Extinction Rebel: may we live long and die out”

The founder of the Voluntary Human Extinction Movement has a radical solution to saving the planet: the phasing out of humans – all of us. Is he mad or actually onto something?

Don’t get Les Knight wrong. He doesn’t want you to kill yourself. But he does want us to die out, and to stop having babies. As it’s unrelenting population growth that is depleting the planet’s resources and, well, ruining everything, only once the Earth is free of humans can Earth be saved. Simple, really. If a little frightening.

The activist and former teacher from Oregon has been involved in what’s known as the anti-natalist environmental movement since the 1970s, in the wake of a stint in the US military. He had a vasectomy at the age of 25, part of his newfound philosophy that the gradual extinction of humanity is the best possible solution to saving the planet’s biodiversity and reversing the traumatic effects of climate change.

In 1991 Knight gave his campaign an official name: the Voluntary Human Extinction Movement (VHEMT). He began recruiting followers through a postal newsletter, These Exit Times. Almost three decades on, the movement’s following is global.

After the military, I could see that every problem we had came down to humans,” says the 74-year-old. I thought we ought to have a moratorium [on procreation] for a while, but I don’t have a magic wand. Then the more I thought about it, the more I thought this moratorium should go on forever. I can see no reason why homosapiens should be perpetuated into the future.”

His logic is cold, brutal even, but also, on some level, undeniable. Correctly, Knight points out that CO2 emissions are at the highest point since the evolution of animals”. This means a cataclysmic threat of animal extinction. And with the UN projecting that the global population will reach 10 billion by 2050, Knight sees a grim future in store for all of us.

A billion people are hungry right now, so how are we going to adequately care for everyone if we continue towards 10 billion? I think it’s going to be really an unfortunate situation,” he says, which is putting it mildly to say the least.

His staunchest opposition comes from what he terms rampant natalist propaganda”. In this he includes anti-abortion protesting outside clinics, Vladamir Putin’s tax breaks for bigger families” in Russia and Hungary’s Prime Minister Viktor Orbán encouraging mothers to have four or more babies”.

Mandatory motherhood doesn’t do anyone any favours – not to society and certainly not the mother,” states Knight.

Courtesy of Getty

What’s the best thing humans can do to save the planet right now?

We’re suggesting people think before they procreate. If they think it all the way through and get past the natalist cultural conditioning, they probably won’t do it. There really isn’t any reason to [procreate] other than the social pressures from family and society – sometimes people don’t even realise they have an alternative choice.

In fact, hundreds of millions of people don’t have a choice, so that’s one of the first things that has to be done for everybody on the planet: to [have the choice] to not procreate if they don’t want to. It would eliminate 80 million unwanted pregnancies a year and would be the greatest social improvement.

Is your movement also about women’s rights?

Improving the status of women is extremely important – the two go together. If women don’t have control over their procreative choice, they have very little power to run their own lives.

While natalist conditioning is rampant all over the planet, compared to around 30 years ago there are twice as many women aged between 40 and 44 who do not have offspring in the UK and USA. It is becoming far more acceptable and I think a large part of it is people are able to not procreate if they don’t want to. The amount of reproductive freedom has increased, although it is under attack, especially in the US but also in the UK.

How is it under attack?

As far as a women’s ability to get an abortion, it varies all over the USA, but it is still officially legal all over the country. State laws put a lot of obstacles in their way, though. Right now, an assault on all elements of reproductive freedom is happening, [including] the right to have contraception and abortion.

What are some of the strains procreation is having on the planet?

Studies have shown that as far as CO2 emissions are concerned, the very best thing we can do is to choose not to create another one of us.

The Global Footprint Network has figured out, globally, what the footprint for the entire world is. We are overshooting by over 50 per cent. They have designated [an annual] World Overshoot Day: the day that humanity has used up a year’s worth of renewable resources and begins to go into deficit usage. Last year it was 29th July and each year it gets a little bit sooner.

It varies by country, of course, but this is globally. So even if it’s a fact that we use a lot more [resources] and other countries use very little, when you average it all out, humans as a whole are into overshoot. We’re counting calories while our insects go extinct. [Previously] all we were worried about was emissions, but biodiversity loss from our activities threatens our existence more than the climate crisis.

How would the planet look if we lived long and died out?

Our domesticated species, our cattle and livestock, would be phased out with us. Fields of wheat would revert to meadows and eventually forest land and biodiversity would increase just amazingly – unless we cause everything to go extinct before then. Ecosystems and the whole biosphere will be better off without us. The best we can do is undo what we’re doing and try to keep it from happening even more.

I can see no reason why homosapiens should be perpetuated into the future.”

How do you know the world will be better off without us?

Wherever we live, not much else lives. We know how good things could be without us, because everywhere we abandon flourishes. Chernobyl is one of the best examples – wildlife is returning to the areas [that were cordoned off after the 1984 nuclear reactor explosion]. They are having some genetic problems, of course. But since there are no humans the ecosystem is thriving like it hadn’t for 50 years beforehand when humans came in and built the cities and the power plant.

How does VHEMT spread the word in less economically developed countries?

In every country there are people, usually women, working to organise and promote reproductive freedom, the status of women and education for girls. It can’t really come from the West – we’ve done our mess already and are rightfully suspect[ed by developing countries]. So all we can do is encourage our governments to respect the sovereignty of those countries – [something] the US is not doing right now. So I would say that supporting those organisations that support freedom in those countries is the best thing we can do. But it’s really beyond what VHEMT can do. We don’t really have an organisation or any money.

How does the movement feel about adoption?

Taking care of existing people and children is a large part of why we’re suggesting we stop procreating. Ideally, there wouldn’t be very many children needing to be adopted. It’s an unfortunate situation as a result of early death of parents, or a woman who isn’t able to get an abortion, [which is] less than ideal.

What are some of the most common misconceptions about the movement?

That we are encouraging death, and that we want to increase deaths. We’re suggesting that we just die off. We’ve got a car sticker that says: May we live long and die out.” That’s our unofficial motto. We should all just live our lives out, but not add more of us. [The global population is growing by] 80 million a year. It’s unsustainable.

What do your critics say about the VHEMT?

Most just dismiss us as being batshit crazy. If I saved an endangered species for each time I was told to kill myself, there wouldn’t be a problem with biodiversity loss. You go first” – that’s another one. And I’m like sure, OK – but now it’s your turn to get a vasectomy – snip, snip…

So, one small snip for man, one giant leap for mankind… Find out more at vhemt​.org.

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