The world is in trouble, and we’re to blame. According to the WWF (the World Wildlife Fund, not the cool WWF with Steve Austin), populations of vertebrate animals decreased by 58 percent between 1970 and 2012. Humans are destroying tropical forests at a rate of about 8 million hectares (31,000 square miles) a year, per Conservation International, and by 2050, the global demand for food could more than double.
In short, we’re putting a lot of stress on the planet, and according to Les Knight, there’s one realistic solution: human extinction.
Knight is the founder of VHEMT (pronounced like “vehement”), the Voluntary Human Extinction Movement. The organization’s goal is to get people to stop procreating; its motto is, “May we live long and die out.” The humor is intentional, but the philosophy is serious.
“I think we need a little levity to offset the gravity of the situation that we’re in,” Knight tells Urbo. “But yes, we’re serious about it.”
We spoke with Knight to find out what VHEMT actually stands for—and whether it’s as extreme as it sounds.
First of all, VHEMT is more of a philosophy than an organized movement.
Knight notes that he isn’t the first person to come up with the idea for voluntary human extinction, although he admits he gave the movement its modern name.
“There isn’t even an organization; it’s just a movement,” he says. “I guess I am the main spokesperson for it, but anybody is entitled to speak as a volunteer in the Voluntary Human Extinction Movement.”
save the planet: don't have kids
— so sad today (@sosadtoday) June 20, 2017
Since 1991, Knight has given dozens of interviews to major media outlets and maintained a website, VHEMT.org, to promote human extinction. Columnists have railed against his conclusions, and he’s received a healthy dose of hate mail along the way. Somewhat ironically, he’s received a few death threats.
“I haven’t for a long time,” he says with a laugh. “I kind of miss it. I used to get a lot of hate mail through email—’if you believe that way, why don’t you [die]?’ I still get that a little bit.”
“But you know, I think people are realizing that it’s foolish to attack someone, especially if they realize what it is that we’re talking about.”
People react negatively because human extinction is generally portrayed as a bad thing. From the aliens in Independence Day to the zombies in The Walking Dead, our media shows the end of the human race as the end of everything good and noble—and anyone pushing for extinction must have sinister motives.
“I think the initial response people have to the term ‘Voluntary Human Extinction Movement’ is that we’re talking about increasing death,” Knight says. “And that’s because natalism is so strong in our society—we ignore the possibility that simply reducing the number of births would have the same effect as increasing deaths.”
Natalism, by the way, is basically the opposite philosophy, which holds that sentient life should reproduce. Knight’s about as far from that viewpoint as a person can get.
“In this case, we’re arguing in favor of no births, in order to become extinct. So I think the idea that we are encouraging more deaths is the most difficult to overcome.”
To some, Knight’s philosophy seems extreme.
Even taken at face value, the idea that humans should stop procreating altogether seems completely implausible. He argues that it’s the most logical solution available for anyone who accepts that overcrowding is a problem.
We had to ask: Why extinction? Why not just reduce the human population slightly?
“[VHEMT]’s a really long-range plan, and in some ways, more philosophical,” Knight says. “The idea is that if we don’t completely eliminate ourselves, we could be back where we are again in a short time. It was just 70,000 years ago we were down to 10– or 15,000 of us. And now look.”
The numbers might have been even more extreme. According to one theory, the Toba supervolcanic eruption might have reduced the human population to under 1,000 in 70,000 B.C. At one point, all of humanity might have been a scattered tribe of 40 people. Today, about 7.6 billion people walk the planet.
“If we could keep [the population] down to a number that wouldn’t adversely impact the environment, that would be okay,” Knight says. “I just don’t think we could. And even as a small population, we probably were impacting the environment in Africa before we became homo sapiens, based on our use of fire.”
He’s likely referring to prehistoric species like homo erectus, which did, indeed, use fire.
“Since we started using fire, we were able to alter conditions, and maybe even cause some extinctions,” Knight contends. “We just don’t know.”
What about humanity’s biological drive to have children?
The answer to that question is simple: That biological drive doesn’t exist.
“I don’t think we have a biological drive to procreate,” Knight says. “It’s just that we have a biological urge to have sex. And with the technology we now have, we can have all the sex we want and still not conceive.”
He argues that people want to have children due to social conditioning, not due to any biological factors. We may not be able to overcome our biology, but we can certainly reason our way through conditioning—if VHEMTers can make a compelling argument.
“Natalist conditioning is so strong that it may as well be biological,” he says. “But we have to understand that sex causes humans for that to be a motivation. No other animal knows that they are creating a new one of themselves when they engage in sexual activity—and we don’t either until we’re taught it. So the drive to have children can’t be biological.”
That’s basically true: Animals and young humans don’t understand the truth about the birds and the bees (and yes, that includes both the birds and the bees). While humans eventually find out—typically, with a very awkward heart-to-heart conversation that changed the way we looked at our dads forever—animals aren’t able to form those sorts of abstract ideas.
“[The drive to procreate] is so strong because of the natalist programming,” Knight says. “Many people have never even considered not procreating and don’t understand why someone wouldn’t. After all, that’s our purpose in life, according to what we’re taught.”
It’s a pretty logical theory. Still, Knight admits he probably won’t be able to convince 7 billion people to stop having kids.
“It is quite unlikely—a very slim chance—that this will succeed,” he admits. “But you know, it’s a very slim chance that we’ll be able to provide [resources] for 10 billion people, too. So the odds are about even, I’d say.”
Some critics contend that resource management is a more realistic option.
If we all take shorter showers, turn off our air conditioners, and take out the recycling, we might be able to conserve our natural resources for slightly longer. That’s an alternative to the permanent end of human life, right?
Knight says those tactics are admirable, but they don’t compare to going child-free—and people aren’t exactly clamoring to give up the spoils of capitalism.
“The numbers are difficult to pin down because it depends on how we manage our resources—our consumption,” he says. “If we all lived with a very low ecological footprint, more of us could exist. But we want to have a pretty high ecological impact. We really enjoy our lifestyles as they are. For everybody on the planet to have that, there has to be many fewer of us than [there] are.”
In other words, if we want to dine on fine foods, crank up the air conditioner, and fall asleep watching Netflix, we need fewer people.
“Of course, we don’t want to encourage death,” Knight says. “There’s already too much of that already. Tens of thousands of children die every day of preventable causes, so there’s no point in making more of them until we’re caring for everybody.”
That’s…surprisingly reasonable. But aren’t sustainable technologies getting better?
“The advancements we’ve made in agriculture and technology are gobbled up by our increasing human density,” he says. “If we stop increasing [our population], and started improving our technology, everybody could be cared for eventually.”
The problem, according to VHEMT, is that our consumption is badly outpacing our ability to innovate.
“Earth Overshoot Day is August 1 this year,” Knight notes. We had to look that up; it’s the annual date at which humans have used more natural resources than our planet can renew in an entire year.
“Our bank account is extended, and now we’re borrowing against the future. We can debate about what day that falls on—but I think the fact is undeniable that we overshoot every year. It’s a combination of how many of us there are and what we do. Many advocate that we just change our behavior and don’t consume so much, but really, I know very few people who say, ‘If I just had a little less than I have now, then I’d be happy.’”
“We have such an impact when we add another human to the equation. That’s a lifetime of environmental impact. In the United States, each person has an ecological footprint of 17.1 acres [estimate from the Global Footprint Network], which is about 15 football fields of potential wildlife habit. That’s a really substantial benefit that a couple can have just by not procreating.”
Another crucial point: Knight and other VHEMT members don’t hate children.
In fact, Knight is a substitute teacher by trade, primarily teaching in Oregon high schools.
“I enjoy children,” he says. “I work with them all the time. I’m not a child hater—I shouldn’t use that term, because that implies there are people that hate children. I think some people don’t want to be around children because they don’t realize how fun they can be and how enlightening they are. The average child is more interesting than the average adult, I think.”
Many of Knight’s critics assume he’s a cynical, world-weary person, but that wasn’t our impression from our interview. He seems pragmatic, funny, and polite, albeit with an underlying streak of pessimism. We ask whether he ever talks to his older students about his philosophy.
“No, it’s not part of the curriculum,” he says. “They’re a captive audience, and it’s not appropriate—I don’t think they would appreciate it. The students are pretty savvy, and when somebody starts giving them their own personal ideology, they go, ‘Wait a minute, what are you doing?’”
After all, the heart of the movement is volunteerism. Knight believes that our species can reverse course through sheer willpower; by preaching to his students (or anyone else, for that matter), he’d be defeating the purpose.
“It’s a voluntary movement,” he says. “Volunteer is the first word in the name. And how can you be against people doing things voluntarily? We’re suggesting that people think before they procreate, and most people will agree—people should think before they procreate.”
“That’s easy enough, once people understand it.”