Two years ago, my wife and I went to a dog “salon” in a small French town on the other side of Geneva. The puppies were adorable, but even more were the kittens one breeder was exhibiting together with his puppies. Taking advantage of my obvious immediate infatuation with the tiny creatures, the owner placed one of them into the palm of my hand, where she immediately fell asleep, snoozing away for the next half hour. Hardly surprising, we took her home with us, where she has grown up into a thoroughly spoilt living-room tiger.
By adopting Mimi the cat, however, I have become complicit in one of the great ecological catastrophes of our time. For cats are not only cuddly little furballs who manage to wrap just about anyone but the most diehard ailurophobe around their little paws. They are also among the most destructive predators ever invented — just like humans. Highly efficient hunters, cats are indicted in the extinction of more than 60 species, accounting for a quarter of all extinctions caused by natural predators such as rodents and dogs, thus directly contributing to the loss of biodiversity.
Their impact has been particularly devastating in island settings that lack native predators. But on the “mainland” too, the impact made by cats has been catastrophic. In the United States, for instance, it is estimated that cats are responsible for the killing of anywhere between 1.3 billion and 4 billion birds, and between 6.3 billion and 22.3 billion mammals in any given year.
In 2018, a British newspaper shocked its readers by stating that in Australia, cats killed on average 2 million reptiles a day and were implicated in the extinction of at least 20 mammal species unique to the country. A government-sponsored study found that “in total about 650 million reptiles are being killed by Australian cats annually, with the average cat taking 225 every year.” In the meantime, in the UK, a survey estimated that cats killed around 55 million birds and 10 million reptiles and amphibians (in addition to 200 million mammals) each year.
Challenge to Sustainability
This, however, is not the end of the story. A few years ago, I drove from the Smokey Mountains on the border between Georgia and Tennessee to Washington, DC. On the way, I listened to a radio talk show featuring a vegetarian who was blasting humans for stealing eggs from chicken. At the same time, she told her host that she was the proud owner of a cat who was her main source of sanity in an increasingly insane world. Unfortunately, it did not occur to the host to ask her how she managed to reconcile strict vegetarianism with keeping a pet that subsisted on animal protein for their wellbeing.
It is of course possible, albeit quite difficult, to keep cats on a vegetarian or even vegan diet. Vegetarianism, however, is a moral choice, and cats, unfortunately don’t subordinate their dietary demands to moral principles. Cats are carnivores, and depriving them of their natural source of nutrition raises a range of new moral issues which are not easily resolved.
Readers might object that this is a trivial question compared to developments such as global warming. Or perhaps not: One of the major issues today is sustainability. Given the staggering statistics cited above, cats represent a major challenge to sustainability. Today, cats are the most popular pets in a number of countries. In Germany, for instance, cats make up 23% of household pets, or about 15 million, way ahead of dogs, at 9.5 million. On the other side of the globe, in China, the cat population registers the most dynamic growth rates. Projections are that in a few years, cats will have overtaken dogs as favorite pets, but are still trailing fish. These developments suggest that cats will continue to pose a fundamental challenge to the question of sustainability, which is central to meeting the much more complex challenge of climate change.
The reason humans love cats is because cats are cute and cuddly, the source of numerous psychological benefits to their owners. Cats have been compared to human babies, not least because cats have mastered the art of melting their owner’s heart by sounding like babies. But, as I have suggested above, cats represent an environmental threat, as do babies — or so an increasingly vocal fringe suggests.
Meet Verena Brunschweiger, a primary-school teacher and “anti-mother.” Brunschweiger teaches in Bavaria, arguably Germany’s most conservative region. Earlier this year, she published a book with the provocative title, “Kinderfrei statt kinderlos: Ein Manifest”(“Child-free Instead of Childless: A Manifesto”). The book’s central message is that given today’s unprecedented ecological crisis, the only way to save the planet is to not have children. Perhaps not entirely surprisingly, the author’s central thesis provoked mixed responses. Ironically enough, both sides agreed on one thing — egoism — but from diametrically opposed positions. Whereas one side argues that wanting a baby was selfish, the other side maintained that not wanting to procreate was.
What got obscured in the debate was the original reason for Brunschweiger’s position: the fact that babies represent a substantial burden on the environment. Actually, this statement should be qualified. The “problem” is not babies per se, but babies in developed societies — Europe, North America and East Asia (including parts of China). The reason is obvious: “One life lived now in the developed world consumes more resources (and contributes more to global warming) than a life lived in the developing world, and in the process makes the prospects of future people considerably worse.”
Detractors have charged that this is pure ideology on the part of a left-wing cosmopolitan elite that pursues its own socialist agenda. These are the same detractors who claim that global warming — or, as they call it “glo-bull warming” — is a figment of a sick imagination and, just in case it might actually occur, that climate change has nothing to do with human actions. Slightly more scientific approaches come to somewhat different conclusions. A recent paper published in Environmental Research Letter, for instance, points out that having one fewer child in a developed country would reduce carbon emission by 58.6 tons CO2-equivalent per year. The same logic applies to water use, given the fact that the average American family consumes 100 times more water per day than the average family in Africa.
At the same time, however, measures that target population growth are far from a quick fix. As the authors of a recent article note, effecting a “one child world” takes many decades, if not centuries. This has not prevented a small minority of young women and men to follow up on their beliefs and convictions, resulting in voluntary child-free decisions. An article published on the front page of the Swiss Le Temps earlier this year set the tone. The author of the article asked young people why they had decided not to have children. The answer was disarming: The young people claimed they loved children too much to subject them to a world they considered had no future. At the same time, they expressed their concern that one day, their children might accuse them of having handed over to them a planet that was “irreversibly damaged.”
Ethics of Procreation
These answers suggest that this is not only a scientific question but also, and perhaps even primarily, a philosophical/religious/moral one. Until recently, the ethics of procreation remained relegated to the fringes of philosophy. The arguably most pessimistic voice was the Romanian-born French philosopher Emil Cioran, who wrote a collection of aphorisms titled “De l’inconvénient d’être né” (“The Trouble With Being Born”). One of Cioran’s core messages is that the greatest calamity is not the prospect of death but the “catastrophe of birth.” Ironically enough, Cioran did not advocate suicide, arguing that “you can kill yourself any time you like. So calm down. Suicide is a positive act.” Once the wisdom of this observation sunk in, Cioran noted, people actually did calm down.
Cioran’s “anti-natalist” position is most prominently reflected in the writings of the contemporary South African philosopher David Benatar, whose main work, “Better Never to Have Been: The Harm of Coming into Existence,” echoes Cioran. Benatar’s central argument hinges on the notion that even the most minute pain experienced by an individual suggests that he or she would have been better off never to have been born. In reality, of course, human life is full of pain and suffering, physical and psychological.
Under the circumstances, the notion that it is better to have been born than not to have been born at all is ludicrous — particularly given the fact that “humans have the unfortunate distinction of being the most destructive and harmful species on earth.” From this Benatar concludes that the “amount of suffering in the world could be radically reduced if there were no more humans.” And, one might add, no more cats.
Most major religions have generally held that children are a blessing, a gift from God. Refusing to procreate is a deadly sin, punishable by death. The Biblical story of Onan is a paradigmatic case, which, by the way, has nothing to do with masturbation; Onan refused to impregnate his dead brother’s wife — and received divine retribution for it. We might no longer live in Old Testament times, but religion’s sanction of anything that goes against the notion that children are a gift from the Lord still holds strong, particularly with respect to abortion.
The philosopher Kenneth Himma, from the University of Washington, begs to disagree. In a chapter in a collected volume on the “problem of hell,” he charges that given the Christian belief in hell, procreation is morally wrong. Himma convincingly argues that if Christian exclusivism — the belief that Christianity is the only true faith — and the traditional doctrine of hell hold true, then it follows that it is “morally wrong, given these traditional Christian doctrines” to procreate given the odds that he or she will spend their life after death suffering the torments of hell are quite high — unless neither premise is true. This, of course, has not kept Catholics and Protestants — and even Calvinists who believe in predestination — from producing generations of potential hell-dwellers.
Think of the Planet
Undoubtably, those promoting radical anti-natalist positions meet with hostility and derision. Take, for instance, a recent article published in Canada’s National Post summarizing some of the major arguments addressing the notion of whether or not it might be “immoral to have babies in the era of climate change.” The article provoked a few hundred comments, most of them negative, some of them insulting to the author.
While some readers asked her whether she had lost her mind writing such obvious drivel, other comments took on a more serious note, reflecting deep-seated anxieties and sentiments prevalent among the contemporary radical right. For a number of commentators, the anti-natalist positions summarized in the article represented but one more piece in the assault on white people. Or as one comment succinctly put it, “This is a sick, anti white article. Whits people should have many children. Go post this article in African newspapers.”
No wonder, prominent radical right-wing populists such as Germany’s Alexander Gauland, of the Alternative for Germany party, have made the fight against any new policy initiatives designed to protect the environment a top political issue. At the same time, and a tad paradoxically, they are using widespread public concerns about climate change and global warming in support of their campaign against immigration. The Swiss People’s Party, for instance, in its program for the upcoming national election, link the degradation of the country’s environmental conditions to the influx of the 1 million migrants settling in Switzerland between 2002 and 2016. Under the circumstances, the “best way to preserve our environment is to defend Switzerland, its independence and sovereignty,” the party maintains, by, among other things, “fighting against the free movement of people.”
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A recent scientific study found that in the United States, cats and dogs are responsible for “the release of up to 64 ± 16 million tons CO2- equivalent methane and nitrous oxide, two powerful greenhouse gasses.” From a purely environmental perspective, the world would be in better shape if we severely reduced the number of cats and dogs. At the same time, cats and dogs have a significant positive impact on the happiness and overall wellbeing of their owners. Not for nothing, cat videos are among the most popular on YouTube.
This is even more true for babies. Contemporary romance novels, for instance, all the steamy sex scenes notwithstanding, typically end with a pregnancy. In fact, pregnancy is among the most “wildly popular romance tropes” in a wildly popular literary genre. “Happily ever after” means having at least one baby, in many cases more.
What this suggests is that “solutions” to these dilemmas are not as clear-cut as one might imagine. There are many ways to diminish human impact on the environment, from taking public transportation to refusing plastic bags. Disposing of our cat is not among them. This does not mean I feel guilty — as I am sure a growing number of people feel when they decide to have a baby.
[*This piece was updated on 10/19/2019.]
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.