The pandemic has reminded me of a rather malicious and persistent trend among vegans. That the care for animal rights, the drive for the ethical treatment of sentient beings somehow stops at our own species. At times, this is expressed as outright misanthropy and antinatalism – that the very existence and propagation of humanity is the root of all evils and we would just solve all problems by erasing humans from the planet.
This idea is of course not unique to veganism, but I find it counterproductive, contradictive, and outright immoral. The moral framework that would convince someone to become a vegan would in my humble opinion not lead to misanthropy. I do think that pseudoscience is hurting the credibility of veganism, and I also think that the misanthropic attitude is hurting the credibility of veganism which in turn is hurting animals.
I’m not talking about you
I understand that being engaged in animal rights in a world where the industrial slaughter of animals is the norm is frustrating, to say the least – I really do understand that. If someone hyperbolically expresses hatred towards humanity as a vent for releasing some of that frustration – I get it – I’m not talking about you in this post.
However, I am talking about people who fully sober, after releasing frustration to see things clearly, convinced on what seems to be rational grounds, really think that humans don’t deserve to exist on this planet or blaming people for procreation. If you are welcoming pandemics because you think that the world is overpopulated or that “humans are a parasite” – I’m talking about you.
For some reason, the only animal that doesn’t seem to deserve any right to their own existence is our own. Let me explain why I think this is wrong.
Are we too many?
In ecology, a theoretical way of thinking about population size in relation to the environment is the carrying capacity. This is simply a variable that determines a particular environment’s maximum number of individuals that such an environment can support. If that number is exceeded, the population size decrease, if it’s not exceeded – the population could increase (Cohen, 1995).
In that sense, the whole idea of ‘overpopulation’ is nonsensical, since it’s analogous to overfilling a glass with water. You cannot fill a 200 mL glass with 300 mL water – it will simply spill over. Similarly, if the carrying capacity is exceeded, the population size will stop increasing or decrease until equilibrium is met. Viewed from a different perspective the ‘overpopulation’ can simply mean that we are too many to be comfortable for us. Yet a different perspective is that ‘overpopulation’ means that the population size is so large that it will damage the environment in such a way that the carrying capacity will in future dramatically decrease leading to a collapse of the ecosystem and in turn the human population – leading to human suffering. If the glass were suddenly shrunk to half its size, half of the water that previously would occupy the glass would spill over. So, what is the carrying capacity of the planet for humans? Well, it’s quite difficult to estimate but estimates range up to 12 billion people (Cohen, 1995). Nonetheless, it’s hard to say for sure that we simply are too many for a fact.
The main arguments I hear for worrying about too many people is first and foremost the impact on the environment and particularly the climate. More people require more food and transportation, which requires more resources to be funneled into agriculture. However, some estimates show that we could feed the world population to 2050 without expanding agricultural land use if we would reallocate resources into more plant-based food systems (Kim et al., 2016). One study suggests that even if we would halt all burning of fossil fuels today, the emissions from our food production would still threaten our capacity to meet the 1.5°C goal, which means that food is a big deal (Clark et al., 2020).
In light of the dynamic relationship between the environment and the population size it seems like there is a complex relationship between how many we are and how we live while we are here. There is no question that our way of life is detrimental to the environment which has put us in the current mass extinction event labeled – the Anthroposcene (Lewis & Maslin, 2015; Steffen, Grinevald, Crutzen, & McNeill, 2011; Zalasiewicz et al., 2008). The fewer people we are, the more reckless way of living is tolerated by the environment. If we were a couple of hundred people on the planet – the emission of fossil fuels would likely not have a significant impact on the environment at all.
When one is faced with such facts – that our lifestyle is unsustainable relative to the number of people, the seminal question is how one tackles this problem. Is the solution to get rid of humans or make our way of living sustainably?
If we take a brief look at the statistics, one report suggests that the richest 10% of the world population contributes to almost half of the global fossil fuel emissions while the poorest 50% of the world population contributes to just about 10% of global fossil fuel emissions (Briefing, 2020; Hubacek et al., 2017). There is a strong negative correlation between GDP and fertility rate, the poorest countries are where the population grows the most, and richer countries grow less.
By focusing on the population size only, one is misdirecting the blame to poor people who don’t contribute to GHG-emissions to any significant extent. It’s rather the lifestyle of the few that is really causing the problems that we blame ‘overpopulation’ for. The most vicious form of putting the blame on ‘overpopulation’ is one that could be interpreted as wanting to reduce the number of births or people to sustain one’s own way of life.
Let’s explore the consequences of the most passionate misanthropists who welcome pandemics with open arms and think that it will solve all our problems or that we simply just deserve it.
The genocidal misanthropist who wants to cleanse the earth from the human scourge through pandemics or other convenient solutions that would allow them to see a substantial amount of the human population to be eradicated yet staying safe from the blame of such a tragedy. If we were, for the sake of discussion, to accept the premise that the major problem of our world today is too many people – is this solution reasonable?
If we were to wipe out half of the human population there would be more room for population growth, the same technological advancements and industrialization that enabled the population to grow to its current size would still exist. The main effect would likely just be that humans would just increase growth again until we reach today’s levels again. We simply delayed the problem – we didn’t solve it one bit.
One could argue that we would ‘buy time’ to solve the problems in the future. There are a couple of problems with such a line of reasoning. First, even if we would simply halt all GHG-emissions, the climate would keep changing for quite some time. Secondly, we now have reduced the problem-solving capacity of humanity by half. Half of the brains to work on solving these problems are lost, with an unforgiving continuation of global warming. The major problem as I will return to later – is that the main incentive for humans to care about climate change is the threat to our existence, but if the solution is to simply threaten the existence of others, what’s the point?
Value of nature
A question of contention that is usually silently assumed in the issue of our relationship with our planet, is what type of value we put on our environment. Is nature mainly of intrinsic or instrumental value? My guess is that most people see nature as instrumental to our existence, the major motivation to care for our environment and climate is that we cannot live without it. We care about the climate because it threatens us. I’m not saying it’s wrong to think that nature has an intrinsic value, but I think one should reflect on how one stands on this issue. The misanthrope who believe that humanity is a “parasite”, “virus” or “pest”, must imply that nature mainly has an intrinsic value. I imagine that the misanthrope has an ideal view of how nature should be and wants to restore nature to this ideal state. How does the misanthrope show that this is true? I’ve never seen such a display.
I think, however, that it would be hard to motivate people to change their entire way of life to make whatever changes necessary to meet the climate goals – simply for an arbitrary subjective ideal picture of how nature should be. It’s when we understand that our existence and the existence of our future generations is threatened, that we understand the instrumental value of nature which serves as an incentive to care for it. From an animal rights perspective, one could argue that climate change and environmental pollution increase suffering on non-human animals which also can serve as motivation – but I think it’s safe to say that most people really don’t care about that today, unfortunately.
If the most extreme misanthrope who wants to get rid of humans altogether, were to achieve this ideal picture of a subjectively perfect state of nature without humans – who are supposed to judge this state morally virtuous even if it were? This idealization of nature sans humans is a subjective worth; but, without subjects – who is going to subjectively deem it good once we’re all gone?
The right of existence
As a vegan, I think that all sentient beings have a right to exist by default. I think it’s immoral to deprive someone of existence by killing them for no reason (see my post on ethics for further explanation). If one doesn’t agree with this, I think it’s hard to rationally arrive at veganism being morally obligated or even virtuous. This is why I find it a bit inconsistent to be vegan and not think that humans should have a right to exist just like any animal.
There are limited resources and space on earth which means that there is competition for resources and space. Generally speaking, increasing the numbers of one species allows a proportionately less number of others. How do we morally judge for example the number of pigeons? At what point do we hold pigeons morally responsible for taking up too much space and resources that could be occupied by other birds? Well, generally we don’t because it seems to be fair game in the fight for survival. If we can’t make moral judgments on other species, on what grounds could we do it on members of our own? My conclusion is that existence is at least not immoral regardless of species, even if it prohibits the existence of others. It appears to be amoral.
I think one also has to respect humans’ existential drive to reproduce. All of us are an unbroken line of reproductions since the origin of life, once we die without reproducing, the lineage dies out. I think it’s questionable to unapologetically try to refuse people the urge for continuity through reproduction. It’s the single one most unifying factor with every form of life we know of, to reproduce – and it’s not surprising that people have a strong drive to do so. I’m not trying to convince people to reproduce if they don’t want to, but my point is that I think this aspect of people’s life is blatantly overlooked as a trivial thing by antinatalist misanthropes. No one is forcing antinatalists to reproduce.
A world without moral agents
The most extreme form of misanthropy is the one that idealizes a world without humans as already stated above. Sometimes, especially among misanthropic vegans, this is motivated by the cruelty of humans towards other animals and even between humans. The misanthropic conclusion is that humans best be eradicated from the earth completely never to return.
But even if we would accept this premise as true for the sake of discussion – is this reasonable? Would the eradication of humans prevent the future suffering of animals? First of all, the problem with tunnel-vision on prevention of suffering is that by reductio ad absurdum the most effective way of ensuring that suffering cannot occur, is to end all possibility for life in the universe – for example, by somehow destroy the entire universe. This can be balanced by putting a value on pleasure and well-being as well as the reduction of suffering. I think that the most extreme form of misanthropy logically leads to eradicating life altogether as a preventive measure, to which I will strongly protest. An example of this is when people express that it would be cruel to reproduce because ‘the world is such a horrible place’. This is again an example of tunnel-vision on the reduction of suffering from a very pessimistic view on the chances of well-being. I think this is common in the vegan community because of the strong utilitarian moral foundation of veganism, but surely we wouldn’t apply this tunnel-vision on other animals? If we did, it would make ending all life altogether the most moral option – basically killing every single animal on earth to ensure that none will ever suffer again. I cannot accept this as moral because I also value the right to existence, well-being, freedom and pleasure.
But if we are relatively modest and “only” remove humans, I think that this also is short-sighted – even if disregard the immoral actions necessary to get rid of humans altogether. If our main motivation is to prevent animal cruelty and suffering, the misanthrope just removed the only species we know that can reason about morality. The ability to reason about morality also gives the opportunity to actually take action to prevent suffering, to change behaviour as a result of reasoning. Without humans, there is no one left to safeguard against suffering, to actively prevent it.
An additional problem is that when our ecological niche is vacant in this hypothetical scenario, what prevents a different species to occupy this niche, starting to abuse other animals on an industrial scale and with even less moral concerns for other species suffering than humans? This could potentially lead to even more suffering for a longer time. Maybe our successors wouldn’t be able to reason about morality at all. This is of course a highly hypothetical scenario, but even if we don’t have any reason to think this would or could happen – we have no way of knowing what actually would happen once we are gone. The only way to have any chance of controlling the future is to keep existing – that is the point. The worst possible idea would be to remove the only species we know that at least have the potential of adjusting their behavior by moral reasoning and arguments.
Antinatalism – the self-destructive idea
Closely related to misanthropy is the idea of antinatalism – usually as a means of reducing the number of humans. Trying to convince others and themselves to not reproduce. Again, I’m not imposing any moral judgment on anyone who doesn’t want to have kids – not at all. As I hope I’ve conveyed above, I view this as an amoral act. People who want to have kids, should; people who don’t want to, shouldn’t.
The somewhat self-destructive nature of antinatalism among vegans motivated by reducing the impact on the climate and/or reducing the number of potential animal-abusers has always struck me as quite contradictive. Imagine that vegans are the only ones who care about animal rights and saving the climate, the idea that this should be the group to abstain from reproduction is to be a bit self-counteracting. If all vegans would buy this idea – this would allow non-vegans to have more kids as the reduced reproduction rate of vegans would allow for resources and space (however small) for those kids. If one wants to change the future world, is the wisest move to leave the upbringing of future generations exclusively in the hands of people with who you don’t agree?
I’m not at all suggesting that one should have kids with the aim of breeding future copies of yourself – in the sense of opinions – to take over the world. Nor am I implying that kids necessarily adopt the views and ideas of their parents. But I do think it seems that to advocate for antinatalism in your own movement is really making it harder for yourself. I’m also convinced that antinatalism is a rather hopeless goal – from an evolutionary perspective there are few things that there is harder selection against than to voluntarily abstain from reproduction, you will simply be outcompeted by people who have a tendency to not have these ideas.
The moral circular reasoning
The most absurd form of misanthropy is the form that is motivated by climate change and human impact on the environment coupled with a view of natures worth as instrumental to humans. It is logically contradictive – but I’ve definitely stumbled across it.
This is usually expressed as hatred of humanity because humans destroy the environment. The destruction of the environment is then thought to cause the destruction of humanity – given by the evidence from climate sciences. This hatred is sometimes expressed in the form of that humans are deserving of such a fate or that it would be “good for the planet” to get rid of humans altogether. The circularity should be obvious – the problem is when one wants to destroy humanity because humanity is destroying itself.
If you are trying to prevent something and what you are trying to prevent is part of the solution – you seriously need to reconsider. It’s like cutting off your arm because you are afraid to hurt it.
I would also like to comment on the common expression that “it would be good for the planet” if humans didn’t exist. I understand that this is sometimes hyperbolic, but I think it’s important to be clear. The actual planet is not the slightest threatened by our existence – neither is life on the planet as a whole. What is threatened is our own flourishing and existence and especially biodiversity. The threat to biodiversity means the current species on the planet – a mass extinction. But this is not the same as complete removal of life. If we don’t do anything about the environment and the worst possible scenarios come true where we and most of the earth’s species would go extinct – life would most likely recover (as it has for all the other mass extinction events), it just that we are not part of it anymore.
I think most people understand this, but I think that the casual conflation of the concepts of loss of biodiversity and our existence with the total apocalypse is driving some of these misanthropic ideas.
“Humans are a parasite”
This is usually also probably expressed hyperbolically, but as much as it bothers my biology-brain, it reproduces faulty ideas about our place in nature.
Obviously, humans are not a virus nor a parasite from a biological perspective. Most people probably very well know during a viral pandemic what a virus is. The “parasite” idea is probably the most prevalent and when challenged one usually here something like “well humans are exploiting the resources from the environment for their own good”. While this is true, it’s also true for every single living organism on the planet. The whole concept of being alive is to extract energy from the environment to reproduce. Furthermore, this is by no means the biological definition of a “parasite”. Parasitism is one form of symbiosis where the benefit is unilateral, examples of this is worms that live inside other animals with harm posed to the host.
Humans are not parasites, not even figuratively. Most of the aspects that people bring up in defense of this are general things that one could say for any organism.
“Oh, but I hate everyone equally much”
This is the universal free-card for misanthropes to express racist, publicly dangerous ideas such as anti-vaxx, sexist ideas to just simply say that “oh, I cannot be racist (or whatever it may be) – I hate everyone“.
It’s really not an excuse to be hateful towards other people just because you claim to hate everyone. Being bigoted towards everything doesn’t make you less of a bigot – quite the opposite I would argue.
As obviously flawed as this reasoning is, I still want to mention it since it’s so prevalent amongst the misanthropic vegans. To brush off every criticism with the standard “I hate everyone”-response. If you really do hate people but care for animals – the expressed hatred for literally everyone could be somewhat off-putting for people to consider the arguments in favor of veganism. If you really do care about the animals as claimed, I think the most effective way for a misanthropic vegan to show that care is to just not talk with anyone ever – it shouldn’t be an issue if you really hate everyone.
I hope my points came across, I think that misanthropy and proselytizing antinatalism doesn’t belong in veganism. I think it is self-defeating and only has a negative impact on veganizing the world – or frankly everything.
I also want to make it clear that I’m not arguing for that it’s a moral good or duty to reproduce – it’s neutral. I’m arguing against misanthropy and proselytizing antinatalism as a moral duty.
To summarize my points:
- Things are more complex than simply claiming that the world is overpopulated, at least be very clear exactly what you mean to avoid coming off as genocidal eugenicists.
- Both birth rate and contributions to GHG-emissions are linked to income.
- Humans or animals cannot be morally disqualified of existing.
- Our greatest resource for solving the major problems in the world are humans.
- Tunnel-vision on the utilitarian reduction of suffering leads to the most destructive worldview possible.
Briefing, O. M. (2020). Confronting Carbon Inequality, (September).
Clark, M. A., Domingo, N. G. G., Colgan, K., Thakrar, S. K., Tilman, D., Lynch, J., … Hill, J. D. (2020). Global food system emissions could preclude achieving the 1.5° and 2°C climate change targets. Science, 370(6517), 705–708. https://doi.org/10.1126/science.aba7357
Cohen, J. (1995). Population growth and earth’s human carrying capacity. Science, 269(5222), 341–346. https://doi.org/10.1126/science.7618100
Hubacek, K., Baiocchi, G., Feng, K., Muñoz Castillo, R., Sun, L., & Xue, J. (2017). Global carbon inequality. Energy, Ecology and Environment, 2(6), 361–369. https://doi.org/10.1007/s40974-017-0072-9
Kim, J., Kwon, J., Kim, M., Do, J., Lee, D., & Han, H. (2016). Exploring the biophysical option space for feeding the world without deforestation. Light: Science & Applications, (November 2015), 1–7. https://doi.org/10.1038/pj.2016.37
Lewis, S. L., & Maslin, M. A. (2015). Defining the Anthropocene. Nature, 519(7542), 171–180. https://doi.org/10.1038/nature14258
Steffen, W., Grinevald, J., Crutzen, P., & McNeill, J. (2011). The Anthropocene: conceptual and historical perspectives. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society A: Mathematical, Physical and Engineering Sciences, 369(1938), 842–867. https://doi.org/10.1098/rsta.2010.0327
Zalasiewicz, J., Williams, M., Smith, A., Barry, T. L., Coe, A. L., Bown, P. R., … Stone, P. (2008). Are we now living in the Anthropocene. GSA Today, 18(2), 4. https://doi.org/10.1130/gsat01802a.1