Live long and die out

Antinatalist and movement founder Les U. Knight speaks to about the growing vehemence of the Voluntary Human Extinction Movement

VHEMT cartoon

Image: Harriet Cheshire

Scientists predict that the first human to live to 150 has already been born. Depending on who you ask, this number stretches to 200, or 500, or 1000. Our ability to prolong life, and help create it, has exploded over the last 50 years. As the timescales of human lifespan grow ever more resilient and our society’s ecological impact grows, many are worried that we will soon face a serious overpopulation crisis. For some, the answer lies in expansion to space, or controlling migration to already populous areas. But for others the answer lies at the source: birth. Or rather, the lack of it. Meet the Voluntary Human Extinction Movement, or VHEMT for short, and its unofficial spokesperson and would-be founder, Les U. Knight (pun, I imagine, intended).

The unofficial motto, “May we live long and die out” has garnered a fair degree of criticism from all corners, not least because the idea of total and voluntary human extinction would appear an impossible goal. What Knight sees as “natalist cultural conditioning” is to many of us a rather undeniable evolutionary urge to survive and continue the species. Many religious organisations have condemned Knight, citing the sanctity of human life.

However, beyond the more dogmatic or institutional oppositions, independent criticism is often sceptical at the achievability, rather than the actions of the cause. He’s certainly not the first antinatalist to crop up in human history. Responses to the ideology range from a suggestion that childless people could use the arguments to justify their actions (or lack of, therein), to the Economist’s pronouncement of VHEMT’s logic as “Malthusian bosh.”

Despite the varying degrees of vehemence in the opposition, it can be hard to find fault with Knight’s presentation. Rarely are his words aggressive, which elevates him above the level of the common-or-garden conspiracy theorist/nutjob group to which one may be inclined to add him. “Surprisingly, the ‘Voluntary’ in the name doesn’t always register,” he notes. They certainly aren’t a suicide group (a common question, apparently), although their links to organisations such as the Church of Euthanasia show that Knight, at least, errs on the side of acceptance when it comes to choosing to end one’s own life.

The ‘choice’ part is important. Knight seems determined to ensure that any accusations of coercion beyond persuasion are baseless, and by and large succeeds, beyond occasional jabs. The website’s idea of an intelligence test in order to breed is certainly sharp if one answers ‘yes’ to the question “In light of the tens of thousands of children dying of malnutrition each day, and considering the number of species going extinct as a result of our excessive reproduction, do you think it would be a good idea to create another of yourself?” If one answers ‘no’, they are put in the entertaining double-bind of being intelligent enough to be allowed to breed while also knowing not to. If Knight is rude to anyone, it is those who suppose that they are clever enough to be owed an opportunity to pass on their genes.

Indeed, the entire website is set out in a Q&A format, which sets the tone for VHEMT’s work as being one of opposition to natalism. There are even sections for “Agreements, disagreements and misunderstandings” in response to the website, complete with withering put-downs for the more unimaginative negative comments. Knight describes himself as the “finder, rather than the founder” of the movement, and perhaps this is the source of the little-shown vehemence: as with religion, it must be difficult to understand the apparently blinkered views of those who have yet to be let in to what “already existed in minds all over the planet when I gave it a name.”

The denser we are, the more damage we do

The link with religion is significant for a different reason: he sees the legends of attempted purges of humanity (in Genesis, Sumerian mythology and more) as evidence for early support of VHEMT’s ideals. For Knight, though, it seems as though his own experience growing up “in the high desert of Oregon” shaped his later views. “Environmental degradation is more obvious when the only water is a small creek and it’s too polluted to wade in,” and when he moved into more populous areas he found that “the denser we are, the more damage we do.” A few “logical steps” later, and the idea that we should stop breeding led him to get a vasectomy to ensure he “wouldn’t sentence anyone to life or an abortion.”

Fast-forward to 1991 and the first publication of the typographically unsettling These EXIT Times, bearing the (rather impressive) headline ‘VHEMT growth creates need for newsletter’ and we have the true beginnings of the movement as it appears in its current form. The newsletter in print only lasted four years and three editions (one was skipped to “save trees”), but now the website “reaches more people each day than the paper version reached in a year.”

The website now apparently exists in 33 different languages, but in reality they exist in varying stages of modernity and the Chinese version is simply a link to the Wikipedia page. Seven are constructed languages like Interlingua and Esperanto, and Latin is included for some unknown reason. Nevertheless, there is no denying the vehemence of the Volunteers, judging by the numerous photos of logo tattoos sent in from all over the world.

Image: VHEMT

Image: VHEMT

Thankfully tattoos are not a prerequisite for membership. Nor is there a membership fee. The movement is run by Knight but the idea that one may have been aligned with the movement before hearing about it runs through it. Unfortunately this makes it rather difficult to judge true membership numbers, as Knight claims that millions around the world share his views. As he writes, relations towards VHEMT loosely fall into three categories: Volunteers, Supporters and the Undecided.

The former align fully with the unofficial motto, “May we live long and die out,” and are the ones getting the tattoos. Supporters agree that we shouldn’t breed, but think that extinction is going too far. The Undecided are just that, albeit expressed in a rather ‘don’t tread on me’ fashion by Knight with “Stop trying to put words in my mouth.”

But again we must come back to the potentially troubling ‘Voluntary’ aspect. Even if millions are apparently in support of the movement, the enormous ‘V’ in their logo is going to stay. VHEMT, as Knight puts it, precludes any curtailing of the right to reproduce. The attitude towards coercion is still ambivalent at best, however. “Let’s keep in mind that coercion is already with us,” says the website. “Each year, roughly 35 million babies are denied their right to not be born into a family that doesn’t want them or can’t provide for their needs,” and all because reproductive rights (like access to contraception) aren’t respected. “Advocates of coerced contraception are vilified as ‘ecofascists,’”  but, as they point out, “driving another species to extinction is the ultimate act of ecofascism.”

One may well question whether it still counts as ecofascism to drive ourselves to extinction, but Knight disagrees. In a seminal 1982 paper paleontologists Jack Sepkoski and David M. Raup identified five mass extinctions of life on Earth. Since then, a sixth is believed to be ongoing, and considered the result of human activity. For Knight, phasing ourselves out is actually quite a measured response to this evil.

The implications of an extinction rate 100 times above usual are, of course, enormous. Although we may have been reasonably successful in separating ourselves from nature in our day to day life “as we move from one artificial enclosure to another in fragile metal boxes.”

Knight’s issue is that we don’t seem to realise how much we rely on the natural world. It only takes a little research into bees, for example, to be faced with terrifying figures about what would happen to us without just one of the billions of species on the planet right now.

VHEMT has faced a number of suggestions of ways the problem might be solved without the need to stop breeding. One idea is that “Mother Nature will restore a balance.” First and foremost in the answer is a quote from Richard Dawkins in The Selfish Gene: There is a natural way, and “it is called starvation.” As they hope to preclude coercion, VHEMT also hope to preclude or cease further human suffering as a result of overpopulation. Right now, the alternative to natural “death control” is birth control.

And anyway, even if (according to their estimations) 99.9 per cent of humanity were killed off by an epidemic, for example, there would still be 700,000 people naturally left to repopulate Earth to current levels within 50,000 years.

Our voluntary extinction could mercifully prevent a major ecological collapse

Despite the long-term view, Knight maintains that “the massive die-off of humanity, predicted by so many as a result of our overshoot of Earth’s carrying capacity, is what the Voluntary Human Extinction Movement hopes to avoid… We do have the power to eliminate one clear and present danger to Earth’s biosphere: our own excessive presence.” Our voluntary extinction could mercifully prevent a major ecological collapse, “if we act soon enough.”

One point where this scope doesn’t seem to apply is with the idea that space travel could solve our problems. With multiple planets to colonise, suddenly the population pressure would fall dramatically. The response exists under the ‘Science fiction and fantasy’ heading.

They claim that in order to keep our number stable “100 spaceships holding 2,000 people each would have to blast off every day: one every 15 minutes.” This is even discounting the psychological stresses of living on a space station or another planet so far away (“We aren’t domesticated enough to keep from going bonkers in remote, desolate outposts like Antarctica”) or convincing people that they should be the ones leaving rather than staying on Earth.

Humanity’s track record of ‘ecological colonialism’ by moving species from one place to another isn’t exactly fantastic. Why would it be any better on a planetary scale? Knight believes that believing our problems could be solved with space travel lessens the sense of responsibility for our current planet, which is to be our home for the foreseeable future. To put it entirely bluntly, “contraception is cheaper.”

That’s not to say that it would be cheap, by any means. Knight himself admits that providing universal reproductive healthcare would be “difficult and expensive”, but still cheaper than many alternatives. There’s no getting away from the fact that children are expensive, both for parents and (if Knight is to be believed) society. More importantly, he claims, “reproductive freedom saves lives” by conserving resources, eliminating infant mortality and deaths in childbirth and slowing environmental collapse.

And thus we come to probably the most paradoxical side of VHEMT: that even though a lot of the motivation is ecological, a very significant proportion appears to be humanitarian. By causing fewer people to be born, by their logic the ones who are will be born into a better life.

Knight’s scale is not just enormous in terms of time and geography, but in human ambition too: “Phasing ourselves out by voluntarily ceasing to breed will bring fewer deaths, potentially richer lives for all, and even that perpetually elusive goal, world peace.”

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