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Vasectomies won’t save the planet Men always worry about their virility in times of crisis

Getting the snip. Robert Alexander/Getty


February 2, 2022   6 mins

When H. G. Wells imagined the end of the world, he thought of a salt dead sea under a dying sun. His time traveller, having navigated his machine 30 million years into the future, saw this: algal slime, lichenous rocks, a helpless, squid-like creature, moving fitfully in the blood-red water.

The Time Machine was published in 1895, and its image of the end times is shaped by the fears and discoveries of the late nineteenth century. The idea that evolution might slip into reverse, producing organisms fit only for the twilight. The idea that the earth was losing energy that it could not replace. “The time must come,” wrote Darwin’s great defender, T. H. Huxley, in 1888, “when evolution will mean adaptation to a universal winter, and all forms of life will die out, except such low and simple organisms as the diatom of the arctic and antarctic ice and the protococcus of the red snow.”

Today’s envisioned apocalypse is hotter. And sooner. Fire and flood and lots of it, the day after tomorrow. No need to set the dial to the distant future: we can see the glaciers melting. The intolerable world is one our grandchildren may know. How can we avoid this? Well, one way would be not to have any grandchildren.

Last month the Guardian published a mournful article about young men who have chosen to face the challenge of climate change by taking themselves down to the vasectomy clinic. Its principal interviewee, a 30-year-old council administrator from Essex, explained how he had come to the decision. “I thought: you know what? I don’t want to bring a life into this world, because it’s pretty shitty as it is and it’s only going to get worse.” The report made no grand claims about numbers, but he is not the first to identify the idea as a strengthening current.

In 2019, the journalist Wes Siler wrote about his decision to have the same operation for the same reason. “Is this a world we want to bring kids into?” he asked. In December 2021, Australian national radio carried an interview with a 24-year-old who had also chosen sterilisation as a way to reduce his impact on the environment. “I find it very frightening thinking about the way that the world is right now and what scientists are predicting the world will look like in 20 and 30 years,” said Aaron. “I didn’t think that was a great place to bring up a child.”

And last year, Dr Esgar Gaurin of Iowa, enthused by a service in Mexico City, put North America’s first mobile vasectomy van on the road. He chose Earth Day as his launch date, which he spent carrying out operations while parked outside the Holiday Inn Des Moines-Airport.

The vasectomy is now such an ordinary and unsensational birth control method that you’re as likely to hear about it in a comic context as any other. “Snip-snap, snip-snap, snip-snap,” says Steve Carrell’s character in The Office. “You have no idea the physical toll that three vasectomies have on a person.”

But 100 years ago, vasectomy discourse was very different. The operation was sought out by men who wanted to increase their impact on the world, not reduce it.

William Butler Yeats can serve as a starry example. In 1934, he complained to a friend that his creative and sexual energies were flagging. His friend, half-jokingly, recommended that he get “Steinached” — that is, have one of his two vasa deferentia cut and sealed.

The procedure had been all the rage in Vienna the previous decade, after Eugen Steinach carried out his first operation on a middle-aged coachman who, 18 months later, claimed to feel like a much younger coachman. Sigmund Freud underwent it in the hope of keeping his mouth cancer at bay. Yeats read Rejuvenation (1924), the only English language book on the subject, and made an appointment to see its author, the Australian medic and sexologist Norman Haire.

Easy to imagine the scene in Haire’s six-storey Harley Street home, a riot of Chinoiserie and antiques with a bed “big enough for three,” according to Diana Wyndham (author of Norman Haire and the Study of Sex). The 68-year-old Yeats, under the silver ceiling of the top-floor consulting room, confessing that he is all out of poetic ideas, and that his erotic life is similarly moribund. Haire, boasting of the “rather less than 200” artists and intellectuals he has aided with his steady scalpel hand. Yeats rising from the table to enthuse, as he did to the poet Dorothy Wellesley, about “the strange second puberty the operation has given me, the ferment that has come upon my imagination.”

What was happening here? Not much, biologically, except the Placebo Effect. But stories like this are evidence of a strong impulse in early twentieth century culture to consider national (for which read white male) enfeeblement to be a problem with a medical solution.

In Arthur Conan Doyle’s story The Creeping Man (1923), for instance, Sherlock Holmes investigates the case of an academic exhibiting weird, aggressive behaviour. His “ape-like fury” turns out to be almost literal — a doctor in Prague has been supplying him with a serum derived from the black-faced langur, “the biggest and most human of climbing monkeys”. This wasn’t Doyle going off with the fairies. That same year, the Russian-born surgeon Serge Voronoff came to London to tell 700 fellow doctors that his monkey-gland grafts would revolutionise “male vitality”. (I don’t know whether the whole audience rose, but they certainly burst into applause.)

The idea took hold. So many rich, exhausted Jazz Age men wanted the op that Voronoff opened a monkey farm on the Italian Riviera. In July 1927, John Beckett, a rebellious Labour MP who later joined the British Union of Fascists, asked: “Could not a Voronoff gland be grafted on the English Government?”

It’s all pleasingly colourful and preposterous. At the level of social policy, however, we might be less inclined to snigger. Here, H. G. Wells comes back into the picture. Wells was a friend and supporter of Haire — Wyndham suspects he, too, may have been Steinached in Harley Street — and his work is shot through with his view of sterilisation as an instrument of eugenic reform.

His speculative essays Anticipations (1900) put it in the most extreme terms, suggesting that “the People of the Abyss” — those with transmissible diseases and disabilities — must be weeded from the population. “The nation that most resolutely picks over, educates, sterilizes, exports, or poisons its People of the Abyss,” he wrote, “will certainly be the ascendant or dominant nation before the year 2000.”

Wells’s position, if not uncontroversial, was entirely commonplace in early twentieth-century culture. When he was Home Secretary, Winston Churchill read a pamphlet by the vasectomy doctor H. C. Sharp called The Sterilisation of Degenerates (1910), and immediately began firing off questions to his officials. “What is the best surgical operation?” Churchill then wrote to H. H. Asquith, the Prime Minister:

“The unnatural and increasingly rapid growth of the Feeble-Minded and Insane classes, coupled as it is with a steady restriction among all the thrifty, energetic and superior stocks, constitutes a national and race danger which it is impossible to exaggerate.”

We don’t need to look too hard to find the echoes of these ideas in contemporary politics. They ring loudly in the Great Replacement theory — a white supremacist fantasy propagated by the far-Right French Presidential candidate Eric Zemmour and the glassy-eyed Fox News host Tucker Carlson — which suggests that white Europeans are being outbred by unacceptably fecund immigrant communities. Why are these men so fixated on the idea of flagging white virility? Why do they seem obsessed with the quality of Muslim sperm? Freud, alas, is not around to supply an answer.

But if he were, he might tell us that anxiety is a condition of modernity. And admit that, in his own case, a vasectomy turned out not to be a cure for what ailed him.

Every generation faces its existential terrors. Mine, which grew up in the 1980s, watched Protect and Survive films that advised us to put granny’s corpse in a bin bag, carefully labelled, if she died of radiation sickness. Having a vasectomy to save the planet isn’t quite as futile as having one to prevent a nuclear war, but it may come close.

The best we can say, I suspect, is that voluntary sterilisation is a fairly efficient mechanism to prevent a man from fathering another person who will be obliged to face whatever travails lie ahead of us. But an old story might worth taking into account here.

I heard it in a conversation between the US journalist Sigal Samuel and the climate scientist Kimberley Nicholas. It’s about Israelite men who abstained from sex because they didn’t want to create new slaves to Pharaoh. The women disagreed: their generation had failed, but perhaps the next would do better. So they seduced their husbands. Nine months later, Moses was born.


Matthew Sweet is a broadcaster and writer. His books include Inventing the Victorians and Operation Chaos: The Vietnam Deserters Who Fought the CIA, the Brainwashers and Themselves.

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Jon Redman
Jon Redman
2 years ago

Why are these men so fixated on the idea of flagging white virility? Why do they seem obsessed with the quality of Muslim sperm? 

Nice sneer. As you well know, though, they’re not and it’s nothing to do with virility. It’s to do with state-funded fecundity. The middle classes are reducing their family sizes because they’re being taxed to oblivion and feel they can’t afford children. Nothing of the kind is being felt by the poor and recent immigrant classes, who are therefore outbreeding those who fund them.

SULPICIA LEPIDINA
SULPICIA LEPIDINA
2 years ago
Reply to  Jon Redman

A sure recipe for a Darwinian disaster on a epic scale. Something that may have to be resolved, albeit regrettably, by another crack at a Final Solution.

William Shaw
William Shaw
2 years ago

“Why are these men so fixated on the idea of flagging white virility? Why do they seem obsessed with the quality of Muslim sperm?”
The actual, and I believe legitimate, concern is the the dilution of national character, ethics, and civics to a point where society changes beyond recognition and starts to disintegrate. Unraveling beyond the point of no return.
Immigration itself is not a bad thing, but it shouldn’t be at a rate that the host country can no longer assimilate
 which is what has happened in certain areas of England.
Of course the left wing elite who oppose controls don’t live in these areas and don’t have to deal with the consequences.

Matthew Powell
Matthew Powell
2 years ago

The world is of course, from a human point of view, in the best condition it has ever been in. There has never been a safer or more prosperous time to be alive. Why then the hysteria? Partially because all individuals have tendency to dress our inadequacies as moral triumphs, those who are weak proclaim their moral virtue as pacifists, just as those who don’t want the responsibility of raising children, proclaim they are doing so to save the planet.

But also, society has changed in a very real way in the last 100 years, as the welfare state has become our surrogate family, in the West we are increasingly cut off from the utilitarian aspect of family life. Children provided the care and support people needed in their old age but with the advent of the welfare state, children effectively became nationalised. Today, many are oblivious to the fact that their social care and pensions are entirely dependant on the labour of other peoples children. What is essential to a healthy society, a sustainable birth rate, having children, is today dismissed as a “life style choice” as if a family were somewhat analogous to keeping pets.

Of course the answer to the problem of the declining birth rate is not the dismantlement of the welfare state or some kind Handmaid’s Tale like dystopia but a more child friendly, both financially and culturally, society. If this were achieved, then perhaps these young men could be honest about their motivations to visit the vasectomy clinic.

Last edited 2 years ago by Matthew Powell
SULPICIA LEPIDINA
SULPICIA LEPIDINA
2 years ago
Reply to  Matthew Powell

“The world is of course, from a human point of view, in the best condition it has ever been in. There has never been a safer or more prosperous time to be alive”.

Really? I beg to differ, and let the splendid Edward Gibbon* speak for me:-

“If a man were called to fix the period in the history of the world,
during which the condition of the human race was most happy and prosperous, he would, without hesitation, name that which elapsed from the death of Domitian to the accession of Commodus”.

(*1734-1794.)

Jon Redman
Jon Redman
2 years ago

Gibbon had no idea there could ever be such a thing as antibiotics, which set a low bound on how good he expected good times could be.

SULPICIA LEPIDINA
SULPICIA LEPIDINA
2 years ago
Reply to  Jon Redman

I would have said the ‘Jury’ is still out on that.

Chris Wheatley
Chris Wheatley
2 years ago

No, he definitely didn’t know about antibiotics.

SULPICIA LEPIDINA
SULPICIA LEPIDINA
2 years ago
Reply to  Chris Wheatley

No off course not. I was referring to Mr Redman’s speculation on “how good he expected good times could be”.

Given the choice of a day in the Amphitheater or a dose of antibiotics I know which I would pick.

Wilfred Davis
Wilfred Davis
2 years ago
Reply to  Jon Redman

One can only speculate, but would the Domitian-to-Commodus people – if they had once tasted the advantages available to even the humblest citizens of today – really choose to go back to their own time?

SULPICIA LEPIDINA
SULPICIA LEPIDINA
2 years ago
Reply to  Wilfred Davis

Would you really want to give up the Amphitheater, the Circus, the Theatre, the Odeon,
the Baths,Forum, Basilica and Slave market*for today’s anodyne entertainment?

Life may have been shorter but it was much more fun. “Occ est Vivere” as they used to say.

(* Plus other pleasures too numerous to mention here.)

Terence Fitch
Terence Fitch
2 years ago

Apart from dysentry, Plague of Justinian, intestinal worms, smallpox? We’re so complacent about everyday health with modern medicine it’s hard to imagine life in the past without it. As your child choked to death with diptheria I’m not sure you thought life was much fun at times.

SULPICIA LEPIDINA
SULPICIA LEPIDINA
2 years ago
Reply to  Terence Fitch

At least they didn’t have to endure this Covid Plague and its accompanying mass hysteria.

Terence Fitch
Terence Fitch
2 years ago

Hindsight is a marvellous thing don’t you think? Lots of people suddenly expertly knew all along it wouldn’t be more serious.

SULPICIA LEPIDINA
SULPICIA LEPIDINA
2 years ago
Reply to  Terence Fitch

From Day One, Lord Jonathan Sumption railed against this Covid nonsense.
His perception is exactly what you would expect from a former Supreme Court Judge.*

(*He had the additional benefit of going to both Eton & Oxford.)

Terence Fitch
Terence Fitch
2 years ago

He is not medically qualified. His history of the 100 Yrs War is wonderful but as a friend said: ‘Jonathan spends too much time thinking about the Black Death’. 8bn people in the 3rd world are unlikely to get vaccinated and are a reservoir of mutation. Who knows? Of course the Gov ignored their own emergency plan which would have lessened the impact but only one metric mattered before vaccines: how many ICU beds vs very sick patients. It’s easy now to say it wasn’t a risk that people would be told they would be left at home to die. Of course some may have been because beds were taken by seriously ill Covid patients. The outrage at that misses the point. Health systems have a capacity. Sumption, as a retired millionaire at the end of his life was easily able to ride it out or shrug shoulders and say it was worth the risk. I challenge him to say he’d have been happy to,say, allow all over 60s to be untreated because life’s tough sometimes. Ironically anti vaxxers are basing their views about low risk on the safety net provided by vaccines! I’m off to Singapore soon. Tests and masks and vaccine required. Such a successful logical country.

SULPICIA LEPIDINA
SULPICIA LEPIDINA
2 years ago
Reply to  Terence Fitch

Sumption has never claimed to be ‘medically qualified’. His argument is primarily about the draconian powers the State has insisted on forcing upon us.

Although I cannot speak for him, I am well over 60 and right in the ‘killing zone’ As such I would not be at all perturbed if I couldn’t be treated & was told to die at home.

I’m glad you mentioned that HMG’s original Pandemic Plan was to do absolutely nothing. ( nihil facere). It has been the most appalling dereliction of duty that they didn’t stick to it!
I gather the guilty party here was the wretched ‘Mekon’,* the pseudo scientist.

You snide remark about Sumption being a retired millionaire was uncalled for, and ruined an otherwise erudite response.

Good luck in Singapore, its authoritarian nature should appeal to you.

(*Dominica Cummings Esq.)

Chris Wheatley
Chris Wheatley
2 years ago
Reply to  Matthew Powell

What happens when people are living well, people are safer, work requires less time, there are no real worries? Boredom takes over and new concerns have to be created.
All of these battles – trans rights, extreme feminism, glueing yourself to a road, filling the tv with mixed race couples, etc, etc, – come from boredom. Discussions about vaccinations occur because there are no more aims for our society – even a build of of Russian troops on the border of Ukraine is an excuse to attack the UK government. As if the UK government has any clout in the world!!!
These is why wars make these trivial issues disappear.

Last edited 2 years ago by Chris Wheatley
R Wright
R Wright
2 years ago

“white Europeans are being outbred by […] immigrant communities.”

Are you trying to imply that this is not happening? You may enjoy the results of the census.

Billy Bob
Billy Bob
2 years ago
Reply to  R Wright

I don’t think the author was denying that the birth rate among immigrant families is higher than that of the white European ones, merely that he finds it unlikely that it’s all part of some sinister conspiracy

Jonathan Weil
Jonathan Weil
2 years ago
Reply to  Billy Bob

Isn’t he just begging to differ from the view that immigrant fecundity is “unacceptable”?

Wilfred Davis
Wilfred Davis
2 years ago
Reply to  Billy Bob

… a white supremacist fantasy propagated by the far-Right French Presidential candidate Eric Zemmour and the glassy-eyed Fox News host Tucker Carlson …

It’s clear that he is just cranking out the usual ‘people who aren’t enlightened enough to share my world outlook are [select from the following]: far-Right nutters, racists, swivel-eyed loons, malodorous weirdos, etc, etc’

Nothing new.

Graham Stull
Graham Stull
2 years ago
Reply to  Wilfred Davis

I mean: yes. This.

Wilfred Davis
Wilfred Davis
2 years ago

It seems to me that if the men in the Guardian article think that the world of today, with all the marvellous inventions and comforts readily available to us – almost unimaginable to our grandparents’ generation – is a misery, then they are pretty dim.

So dim, in fact, that it is probably to the benefit of the world that they are volunteering their exclusion from the gene pool.

Ethniciodo Rodenydo
Ethniciodo Rodenydo
2 years ago
Reply to  Wilfred Davis

“It seems to me that if the men in the Guardian article think that the world of today, with all the marvellous inventions and comforts readily available to us – almost unimaginable to our grandparents’ generation – is a misery”
Well it is if you take the Guardian

Kiat Huang
Kiat Huang
2 years ago

Not in the mood to read much about an ethical trend amongst young men for voluntary sterilisation, but I have to say that whoever is choosing the headline images for these articles is doing a fantastic job!

Linda Hutchinson
Linda Hutchinson
2 years ago
Reply to  Kiat Huang

Which has changed,

Bill W
Bill W
2 years ago

I the 60s I was brought up as a little child on an air base which was very exciting though I didn’t know what nuclear weapons were or that their presence on the base would have made us a massive target.
In the 70s I remember alarmist TV documentaries about the next Ice Age but was far more affected in the negative sense by strikes, power cuts, and the oil shock.
By the 1980s reaching adulthood, whilst concerned about the threat from the USSR/Warsaw Pact, the possibility of nuclear war didn’t bother me at all as I was more concerned about the economy or to a lesser degree the risk of pandemics.
I could go on but my general point is what historians’ analysis of what really concerns people at any given time is open to debate.

Last edited 2 years ago by Bill W
Ian Cooper
Ian Cooper
2 years ago

Why the silly reference to the ‘white supremacist fantasy’ of demographic replacement by Eric Zemmour and Tucker Carlson? Might it be helpful for Sweet to read Eric Kaufmann’s book, ‘White Shift,’ that points out that with immigration at a modest 250,000 pa and with ensuing intermarriage, there will be no white British at the end of the next century in the UK? Isn’t that a kind of replacement? Kaufmann is a Unherd contributor and careful academic, mixed race and doesn’t have a problem with this future, except those who deny it and pretend we don’t have to think quite hard about it.
After all might not the theft of a country’s national identity, it’s national community, and its social solidarity be a cause for concern? Isn’t country for anyone a country for no one? Might it not be a kind of reverse racism against the White British by their globalising elite of left and right – the left for their rainbow fantasy and the right for imported cheap labour. It’s interesting that Andrew Marr – not really of the far right – admits in his book a ‘History of Modern Britain,’ that immigration was not wanted by most British and that it was imposed by the liberal elite. There are actually some real questions about the whole process. Isn’t diversity mostly disunity, so why import it? Lebanon anyone and nearly all Africa. And Scotland, white, protestant and did well out of Empire, after 300 years wants out. If it doesn’t want integration why should any another group? Then there was the unfairness on the working class who had to deal with the brunt of immigration and the ensuing gig economy and greater inequality. The Labour Party just climbed into bed with big business on immigration and betrayed its own people and called them ‘bigots.’ Then are Hinduism and Islam really progressive cultures and is our own liberal democracy so strong and envisioning? Then which political party had ‘more immigration’ in its party manifesto? Did I miss it? Isn’t our society profoundly unsettled? Why? Lastly, if you are from a poor country might it not tick you off to see your doctors and nurses etc. being sucked off by the UK and its smug NHS? Answers please.

Andrzej Wasniewski
Andrzej Wasniewski
2 years ago

Last month the Guardian published a mournful article about young men who have chosen to face the challenge of climate change by taking themselves down to the vasectomy clinic.”
I support that. They should never be fathers. it would be child abuse.

David Morley
David Morley
2 years ago

I’m afraid this was a bit of a side note without an article.
It would have been interesting to look a bit more deeply into the present phenomenon, and what, if anything, it tells us about the current zeitgeist in the west.

Arjun D
Arjun D
2 years ago
Reply to  David Morley

I think this phenomenon, if it has enough spread and depth to be called one, is about more than trying to protect the planet and its ecosystems. As noble as that desire is, I am immediately skeptical that it is heartfelt and genuine.
More likely these men have realized that they cannot find a mate that they deem suitable, or one at all. This is a sad eventuality for a lot of men in current urban areas, who lack the ‘status’ (physical, monetary, behavioural, environmental) to attract suitable mates. Rather than becoming anarchists or social vandals (thankfully) they choose the sour grape option – I never wanted a family to begin with, becoming a father is not all it’s cracked up to be, etc.
No surprise that the 30 year old data support bloke (no surprise he’s part of the Green party) is doing this. If pressed, there’s a good chance he’s a closet incel who is at least partly in agreement with a lot of the insane, extreme viewpoints of the manosphere and has probably not had unpaid sex in over a year.

Last edited 2 years ago by Arjun D
Terence Fitch
Terence Fitch
2 years ago

You don’t have to be Malthus to be aghast that Egypt which is desperately short of water, will double in population in the near future as will many countries in sub Saharan Africa. Africa will definitely lose most of its wildlife habitat in the next 40 years. Meanwhile, back in the overcrowded UK ( approx 70m according to shopping footfall data), we have a pathetically low 8% woodland area including all commercial wood. The most habitat denuded country in Europe.

Nicholas Taylor
Nicholas Taylor
2 years ago

Three observations.
First, climate change has been a feature of the Earth since it was formed. Warming far in excess of 2 deg C happened 56 million years ago in the Palaeocene-Eocene Thermal Maximum, and there have been successions of warm and cold periods during recorded history, which left their mark on ancient dynasties, waves of exploration, trade and disease, and political and religious mentalities. Doubtless, plenty remains to be explored on that topic. However, it is true that change has never been so rapid as it is now.
Second, if (say) 2 billion is a sustainable human population that can live comfortably and peaceably while leaving 50% of the Earth to natural biodiversity, then most of the 8 million world population is not going to leave descendants in the long run, even without vasectomy or involuntary celibacy. Undoubtedly, larger populations offer more diversity of occupation and opportunity for highly advanced collective endeavour (like the arts and the A380) than small populations, but there must be a point where very many is too many.
Third, replacement has been ongoing since humans first evolved. More recently, Britain has seen Celts culturally overrun by the Romans, then displaced by Saxons, in turn displaced by the Normans. Some waves can be seen as having a positive impact on civilisation. Introduction of Graeco-Roman literacy was undoubtedly a benefit, while even after a millennium the Norman invasion is perpetuated in class differences. In terms of philosophy and religious beliefs, hierarchical Christianity replacing Celtic naturalism and superstition can be considered an advance, but otherwise its dogmatic exceptionalism delayed the development of thought. Replacement of Meso-American bloodthirsty rituals by mass slaughter by Christian invaders can be considered a two-edged sword, that still slashes about today. In secular terms, Christendom may be considered a benefit for Europe through its unifying effect, allowing it to be a conduit for ideas and new forms of trade and exploration, eventually creating the need for scientific objectivity and modern democracy.
These examples show it is essential to consider what is replacing what and in what context. There is no benefit in replacing the plurality, that we have achieved at great cost in time and lives lost or wasted, with a monoculture that has nothing new to offer and simply rehashes ancient superstitions and social constraints that we have largely rejected as inimical to human nature and reason. We in Britain should look to draw from where we find enlightened talent in the world. The invitation to the citizens of Hong Kong is a shining case, though that country is by no means one of those distinguished by people wanting to leave, as opposed to ones like ours they wish to come to.