Tuesday, January 8, 2013

Vegans, Procreation, and "Overpopulation", Oh My...

"There are definitely too many of you!" 
If you spend enough time reading vegan blogs, websites, and social media, or if you frequently participate in vegan forums, you will inevitably encounter vegans making arguments against human procreation. Invariably these arguments are premised, at least in part, on the assumption that the world is overpopulated with humans and that the size of the human population is the primary driver of just about every ecological and social crisis we are facing today. Often the people making these arguments go even further, suggesting that there is no ecologically acceptable place on this planet for humans because humans are destructive and parasitical by nature. Some vegans will even go so far as to declare that procreation is decidedly not vegan because, given all these obvious problems caused by human overpopulation, the decision to add to the surplus of humans harms countless nonhuman animals.

These simplistic arguments - that "there's too many people on earth, just look at all the destruction humans cause to the planet" and "obviously 7 billion humans is too many because that's a really, really big number" - are typical among the vegan and non-vegan anti-procreationists/populationists, but if we examine them we can begin to see how they are deeply flawed and how they necessarily obscure much more than they reveal.

The truth is that most of us 7 billion humans are not endangering the planet; The primary drivers of environmental destruction, pollution, resource shortages, deforestation, loss of biodiversity, species extinction, climate change, and many other pressing problems often attributed to "too many people", are, in reality, our unjust political and economic systems -controlled by a small minority of humans- and the military industrial complex that allows them to function and expand. The tragic irony of the blame-the-"breeder" position is that the vast majority of humans are actually the victims -not perpetrators- of this profoundly exploitative system in various ways.
We need to understand that our materials economy is designed to create an endless supply of "cheap" disposable stuff merely for profits gained by a small percentage of humans (think about the "1%" articulated by the Occupy Wall Street movement), and not for the needs and well-being of humans or other animals, for the health of our ecosystems, or to create sustainable and equitable social systems. Rampant ecological destruction that negatively affects the lives of many humans (particularly marginalized groups) and countless other animals is inherent in this infinite growth economic model, from the extraction of materials and resources, to the production, distribution, and disposal of all this stuff, much of which is intentionally designed to become obsolete after a very short period of time. 

Additionally, it has been reported that the US Department of Defense is "responsible for the most egregious and widespread pollution of the planet" and that "This impact includes uninhibited use of fossil fuels, massive creation of greenhouse gases, and extensive release of radioactive and chemical contaminants into the air, water, and soil". Futhermore, "the Department of Defense ... produc(es) more hazardous waste than the five largest US chemical companies combined. Depleted uranium, petroleum, oil, pesticides, defoliant agents such as Agent Orange, and lead, along with vast amounts of radiation from weaponry produced, tested, and used, are just some of the pollutants with which the US military is contaminating the environment". It should go without saying that the vast majority of people on this planet are not included in any decision making process within the US DoD.
Many people challenging anti-procreationist/populationist arguments often attempt to shift focus and blame onto individual consumption choices, and in some ways this also misses the point. According to Annie Leonard, author of The Story of Stuff, 97.5% of solid waste in the United States comes from industrial operations, not household waste, and up to 97% of  all energy and material that goes into manufacturing products is simply wasted. This is not to say that individual consumption choices don't matter, but clearly the vast majority of us have little or no immediate control over, or even any say in the decisions made that use the most resources, produce the most waste and pollution, and cause most ecological destruction.

Moreover, populationists often tend to overlook or ignore substantial inequalities, and thus disparate levels of consumption, even within rich nations. In reference to individual greenhouse gas emissions, David Satterthwaite writes that "...the lifetime contribution to GHG emissions of a person added to the world's population varies by a factor of more than 1,000 depending on the circumstances into which they are born and their life choices..."

On top of all this, it's downright silly for vegans, of all people, to argue that the planet is overpopulated with humans when it is estimated that "livestock" systems occupy nearly half (45%) of the global surface area. This is a true overpopulation problem for the planet: we breed billions of land animals into existence every year -roughly 8 times the human population- just to exploit and kill them for unnecessary purposes, misusing vital resources and causing widespread pollution and environmental catastrophe. Not to mention the many billions of aquatic animals unnecessarily killed every year, brutalizing our oceanic ecosystems.
Can we seriously maintain that the size of the human population (or even human existence), in and of itself, is the main driver of the destruction of our world? The issue of human "overpopulation" is, and historically has always been, a huge distraction.  
Note that none of what I have mentioned above even addresses the fact that the human population is not currently exploding as many populationists claim. Rather, it is experiencing a global trend that will likely result in stabilization, if not decline, later this century. Nor did I address the inherent racism, classism, and misogyny in an argument that focuses blame on women's bodies and on folks that still have rising populations: mainly poor people of color. Nor have I begun to address the history of the "too many people" position, or what groups of people have constructed these arguments to justify elitism, racial supremacy and oppression, or how overpopulation theory has been, and is currently, put into horrifying practice.

If anything is "not vegan" or unethical, it's attempting to shame fellow vegans (or anyone else) for their reproductive choices and relying on flimsy "overpopulation" arguments to validate one's own shallow misanthropy. Now that's a real shame, and we should not tolerate such nonsense if we are truly concerned about challenging oppression and promoting social justice...


  1. THANK YOU. This is a real hot button issue for me, being active in the vegan community and also a parent. I fully support and stand by anyone who decides to be child-free, and I expect the same respect towards my decision to have a child. Having biological children does not make someone less vegan and it doesn't necessarily mean we are simply creating more consumers to leech off the planet. To me, it means my partner and I have the opportunity to raise our son with positive ethical values that will hopefully stick with him throughout his life. While there's no guarantee our child will decide to stay vegan his entire life, I still think there's way more good that can come out of what he will learn from us then there is bad.

  2. Whether or not I agree with your position, I love it when someone actually takes time to get the facts onan issue before making a decision on it or voicing an opinion. If we do not create and raise our children, who will be the stewards of our planet when we are gone?

  3. Thank you Lucas, this was an excellent and well-researched article. I'll be sharing it!

  4. Hi Lucas & beautiful family-

    I met you on the old Abolitionist Approach forum and I can remember the heated debates there. I agreed, and do still agree with your position, but I understand the counter regarding orphans, ie our homes are resources for orphans (human and non) and we should offer these limited resources first to those in existence, rather than to create more individuals requiring these resources.

    Having adopted 2 nonhumans, and wanting to share my home raising a vegan child, but not being able to afford human adoption, I have always been torn...and then my husband and I got pregnant (oops!). I had a very strong desire to follow through with the pregnancy, and so did Daley. There was NO way we could abort the being we created. We now have a beautiful 5 month old daughter. I guess I am sharing this for two reasons: 1) because I think it is wrong for anyone, vegan or otherwise to condemn someone for aborting or not aborting; what an intimate and personal decision. I, personally, could never abort. I know this about myself. And 2) Yes, we should, in a perfect world, care first for those in existence, but you have to be a very affluent person to be granted the responsibility of parenthood. We are not poor but we cannot afford to adopt! It's so sad and very true.

    My husband and I may even decide to give Melody a sibling. We haven't decided yet. I go back in forth in my mind about whether it is "right." But there is always the part of me that believes young people NEED vegan influence and vegan homes. If the next generation is not receiving this, because the majority of vegans have reasoned themselves out of reproducing, we will simply have a new generation of meat-eating, over consumers. Hmmm... Lots to consider. All the best and thanks for posting. Caitlin caitlinjennifercampbell@yahoo.com

  5. Thank you Leigh, Allison, Sayward, and Caitlin for your thoughtful comments!

    Leigh, I originally had typed a very different and much shorter post for those vegans asserting that children raised with vegan values might not stay vegan later in life. It consisted of just two words made up of seven letters and was the only response I that feel such fear-mongering nonsense deserves.

    Caitlin, congratulations on your baby! It's great to hear from you.

    I think that the decision to adopt humans in need of a home is a very awesome decision, and I am in full support of it. However, you have highlighted the fact that this issue is not necessarily as simple as everyone being able to make the choice to adopt, and that should be taken into consideration.

    I too remember those debates and I too understand that particular argument that was used to condemn human procreation. If it could be presented in a respectful way from someone being sincere (like, say, from someone who is so concerned about the issue of human adoption that they have attempted to, or even intended to attempt to adopt a human child, which, from what I remember, was admittedly not the case on the AA forum), then I might be inclined to agree that adoption might be the preferable choice. However, I still have similar thoughts on this as I did at that time: 1) It's wholly inappropriate to shame biological parents regardless, and 2) the argument isn't only about, or limited to adoption vs. procreation. Following the same logic, any act of using any extra resources on anything other than helping anyone else in need of those resources should be equally criticized. Indeed, it's entirely possible that a child-free person might use their available resources in a way that helps people in need of those resources less than that of a parent of biological children. Therefore, as I see it, the choice to not have biological children, while totally awesome, doesn't necessarily make one morally superior to biological parents and certainly doesn't warrant any aggressiveness, shame, or disrespect directed at biological parents.

    From what I recall, even the arguments made by members of the AA forum in favor of adoption over procreation were all premised in part on these assumptions of a human "overpopulation problem" and/or the inherently-and-helplessly-destructive-human (so we shouldn't create more of them), and because of the widespread and uncritical acceptance of these assumptions in and beyond the vegan community, I felt it necessary to focus specifically on them in my post.

  6. I appreciate you writing this article. My husband and I are not able to have children and have decided not to adopt for a variety of reasons. Still, I am really bothered by the number of people on vegan boards/lists vilifying people for having biological children and not adopting. How choosing to bring a child into this world that you plan to care for is in any way like forcibly breeding your dog and selling her puppies for a profit is beyond me yet this seems to be the message I keep hearing from many fellow vegans. These same people repeatedly talk about caring for the children who are already here yet I know that the vast majority of them have not adopted. Because they don't want children it's o.k. for them not to adopt but someone who wants a biological child must adopt.

    1. Yup! I know how you feel. That comparison between breeding "pets" and human procreation is made often by vegans, and it makes absolutely no sense.

      Thanks for commenting!

  7. Some of your points don't quite make sense to me. If " 97.5% of solid waste in the United States comes from industrial operations" surely these operations are to produce goods/fuels/food/etc which humans use. It doesn't matter if the waste is created after this stuff gets to your home or before. By creating another human you are adding one more person who needs this stuff, another person's waste (and the waste in the creation of their stuff). So making a new person does pollute the world. Anyway, even if you disagree with this logic, adding another person can not be totally neutral.
    If a vegan's aim is to prevent animal suffering, by creating another human you may create more suffering. Even if you raise your child to eat completely animal-cruelty neutral, when they grow up you can't control what they eat. Vegans are in the minority which suggests there is a chance your child will join the majority and eat meat. You are then directly responsible for all the animals harmed by their eating.
    I do not think overpopulation is a good reason not to have children, and I don't judge people who do have children as immoral. I think vegans should have discussions about this. I'm not attacking anyone for their choices, I just want to have a reasonable discussion about vegan issues. Thanks for your article.

    1. "... surely these operations are to produce goods/fuels/food/etc which humans use. It doesn't matter if the waste is created after this stuff gets to your home or before. By creating another human you are adding one more person who needs this stuff, another person's waste (and the waste in the creation of their stuff). So making a new person does pollute the world."

      This would make sense to me if I believed that Stuff is produced mainly to meet human needs. Of course, for reasons I provide in my essay, I do not. Also, unless you believe that the current undemocratic ways of producing Stuff within our capitalist economic/social system is the most sustainable, most equitable, and/or only ways to provide goods and services (let alone basic needs) to humans, then you must direct blame toward that system, rather than individuals born into, and living within, it.

      I think it's very important to acknowledge the fact that average consumers do not make substantive decisions about what Stuff is produced, where it's produced, how it's produced (which -destructive, polluting- technologies are employed), how it's distributed, and so on and so forth. Those decisions are made by a tiny percentage of humans - the major shareholders and boards of directors of corporations, all seeking profits above anything else and hardly accountable to the public. Average consumers really only make choices about consuming what's provided to them, if they have the money to pay or even the access, that is (a great many people cannot meet their basic needs and many more cannot exceed what's required to meet their basic needs). Placing the blame on individual humans being born into these conditions doesn't make a lot of sense, unless one is committed to some misanthropic view of humankind. Again, it's clear to me that the blame should be directed at this inherently wasteful, inequitable, and destructive system and its imperative of never-ending growth and expansion.

      Famed radical environmentalist and vocal critic of "overpopulation" alarmism Barry Commoner summed it up pretty well when he said, “pollution begins not in the family bedroom, but in the corporate boardroom”.

      As to your point about vegan kids not staying vegan, I think you erroneously reduce veganism to a diet and ignore and/or underestimate the deeply meaningful ways in which ethical vegan parenting can provide children with radically different foundational perspectives about the human/nonhuman relationship.

      There's also the question as to whether or not individual (vegan) food choices directly impact the amount of animals "(over)produced" to make them into "food" anyways. I'm skeptical that they do, but that's for another post.

      You might be right about "adding another person" not being "totally neutral". Humans have the ability to be a positive or a negative force. For the sake of space I'll just say that I'm not at all convinced by the ideological position that humans are inherently a negative force on the planet.

      Thanks for commenting.