When we hear the words “human extinction”, I suppose the first image in our minds is one of great suffering and catastrophe, of end time preachers and cities crumbling into dust. Indeed, even the word “extinction” itself rarely makes us feel good, and is usually reserved for news stories about the latest species we have irreversibly driven into oblivion through our negligence.
But instead of catastrophic and involuntary notions of extinction, whether it be human or otherwise, what if we consciously decided to drive ourselves to extinction, say by not having children? What if we came to the conclusion that our actions on the planet have caused such untold destruction, that the only possible course of action to reverse some of the damage was to “live long and die out”?
That is the question that members of the Voluntary Human Extinction Movement (VHEMT) posit. They conclude that abstaining from having children and allowing humans to die out naturally is the best, and indeed the only, way to stop the chaos. In short, VHEMT offers what it calls “[an] encouraging alternative to the callous exploitation and wholesale destruction of Earth’s ecology”, either to those who have come to similar conclusions by themselves and are seeking a movement, or by those who as of now remain unsure of the solution.
Needless to say the movement has attracted considerable controversy and dedicates a sizeable portion of its website to debunking accusations. It has been accused of being a death cult, accused of supporting Nazism, and accused of advocating suicide – none of which it actually does. For one thing, the movement is entirely decentralized and has no offices, which makes the advent of a cult very difficult to implement. Furthermore, it advocates abstention from procreation, not suicide, as the best means for extinction, and cannot be accused of being messianic or apocalyptic in its visions for a human-free world.
Although the movement does not have a leader, through email correspondence I spoke with a prominent advocate within it who helped to formulate its website and share its philosophy to the world. His name is Les Knight, and he was kind enough to answer my questions about the thinking behind the movement, and counter the doubts I had about it. Here are some excerpts of our conversation:
In your own words, tell me how you came to the conclusion that voluntary extinction is the solution to the Earth’s woes.
“Like other VHEMT Volunteers, I followed a train of logic, guided by love. When we look at ecological problems, all have one common cause. When we add money and technology to human activities, the problems become greater and more difficult to solve. The fewer of us there are, the fewer social problems we have as well. It’s a short path from there to the awareness that our extinction would solve all social problems and would end our destruction of Earth’s biosphere”
Most people still believe our existence is necessary to undo the damage we have caused, and some people across the globe live in harmony with nature, taking only what they need to survive and putting back what they have taken out. Isn’t this a worthwhile alternative to extinction?
“If Homo sapiens sapiens evolved into a more empathetic species, our kind would be extinct and the new species would treat all life with respect. However, physical evolution takes too long: We’re basically the same as we were 100,000 years ago. Social evolution is always a few generations behind the times, thanks to entrenched institutions. Individually, we have the capacity to evolve almost instantly — to achieve a new awareness. We have to be ready for our epiphany: it can’t be forced upon us. Cultural conditioning works against awareness by placing mental blocks in the way of our progress. Not breeding and our extinction are literally unthinkable for most humans today”
Rapid evolution is evidently impossible, but aren’t there things we can do to reverse the damage to the planet now? Technological innovation, population controls, the abolition of capitalism – is there anything to justify staying around?
“As we phase ourselves out, many possibilities for social structures will become feasible. Although simply not adding more of us is the greatest single action, or non-action, we can take, it’s not enough to avoid serious impacts on the biosphere. It’s impossible to tread lightly with 15 billion feet. A naturist anarchist outdoor commune sounds great, but we can’t all live where it’s warm enough. The mythical cultures which lived in harmony with Nature serve as models for us to strive for”
Is it fair to abandon the many fruits of our labours though? Humans may have the capacity for wanton destruction, but they also have the capacity for creation. Art and music, philosophy and the documentation of history – all of these would be irreversibly lost if we disappeared.
“Many of our wonderful creations enhance our existence but they don’t justify it. Appreciation of wonders, such as the beautiful music of the Atlantic grey whale, fades away when their creators no longer exist. Our grandest achievements couldn’t hold a candle to a whale”
Earlier you mentioned that many societal possibilities could arise once we begin to depopulate, but popular culture has been quite consistent in its portrayal of human extinction events as violent, messy, destructive and hopeless. For example, Children of Men depicts an eerie and authoritarian world brought about by the inability to have children – what’s to say this isn’t what awaits us if we follow VHEMT’s philosophy?
“Children of Men is fiction. The ease with which people accept this preposterous scenario as plausible reveals how deeply natalist indoctrination has seeped into our consciousness. In reality, global infertility wouldn’t make as dramatic a story. Since this is highly unlikely to happen, it makes a fun thought experiment: What would happen if there were 155,400 fewer of us each day instead of 213,900 more? Actually, the death rate would drop dramatically as no births occur, but the effects would be the same over time”
VHEMT has a website, which slightly contributes to the ecological destruction of Earth. Even sending your email replies to my questions uses energy that could come from coal or gas, thereby furthering ecological meltdown. So how does the movement avoid charges of hypocrisy?
“It would be hypocritical for us to encourage others not to procreate and then to do so ourselves. Not everyone is motivated to support VHEMT out of concern for Earth’s biosphere. We usually have a dominant reason plus a few others. Personally, I care most about the rest of creation, but humanity’s welfare is a close second. Antinatalists are concerned about the suffering that will be involuntarily inflicted on offspring. Some of us see the inhumanity to humanity as reason for us to phase out. Reducing the suffering we cause for non-human animals motivates many to advocate our voluntary extinction”
Speaking of the suffering by non-human animals, many species that have been domesticated now rely solely on our existence for their existence. There is little to no evidence that cats, dogs, sheep or cows could survive in the wild. If our extinction would result in a knock-on extinction event for other creatures, doesn’t that defeat the point?
“Domesticated animals amplify our environmental impact and should be phased out as soon as possible – certainly before we go extinct. They primarily exist for our amusement and nutrition. Their extinction wouldn’t be voluntary, but then their existence isn’t voluntary either”
If the imbalance and misery we cause is so pressing, why is the ‘voluntary’ part of VHEMT so important? We don’t often give people a choice to stop if they are causing great harm in other ways, so what makes not having children the exception?
“The freedom to create more of us, what we shortsightedly call “having children,” is a designated human right in all universal declarations starting with the UN in 1948. Rather than further restricting human rights, we need to expand them — particularly the right to not conceive and give birth. Hundreds of millions of couples don’t want to procreate more, and yet that basic human right is denied. When a culture demands all women bring someone new into the world, we generally accept it as their way.
However, when a country restricts procreation, as China has done, they are vilified for this violation of human rights. If we think about it, it’s far worse to force women to breed when they don’t want to than to restrict unlimited breeding. Women suffer the most with population control policies, regardless of whether a government desires more or fewer offspring.
Establishing non-procreation as a basic human right, providing the means to avoid conception, and developing viable alternatives to wife and mother will do more to improve human birth rates than coercive methods would. We would also do well to stop encouraging and subsidizing procreation so people can make up their own minds on the most important decision of their lives”
But is there any role states can play in implementing VHEMT?
“By ensuring reproductive freedom, several countries have improved birth rates without coercion. Iran’s Total Fertility Rate dropped from six to less than two, by encouraging couples to stop at two, and more importantly, by making contraception services available to all Iranians. In the US state of Colorado, free long-term contraception was offered to teens and poor women, causing both births and abortions to drop by 40 percent. In many countries, reproductive freedom would be enhanced if governments and churches just got out of the way”
Final question: The environmental precipice we find ourselves on is both worrying and unprecedented. As more people push for reforms and demand that we reverse our course, what do you expect will happen to VHEMT? Will it grow in popularity?
“Our capacity for denial seems to have no limits: No matter how bad things get, people still create more of themselves. We might shake our heads in disbelief as people procreate in refugee camps in war-torn regions, but people who are fully aware of global conditions, and what the future likely holds, also breed – often intentionally. Because people usually arrive at a VHEMT awareness independently, it’s not possible to gauge popularity. It’s likely millions of people agree but have never heard it called the Voluntary Human Extinction Movement. Although the odds of everyone voluntarily stopping their breeding are slim to none, these odds compare favourably with plans to accommodate 10 billion of us by the end of the century”