Tuesday, May 15, 2018

The Yellow Button And Anti-Natalist Agendas

We've heard about the Red Button and the Green Button. All well and good. Now suppose there's this newly installed Yellow Button: Pressing it means you instantaneously remove all human beings from the earthly equation. Poof they go.

If you'd prefer for things to be a bit more restrained and even-handed, amend the hypothetical so that pressing the Yellow Button means you incapacitate each human's reproductive function. This way, all unsuspecting individuals still get to live out the rest of their lives despite their newfound inability to procreate.

I'll just stick with the harsher version, for brevity's sake.

Either way, the result is the same in a generation or four: A planet devoid of humanity, with all else remaining the same.

The kicker: You don't have days/weeks/months to decide whether or not to press the Yellow Button. You must decide right now, as the button is here for a limited time only. With ample time to make the call, loose ends might not end up being so loose, and the lesson being imparted loses some of its punch.

Decision time: If you had to press it now-or-never, would you press it?

Don't abstract the question away; consider it in as concrete terms as possible. Do your best to vividly picture the button positioned within an arm's reach, at this very moment, and try to predict what your primary impulse towards it would be.

In choosing to press it, you will have accomplished the orthodoxly advertised anti-natalist goal of Stopping Procreation. Hooray.


Most of us are sentiocentric anti-natalists, and extend our procreative nays to all non-human animals in proportion to their levels of sentience. If you find yourself at home here, and not here, any apprehension you might feel as it relates to the existence of Yellow Buttons would have to arise from your having already assigned a non-zero probability to a future that sees human action put an end to non-human procreations. Whether this non-zero probability is gleaned wittingly or unwittingly, is besides the point.

The point is to ask; is ducking the Yellow Button actually justifiable?

The question is directed squarely at those who boo all procreation going in. It is not directed at those who yay human procreation, or at anyone who remains apathetic, or overly ambivalent, about the isolated moral status of procreative acts as such. I pose the question to unruffled anti-natalists who subscribe to gradualist or egalitarian versions of sentiocentrism, and no one else.

Without moral reasoners, non-human casualties of the unforgiving harshness of natural habitats are doomed. With moral reasoners, the possibility of a panacea, however small, remains wide open. Based on this, it would seem that pressing the Yellow Button right-here-and-now is absolutely unjustifiable, as it guarantees the discontinuation of moral reasoning itself.

With moral reasoning gone, trillions of organisms will continue bearing the brunt of the natural order for roughly four billion additional years. According to the "Future Of Earth" wiki entry, which is adequately sourced, the grinder will keep on grinding in the interim:

  • "Four billion years from now, the increase in the Earth's surface will cause a runaway greenhouse effect, heating the surface enough to melt it. By that point, all life on Earth will be extinct."

I've seen more optimistic estimates promulgated by random commenters. Estimates that narrow the meat-grinder's lifespan down to 800 million more years, at which point carbon dioxide levels are (allegedly) predicted to become too low for photosynthesis. No photosynthesis, no multi-cellular life forms on planet earth, they say. If anyone has some data that backs up this (more merciful) prediction, send it my way. I've asked, but my requests have been ignored, which is telling. So for the time being, the Four Billion Year estimate is where it's at.

Always keep in mind that that's the approximated figure; Four billion years of more-of-the-same. For any hope of a shortened span, moral reasoning is a must. But then, what are movement anti-natalists trying to accomplish in the first place?

Oh that's easy; they're trying to drive the moon into the earth, or something...

No, they're not. I don't mean what do they purport to want to accomplish during comfy circle-jerks and live hangouts. What is claimed during cooled gatherings of kindred spirits paints a crooked picture when "movement" is supposed to be the name of the game. To catch a glimpse of the real picture, you'd have to look at how the average representative of the movement interacts with adversarial figures as well as with the laity.

Get into the habit of asking pointed questions like: How has this particular faction's core "Us vs. Them" standoff been framed? What has it centered on, according to the faction's loudest exponents? Has it centered on demands for the moon to be driven into the earth? Nope. Has it centered on demands for more funding to be allocated towards, say, compensating researchers and ecologists? You know, the types of people who would actually study the empirical ways through which interventionists can reliably decrease, or discontinue, the wild-animal causality count? Nope again. Nothing of the sort.

Might it have centered on... emotional gratification? Now we're talking.

By emotional gratification, I mean that which brings discernably therapeutic rewards to members of the in-group. Dopamine hits generated by the leader's indignant rants impressing upon nearby out-groups the sheer recklessness of what it means to be a human procreator, for instance.

In other words, more Good Guys vs. Bad Guys hooey. No different than partaking in Gutter Politics. Being galvanized by this stuff indicates that you are light on method and heavy on madness. Your limbic system has succeeded in making your prefrontal cortex its bitch. Congrats.

Know thyself and you'll have no difficulties recognizing that, in any intellectually free society, iconoclasm makes for a pretty good time. It's not all upside, but whatever drawbacks exist for it today pale in comparison to the drawbacks that existed in the unfree societies of yore. Especially now that paradigm-shattering renegades are "in". Certainly more "in" compared to every other bygone era I've studied. There is no penalty for blithely "crossing the line". Not in the digital age.

Now seems as good a time as any for a reminder to Beware Of Things That Are Fun To Argue:

Curiously, it is the movement types [Inmendham and co.] who devote huge chunks of time and energy to activities that aimless hobbyists should be preoccupied with. Activities that are indeed Fun, and fun for the whole group. Activities that pay no mind to PR and optics. Activities angrily blaming parents for having procreated, or histrionically dissuading prospective parents against procreation. Words like "research" and "hands-on methods" are the movement's four-leaf clovers.

Answering "What does the dispute center on?" will be a breeze for anyone who's paying real attention; most of what self-styled spreaders of anti-natalism say and do centers not on praxis, but on a craving for invective and public self-therapy.

If therapeutic release is the norm –– and it blatantly has been for as long as I can remember –– then the least Inmendham et al can do is drop the "movement" shtick and self-identify as mere hobbyists (the way I tend to). They're here to express themselves, and that's okay, provided they stop making pretenses to the contrary.

Don't get me wrong. Movement anti-natalists openly acknowledge the WAS problem as the Bigger Problem, but this alone is dissatisfactory once you wade through enough of their parent-scolding tirades on the everyday level. My piece on VHEMT from back in 2014 already explains how, if anything, human procreators have inadvertently advanced the interests of wild-animals by decreasing their total populations [read: casualty counts]. They shouldn't be patted on the back for it, but they also shouldn't be screamed at with the implication that they're at fault for the casualties that remain. They're not.

In fairness, Inmendham and co. are hardly the first faction to internalize a favourable view of their own accusatory tones and in-your-face denunciations, where it's not just belligerently self-serving. It serves the greater good, you see, because the out-groups targeted contain an undisclosed number of listeners who are susceptible to fervid deliveries, and who ignore dialectic when it comes in dry and detached forms. The bile and guilt-tripping persists not because of its salutary effects on the in-group, but because it sways certain out-group members better than a calmed approach would!

First of all, any pro-invective stance on persuasion tactics is dubious as hell:

But more importantly, recall that the know-how behind stopping WAS remains in its infancy. Despite polar opposite worldviews, human procreators are not to blame for the lion's share of suffering that occurs on this planet, if for no other reason than the methodological crapshoots plaguing us all. Few within The Movement are genuinely lost on this fact, even though their ire tells a different story. The ire implies: Had you shared my worldview, you would have been in a position to solve the know-how puzzle(s) that me and my camp are yet to solve.

When someone persistently gives WAS the "Also a problem" treatment, burying it amidst a flurry of condemnatory zest targeting out-groups, coherence starts to crumble. There is zero reason to believe that procreative deconversions will accomplish what the doxastic-idealist thinks they will.

It's like dealing with someone naïve enough to believe that the mathematical realist, by accepting mathematical realism, becomes proficient at advanced calculus –– or any other object-level adeptness for maths. Whereas the former mathematical realist, who now accepts mathematical anti-realism, suddenly finds himself unable to figure out that two plus two equals four. Just as you wouldn't fixate on disabusing the anti-realist of his anti-realism as a way of helping him do basic arithmetic, you should likewise not fixate on disabusing random out-groups of their unexamined abstract beliefs if your larger goal really is WAS prevention.

Good praxis is not measured by popularity gains. You can convince millions of laypersons that they shouldn't reproduce; their not reproducing will not enhance our understandings of how to intervene without potentially worsening things for (a sizable portion of) the very animals we seek to assist. If you truly believe that WAS is the weightier problem, issues of ideological recruitment will go on the backburner.

Recruiting the dimwitted does nothing for WAS, unless you manage to weed out folks who make serious bank and who are willing to fund RTCs that increase the likelihood of bulletproof interventions. But as you surely know, finding dimwits with impressive levels of disposable income is like finding... four-leaf clovers.

Better to recruit one person who wouldn't have had children anyway, but who has wads of cash lying around which he'd be willing to spend on underfunded WAS projects. Faced with a choice between mobilizing that type of person, versus deconverting a surfeit of penniless soon-to-be parents, it's not clear to me how any coherent sentiocentric anti-natalist could opt for the latter. And yet most would.

What I'm getting at is: We keep hearing how there's this Great Urgency to spread the good anti-natal word to any would-be parent who'll listen, but I don't see these asiprational movers-and-shakers grappling with the evaluative mismatch between:

  • (1) The prospect of a "Convince the Out-Groups" project being pulled off to perfection.

  • (2) Refusing to press the Yellow Button if it popped up right next to you, right now.

Nifty sketches of the same:

The only thing that changes in the two diagrams: The above probability deals with individuated wild-cards that justify procreative avail, while the below probability deals with collectivized wild-cards that justify procreative avail.

Stripped down to a visual aid, it's undeniable that what we are left with is a "Collectivized > Individuated" playfulness with procreative risk. Can this > be something other than distasteful, ethically speaking?

To shun the Yellow Button "For The Animals" is akin to encouraging random couples to procreate "For The Animals". A dalliance with probability theory is all you need to accept the connection.

In the end, we have a set of similarly low probabilities treated dissimilarly by those who are prepared to shun the Yellow Button in the name of WAS stoppage. To make a case for dissimilarity on the ethical front, you'd have to show how the probability sets are themselves dissimilar (i.e. "There is indeed a far greater chance of future generations stopping WAS in unison than there is of any random couple birthing individual moral exemplars"). A quixotic hope, if you ask me.

But had you asked me a few months back, I would have counted myself as another Yellow Button avoider. Despite not being a movement type, I'd have perceived the button as an impediment to The Mission –– with up to four billion years of future casualties hanging in the balance.

Today, I grudgingly acknowledge that the probabilities at play are extremely low, and correspondingly so. I've not only recognized this on the surface level, I've internalized it to the point where I now see a moral symmetry between a willingness to bank on the non-zero probability of random couples birthing moral exemplars, and a willingness to bank on future generations of moral reasoners stopping WAS via collective action.

Let's be frank; the Yellow Button's refuser would be looking at a dauntingly low chance of any WAS-resolve project catching on adequately. While it's true that a number of effective altruists and non-EA ethicists have shown interest in this area as of late, giving rise to a spike in publications and informative studies, it's still a drop in the bucket. When you consider the problem's scope, ongoing lack of coverage in dinosaur media, ongoing lack of coverage in online media, and relative disinterest from the public at large, the nascent works bear a striking resemblance to Sisyphus and the boulder.

Even worse than that is my earlier point about wannabe movers-and-shakers who allege to be the most concerned with WAS –– or who have the gall to assume that they're the only ones concerned with WAS –– but who pay no attention to the works I sourced here (including the many WAS-related works I have a habit of propagating elsewhere).

How could you know they don't?

I am yet to see an Inmendham supporter share such studies on one of their platforms. They don't read this stuff, just as they don't engage with lengthy texts of any sort (a subset of them are quick to boast about that). Which, again, is not to say that their WAS-related concerns are in any way disingenuous, just utterly useless. Ranting tirelessly about Bastard Nature on YouTube is self-indulgent iconoclasm at this point (was it ever much else?).

Also of note is that, no matter what is being debated, it is usually the dilettantes running on autopilot who muster up enough rabblerousing to be noticed by a few bellicose out-groups and spectators. This keeps them busy; engaging opponents of equally low caliber. Studies? Who's got time for that when we can ferociously type "nature is a meat-grinder!" into comment threads to our hearts' content. Way more effective than reading up on –– let alone conducting –– the above studies and circulating them.

When you fail to put in the work it takes to memorize and convincingly answer hard-hitting questions from doubters whose misgivings are methodically ordained, rather than evaluatively ordained, you reinforce the idea that WAS-concern is a thing of cranks. Perhaps it is, in bulk. So far, most who take issue with WAS want to express their disgust rather than argue compellingly for a practical way forward. The way forward entails having good PR, which calls for social networking, which means gimmicks, which demands a level of discipline few will muster.

It's why I still view myself as something of a hobbyist at the end of the day. I do what I can to circulate the relevant studies, but I don't make next-level style sacrifices in the way of gimmickry and networking.


  1. Neat timing. I also brought up the Manichean aspect of online antinatalism (and its impotence) just a few days before you published this piece. It was on the veganvanguard podcast on antinatalism. I think the term "call out culture" has been co-opted by reactionaries, but that's very much what's going on here. That it often masquerades as a genuine concern for suffering shouldn't be too surprising.

    Calling it a movement is clearly a misnomer. I think it's half spectacle, half support group (when it's not just naive but well-intentioned concern).

    Not long before I left the community discord earlier this year, I brought up the yellow button thought experiment. I don't remember if I mentioned it to you? I remember that a couple of them were very quick to say that they would press it, and one stated that not pressing it would mean you are not an antinatalist. I said that I wasn't so sure about that and got some flack for being a "fence sitter". I explained my reasoning, i.e. what you've outlined here, and got them to admit it might be a bad decision to press it. I don't think it changed anything with regards to their "advocacy" though.

    In any case, good to see you being active. I'll give the other blogs a read as soon as I can. Hope you've been well.

    1. Wait, so the Yellow Button is a thing? Discussed elsewhere? Do you recall when it was first introduced?

      Or are you just calling it that to match what I've called it here? If not, I'd feel like a douche for presenting an already established thought experiment the way I have, as my brainchild.

      I actually searched "The Yellow Button" a couple of months ago just to check if someone had utilized it in this way. Didn't see anything.

      I explained my reasoning, i.e. what you've outlined here, and got them to admit it might be a bad decision to press it.

      By the end though, I do conclude that a refusal to press it is worse because it gives in to a similar enough hopey-changey mindset that okays procreation on the micro, like with random couples (i.e. vegan couples) appealing to the possibility that their kid will improve the world. As you well know, it's usually done as a way of giving pushback to anti-natalists who tell them they have no business having kids.

      So I'm left wondering if you think the probability of a "collective approach to combat WAS" gamble is indeed greater than the probability of the "individuated approach" gamble. If they're roughly the same, I don't see why the yellow button shouldn't be pressed.

      Perhaps it's because humans are already causing extinctions, but then again, we're also inching closer to superintelligence, and that opens the door to astronomical suffering (simulated or other).

      When I saw "neat timing" I was sure you were going to mention the latest Gary freakout over anti-natalists allegedly not caring about WAS, which is why he's not one and why anti-natalism "doesn't get at the core of the problem". Enter all his commenters mindlessly parroting the same. How many times am I going to have to drop in and say "sentiocentric, there, all fixed" until it sticks?

      I swear, a goldfish would've memorized it by now.


    2. No, I don't think it had been discussed before. It was just an easy thought experiment to come up with, especially for the purposes of getting the efil types to think outside of their usual reductionist, hyper-individualist boxes. We just happened to pick the same color for the button (if I recall correctly). :P

      Honestly, I think there is very little value to the thought experiment outside of this particular context. But if I was to just comment on another possible reason why it shouldn't be pressed, at least from a sentio-AN perspective, it would be that there is a high likelihood of destroying all life as we destroy ourselves (nuclear war, reaching zero point) which is what we are on track for. I think it's significantly more implausible that reason/compassion will prevail in time to avoid these catastrophes and set itself to work on bio-engineering entire ecosystems.

      I haven't listened to inmendham in a long while. Again: not surprised. It's not that he can't remember, it's that he can't allow you to exist in the dominance hierarchy he so proudly believes himself to be at the top of. As a result, and perhaps to avoid a nervous breakdown, he will always either ignore you or negate you.