.”12 He speaks with poetry to the dark side of your heart.

Portrait of Emil Cioran.

What I submit for consideration is this thesis: we all occasionally ponder the possible benefits of never existing. This doesn’t necessarily mean that we construct an entire ethical edifice around the thought, or carry our sense that life is a burden to the stubborn philosophical conclusion that everything is mere artifice and should be made extinct. Minimally, we might entertain the idea that the pessimistic substratum of anti-natalism is not merely the product of a disenchanted scientific worldview somehow specific to Europe, nothing but the flipside of techno-capitalism, solely the rant of lonely white guys. The Arab world, for example, has a long tradition of cynicism about life, as I demonstrate below.

I offer the phrase “never-born” to encapsulate two main issues concerning anti-natalism. First, the phrase aims to capture the complex heterogeneity, across human history and cultures, of anti-natalist sentiment. Second, it aims to question the frequent framing of reproductive human futures as a matter of “choice.” Certain anti-natalist arguments adopt this framing, too easily placing reproductive choice at the center of a still-marginal philosophy. But this framing is simplistic on a number of grounds, including the radical inequalities of the world, projections of demographic decline, increasing biological infertility, and the evolutionary reality that extinction is ultimately a matter of when, not if.

The never-born has a visual component too. I collaborated with Peruvian-born artist Rossana Mercado-Rojas to produce the image near the beginning of this essay. She responded to my words with an image, which I now rearticulate back into more words. As montage, the never-born is a series of pasts, presents, and futures superimposed—horrors still unknown but somehow monstrously familiar; las transperdidas spitting out dragon babies over a landscape of the infertile sublime; a specter haunting these speculations about the inevitability of, and possibilities for, human extinction.


Samuel Raphael is a martial arts teacher from Mumbai who in 2019 sued his parents for bringing him into this world.13 (Ironically enough, both of his parents are lawyers.) No judge has been willing to hear the case, perhaps because large extended families and intergenerational debt are very important in Indian culture. There is a clever legal claim at the heart of Raphael’s argument, one that anti-natalists routinely philosophize about: there is no way for a non-existing human to consent to be born, much less choose to arrive into favorable circumstances. From the never-born’s perspective, human life is a crapshoot. Given the generally messed-up state of things, the odds of arriving into favorable circumstances—which might lighten the inherent burdens of living—aren’t good.

As such, Raphael argues that giving birth to a new human constitutes a violation of the rights of the not-yet-existing child. Perhaps more importantly for adamant anti-natalists, this position clarifies that “giving the gift of life” is more selfish than we admit. The self-interestedness of giving a gift was established long ago by French anthropologist Marcel Mauss, who observed that the act of giving always includes an obligation to reciprocate.14 Reproduction is similar. It is more about the wants and needs—or for that matter, the unwanted accidents—of existing humans than it is about the needs of a human that does not exist and cannot voice an opinion.

Capernaum, directed by Nadine Labaki, 2018, film still.

The Lebanese filmmaker Nadine Labaki released the widely acclaimed film Capernaum in 2018, a year before Raphael’s case was announced. There are so many parallels between the film and the case that one wonders if Raphael was inspired by the film, though I’ve seen no evidence for this. Capernaum revolves around an adolescent boy named Zain who is serving time in jail for assault. Zain requests to come before the judge:

Judge: Where do you live, Zain?

Zain: Roumieh Prison for Juveniles.

Judge: Arrested on June 15, you’re serving your sentence. Do you know why?

Zain: Because I stabbed a son of a bitch.

Judge: You stabbed someone.

Zain: Yes, a son of a bitch. [laughter in the court]

Judge: Really? You’re insisting? No laughing in court. What’s all this fuss you’re causing, on the TV, the media, your phone call from prison. Know why you’re here?

Zain: Yes.

Judge: Why?

Zain: I want to sue my parents.

Judge: Why do you want to sue your parents?

Zain: Because I was born.

Unlike Raphael, who is middle class, Zain is an undocumented runaway. He is one of many children in a family living in a crowded Beirut slum amid Syrian war refugees, African immigrants, and the impoverished multitude. The court has to estimate his age at twelve via medical exam because he has nothing to verify his existence before the state.

From this initial sketch of an adolescent criminal, the film flashes back through Zain’s childhood, providing a gut-wrenching portrayal of a kid who has endured injustice after injustice, all of them human-made and routinely ignored by elites. His decision to run away from home was rooted in a desire to protect his sister, Sahar. Still a pre-teen, she has started menstruating. Cognizant of the economic transactions families make around young girls in his culture, Zain helps Sahar hide this sign of fertility. This fails and the parents marry her off to a local store owner, fifteen or twenty years her senior, in exchange for free rent and some chickens.

Infuriated, Zain runs away, only to confront even harsher realities. He befriends an Ethiopian woman named Rahil, an immigrant and single mother to an infant named Yonas. Their brief effort to form a new family unit collapses when Rahil is detained with other undocumented immigrants. For days, Zain carts Yonas around on a stolen skateboard, desperately searching for Rahil and a means of survival. When the landlord kicks them out of Rahil’s ramshackle dwelling, Zain seeks out the market vendor who sold Rahil fake work documents. The vendor doubles as a human trafficker. He promises to find Yonas’s adoptive parents, only to sell him into slavery. He also tells Zain he can help him get to Sweden if Zain can supply his identity documents. Returning home to find them, Zain learns that Sahar has died from pregnancy complications just a few months after her marriage. This explains why Zain stabs the store owner, which is where the story began.

It would be too easy to accuse Labaki of making misery porn. To me the film is a masterful combination of intense tragedy, bravura performances, and aesthetic beauty. It is also rooted in contemporary Lebanese reality, where all these human contradictions mix together daily: cultural traditions that allow families to exchange young girls as if they were just another commodity; religious traditions that explain every human-made suffering in terms of God’s will; large populations of undocumented migrant workers and political refugees whose precarious movement across state borders is fueled everywhere by war, deprivation, and economic exploitation. Lebanon, never fully recovered from its own civil war in the 1980s, is second only to Turkey in hosting large populations of Syrian refugees. If anything, Labaki’s film is arguably a kind of realist documentary, with the aim of inspiring an activist response. Its lead actor, the Syrian refugee Zain Al Rafeea, was able to immigrate to Norway due to the success of the film.

But of course Zain is the exception. For the majority of people in Lebanon, the multiple overlapping crises the film depicts still constitute baseline social life. This reality was powerful enough to intrude into the making of the film. Yordanos Shiferaw, who plays Rahil, is from Eritrea. During filming she was briefly arrested for being undocumented, until the filmmakers secured her release. Yonas was played by a baby girl named Treasure, whose parents are from Kenya and Nigeria. All of them were eventually deported back to Africa.15 In interviews, Labaki has said that the script was inspired by extensive interviews she conducted with street children from the neighborhoods the film dramatizes. Almost all of them declared a wish to never have been born, insisting that they didn’t ask to live in such difficult circumstances.16 The desire for nonexistence is thus not confined to alienated middle-class philosophers. It has deep, organic roots.

Voluntary Human Extinction Movement, cartoon by Nina Paley, 1993. License: CC BY-SA 3.0

Watching Capernaum, I couldn’t help but think of the eleventh-century poet Abū al-ʿAlāʾ al-Maʿarrī. Long before Nietzsche, Voltaire, and virtually every European thinker associated with worldly disillusionment, al-Maʿarrī wrote volumes of idiomatic poetry debunking religious authority, citing reason as the only philosophy of any value, and repeatedly concluding that life is an extended experiment in sorrow and torment.

Al-Maʿarrī was imprisoned by his blindness (his metaphor, not mine). Aside from a brief stint in Baghdad, he lived most of his life in penurious isolation, as a celibate vegetarian in his small hometown of Maarat al-Numan, several hours south of Aleppo. One of his most remembered volumes of poetry is The Luzūmiyyāt, a book of more than a thousand quatrains that is sometimes translated under the title Unnecessary Necessity. With this title, Al-Maʿarrī nods to his use of a rhyming pattern familiar in classical Islamic verse, which he adopts to mock the compulsion to repeat tradition, not to affirm it. The title also refers to the many other things humans perpetuate as unnecessarily necessary: poverty, war, power, suffering, delusion, domination, obedience, vice—and human life itself.

In numbered quatrains, al-Maʿarrī explores his own desires to be never-born:

Now, at this end of Adam’s line I stand
Holding my father’s life-curse in my hand,
Doing no one the wrong that he did me:—
Ah, would that he were barren as the sand!

Ay, thus thy children, though they sovereigns be,
When truth upon them dawns, will turn on thee,
Who cast them into life’s dark labyrinth
Where even old Izrail cannot see.17

And in the labyrinth both son and sire
Awhile will fan and fuel hatred’s fire;
Sparks of the log of evil are all men
Allwhere—extinguished be the race entire!18

Al-Maʿarrī is a highly ambivalent figure in Islamic history. For more modernizing Arabs, he is sometimes celebrated as an early rationalist, a proponent of skeptical thought and religious dissent long before the rise of modern science and the eighteenth-century Enlightenment typically seen as its precursor. For the deeply religious he was a heretic and still is. This explains why in 2013 Islamic militants from the al-Nusra Front beheaded the humble little statue of al-Maʿarrī that sat in front of a small museum in his hometown.19

He was a never-born in life, executed by religious fanatics in death. This seems only to prove, through a kind of visceral poetics, his point about the dark side of being human. Anti-natalists have no faith in God, and those who claim to speak in God’s name find their ideas truly blasphemous.


Most contemporary expressions of anti-natalist sentiment are geared toward the global environmental crisis and uncertainty about the ecological future. Founded in the early 1990s, the Voluntary Human Extinction Movement (VHEMT) operates on the principle that humans are a “greedy, amoral parasite on the once healthy face of this planet.”20 VHEMT proposes that humans return the earth to other species by willingly removing themselves from it. In a feminist twist that places the responsibility for birth control more on men than women, VHEMT suggests voluntary vasectomy as the best method to achieve this long-term goal. The group’s logo shows a smiley dinosaur and a snarky-looking dodo bird giving a welcoming hug to a ghost-like human form.

In a recent survey of ten thousand young people across multiple countries, two-thirds felt “extremely worried” about the climate and over half felt “sad, anxious, angry, powerless, helpless, and guilty.”21 Young people today live with such constant fear of the climate future that increasing numbers appear ready to declare reproduction tantamount to an environmental crime (thus echoing VHEMT, knowingly or not).22 Rising concern over the environmental impact of reproduction has also generated new forms of activism, like the BirthStrike movement, started by the UK musician and activist Blythe Pepino in 2019.

Climate researchers can now calculate the carbon footprint of having a child. This is added to the carbon footprint of one’s lifestyle choices (the kind of car you drive, how often you take flights, etc.) to calculate one’s “carbon legacy.” Reproduction can lead to the exponential growth of one’s carbon legacy since every new child is potentially a parent. Two pioneers of this approach declared in 2009, “Under current conditions in the United States, for example, each child adds about 9441 metric tons of carbon dioxide to the carbon legacy of an average female, which is 5.7 times her lifetime emissions.”23 As if mothers did not have enough to stress about already.

Exhibition of Chris Korda, founder of The Church of Euthanasia. Goswell Road, 2019, Paris.

We cannot discuss the environmental impact of procreation without addressing overpopulation panic. Certain anti-natalist activists are preoccupied with overpopulation, like Chris Korda, the trans DJ artist and founder of the Church of Euthanasia, or the Portland-based group Stop Having Kids, which paid for billboards bearing its name (notably also a command) and stood on street corners with signs like “More Humans, More Problems.”24 Population is an easy target, given the evident fact of hard limits to natural resources and a global population that has grown to eight billion human beings. But how one measures things really matters. The two researchers (both men) who came up with the model for measuring the carbon legacy of “the average female” employ the methodology of statistics. This is their language, and also the language that policymakers cherish. They focus on “the average female” because population growth or decline is everywhere measured by women’s birth rates. As a result, however, there is no role for men in their statistical model; in fact, the word “man” doesn’t even appear in their published article. Intentionally or not, they place the responsibility for the carbon impact of reproduction solely on the shoulders of “the average female.”

Geographers with a feminist sensibility note how easily population panic segues into coercive top-down policies that have their worst impact on poor and racialized women in the Global South.25 It makes no sense to talk about the planet’s sorry ecological state without talking about vast economic inequality. From 1990 to 2015, the poorest half of the human population—those who also have the most children, the least access to reproductive choices, and are highly concentrated in the South—were responsible for about 10 percent of global emissions. By contrast, the richest 10 percent, concentrated in the US and Western Europe, were responsible for 52 percent.26 On top of this, the world’s “limited planetary resources” are grossly maldistributed; the richest one percent acquired two thirds of all new wealth created during the Covid pandemic.27

Before raising the alarm about “overpopulation” or “the average female,” these dimensions of global reality need to be factored in. If there is no radical curtailment of entrenched patterns of overconsumption by global elites; if there is no dismantling of the capitalist ethos that encourages everyone to acquire more; if no one bothers to ask what role men play in fertility, reproduction, and childcare, then this conversation will illuminate nothing.

The overpopulation panic seems especially baseless when we take into account current projections for future global population change. While eight billion humans and counting alarms some people, most demographers predict that the global population will plateau around the middle of this century and then start to decline at the turn of the next.

Fertility rates vary significantly by region: sub-Saharan Africa has the highest; Europe, East Asia, and North America have the lowest. But on a global scale, fertility has been dropping everywhere for several decades. The United Nations reports that from 1990 to 2019 global fertility dropped from 3.2 to 2.5 live births per woman. The UN projects a further decline to 1.9 by 2100. This last statistic is significant since the population replacement rate is 2.1. Essentially, all European, East Asian, and North American countries have been below the replacement rate for years. Some in Western and Central Europe are now under 1.5.28 The world of demographic crisis depicted in Children of Men, fueled by dwindling numbers of young people, aging populations, waves of impoverished climate migrants, and nationalist backlash, may not be so fictional.

Overlapping social, technological, and economic factors have contributed to the decline in fertility. In higher-income countries, these include the sheer economic cost of raising and educating children and the relentless demands of contemporary work. In lower-income countries, two developments have been decisive: the increased use of birth control (roughly half of women around the world are now using some form of contraception), and the expansion of women’s education. Basically, if you give women greater access to both, they have fewer children.

The question remains: Where are men in this story? One recent study about the gender parenting gap in the UK found that men are making more employment sacrifices to care for children relative to historical precedent. But the actual numbers reveal a very slow change. At the current pace, the UK will reach gender parenting equity in a couple more centuries.29

A kind of patriarchal common sense leads many people to assume that if a heterosexual couple is having fertility problems, the woman is to blame. The male role in infertility often gets overlooked. In reality, sperm ain’t what it used to be. It appears that the industrial lifestyle cultivated over the course of the twentieth century is basically toxic to male fertility.

In a massive 2017 meta-analysis, the epidemiologist Shanna H. Swan and colleagues found that from 1973 to 2011, male sperm concentration (number of sperm per milliliter of semen) declined by a shocking 52 percent.30 The problem is not just the quantity but also the quality of sperm. Sperm motility (crucial for finding the egg) and morphology are undergoing substantial changes. Testosterone levels are also dropping. The global dimensions of this problem are still unclear, since data for large parts of the Global South is spotty or absent. But the data for Western Europe and North America is solid, and the same trends appear to be emerging in China. The culprit for this change in reproductive health? The gigantic world of plastic and industrial chemicals we now live, breath, and breed in. Swan is one of the world’s leading experts on the connection between endocrine-disrupting chemicals (EDCs) and reproductive health problems like increased male and female infertility, a rise in miscarriages, and modifications in human genitalia.

Despite all the novel scientific techniques for addressing infertility, the immediate prognosis for naturally occurring human reproduction is basically negative. Research now shows that EDCs interfere with hormone production and messaging, including during fetal development. Like microplastics, various kinds of EDCs (phthalates, BPAs, pesticides, and more) are literally everywhere—in bath products, in the air, in cleaning supplies, in food containers, in cosmetics. You name it. Modern humans have been eating it, rubbing it into their skin, and breathing it ever since DuPont invented their slogan “Better living through chemistry” in the 1930s to assure consumers that industrial production brings more benefit than harm.

As Swan notes in her book, unlike food and drugs, where safety for human consumption must be demonstrated through rigorous scientific trials, governments take a reactive, laissez-faire approach to plastics and chemicals. In her famous book Silent Spring, Rachel Carson taught us that when it comes to the dangers of chemicals (in her case, DDT) the inverse of “safety first” applies.31 Novel chemicals and plastics are often used first and then only retired if they are widely challenged by the public for harms they have already inflicted.

Why? Because a plastic world is built around convenience, consumption, accumulation, disposability. And repetition of the same. As Marx made clear nearly two centuries ago, a world organized by capitalism profits from the false magic of things. For all its supposed marvels, its pretensions toward the future, its claims of perpetual progress, perhaps modernity is just a giant hall of mirrors. A world of false promises that can never be delivered. Faced with such a world, we would do well to revisit al-Maʿarrī’s ancient wisdom about the unnecessarily necessary repetition of human harm.

This leads to the question of extinction. Anyone who says anything about the subject should know something about its role in evolutionary theory. Extinction is not just the tragic death of species; it is also a vital element in a self-regulating planetary system, with cycles of mass death and dramatic rejuvenation. Models show that an exponential resurgence in biodiversity follows mass extinction events.32 Extinction is also more than a conjunctural circumstance waiting for our intervention. The collective price we pay for being human and being here on earth, extinction is an evolutionary guarantee for virtually every life-form that has ever existed. Its ultimate causes are determined as much by randomness as by evolutionary fitness, and surely not at all by philosophical decree.33 It is pure hubris to imagine that we are somehow beyond it, or that we can choose to be for or against the end of our species. While I don’t stand on street corners advocating for the disappearance of our species, I find no logic in positioning oneself against the inevitable. After all, how much choice over the future do we have really?


See Alex Williams, “To Breed or Not to Breed,” New York Times, November 20, 2021 ; Joshua Rothman, “The Case for Not Being Born,” The New Yorker, November 27, 2017 ; Rebecca Tuhus-Dubrow, “I Wish I’d Never Been Born: The Rise of the Anti-natalists,” The Guardian, November 14, 2019 .


David Wallace-Wells. The Uninhabitable Earth (Tim Duggan Books, 2019).


Ben Ware, “The Death Drive at the End of the World,” e-flux journal, no. 134 (March 2023) .


Théophile de Giraud, The Art of Guillotining Procreators: An Anti-natalist Manifesto, 2006. A free translation of the original French edition is available here .


See David Graeber, “There Never Was a West,” in Possibilities: Essays on Hierarchy, Rebellion, and Desire (AK Press, 2007).


See Eliza Berman, “‘Selfish, Shallow, and Neurotic’: How the Conversation on Childlessness Got Started,” Time, April 8, 2015 . For Childfree in Spanish see .


See, for example, Lee Edelman, No Future: Queer Theory and the Death Drive (Duke University Press, 2004).


Soft White Underbelly, “Antinatalist Interview—Amanda,” YouTube video, September 23, 2023 .


David Benatar, Better Never to Have Been (Oxford University Press, 2006).


Jim Crawford, Confessions of an Antinatalist (Nine-Banned Books, 2010), 100.


efilist, “Efilism Is …” YouTube video, October 26, 2015 .


E. M. Cioran, The Trouble with Being Born (Arcade, 1973), 5.


Geeta Pandey, “Indian Man to Sue Parents for Giving Birth to Him,” BBC News, February 7, 2019 .


Marcel Mauss, The Gift (Norton, 2000).


Yasmine El Rashidi, “Growing up in Hell,” New York Review of Books, June 6, 2019 .


Alex Ritman, “Cannes: Nadine Labaki on ‘Capernaum’ and Resisting the Lure of Hollywood,” Hollywood Reporter, May 9, 2018 .


Izrael (or Azrael) is the Angel of Death in Abrahamic religions.


Ameen Rihani, The Luzmiyat of Abu’l-Ala (James T. White & Co., 1918).


Kanishk Tharoor and Maryam Maruf, “Museum of Lost Objects: The Unacceptable Poet,” BBC News, March 8, 2016 .


See .


Kate Whiting, “What Is ‘Eco-anxiety’ and How Can We Ease Young People’s Fears for the Planet?” World Economic Forum, October 14, 2021 .


Alex Williams, “To Breed or Not to Breed,” New York Times, November 20, 2021 .


Paul A. Murtaugh and Michael G. Schlax, “Reproduction and the Carbon Legacies of Individuals,” Global Environmental Change 19, no. 1 (2009): 14.


See Veronica Bianco, “Who’s Behind the Portland Billboards Demanding People Stop Having Kids?” Willamette Week, February 16, 2022 →. For their website, go to .


Anne Hendrixson et al., “Confronting Populationism: Feminist Challenges to Population Control in an Era of Climate Change,” Gender, Place & Culture 27, no. 3 (2020).


Oxfam International, “Carbon Emissions of Richest 1 Percent More Than Double the Emissions of the Poorest Half of Humanity,” Oxfam International, September 21, 2020 .


Oxfam International, “Richest 1% Bag Nearly Twice as Much Wealth as the Rest of the World Put Together Over the Past Two Years,” Oxfam International, January 23, 2023 .


United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs, “World Fertility and Family Planning 2020,” 1 and 10.


Adam Corlett, “How Big Is the Gender Parenting Gap, and Is It Improving?” Resolution Foundation, March 8, 2019 .


Shanna H. Swan and Stacey Colino, Countdown (Scribner, 2021).


Rachel Carson, Silent Spring (Houghton Mifflin, 1962).


Michael Boulter, Extinction: Evolution and the End of Man (Columbia University Press, 2002).


See David Raup, Extinction: Bad Genes or Bad Luck? (Norton, 1991).

Extinction, Climate change
Return to Issue #139

Shane Greene is a misanthropologist. With past research on native Amazonian activism and the political histories of punk in Peru, he’s currently working on a book titled Homo Terminus, a series of speculative essays and original illustrations about human extinction. He teaches at Indiana University Bloomington. Visit him here:


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