Are we all members of the Voluntary Human Extinction Movement?

The desire for humanity to go extinct seems crazy, but it may also be the dominant ideology of our time.

Are we all members of the Voluntary Human Extinction Movement?

The desire for humanity to go extinct seems crazy, but it may also be the dominant ideology of our time.

The other week, the Guardian Experience column, which I love because it’s one of very few places you can read about people being eaten by hippos in a broadsheet newspaper, published an essay by a retired supply teacher called Les Knight, who has dedicated his life to campaigning for the extinction of the human race (the title of the article is, fittingly, “Experience: I campaign for the extinction of the human race”).

“My journey to advocating for voluntary human extinction began at school,” Knight writes. As he remembers it, everywhere, throughout his childhood, seemed like it was getting too full up with people:

“I was born in the post-war baby boom in a small desert town in Oregon... There were more new students than the elementary school could cope with, so classes overflowed into churches. In my fourth year, we were taught in the county library; people checked out books as we learned. High school was the same: the cafeteria had to be converted into classrooms. There just weren’t enough resources.”

After a stint in the army, Knight started reading books about how overpopulation would imminently lead to food shortages and famine (a thesis soon disproved, of course, by the Third Agricultural Revolution). He joined a movement called Zero Population Growth, which wanted every couple to stop breeding after they'd had two children, and at 25 he secured himself a free vasectomy by letting a student doctor use him for practice. But eventually, Knight decided that simply limiting human population growth would never be enough: even a much smaller human population would continue to crowd and defile everywhere it occupied. And so, in the late 1980s, after settling in Portland, Oregon, Knight founded the Voluntary Human Extinction Movement. “Our message is simple,” he claims, “we encourage people to stop procreating so the biosphere might return to its former glory, and everyone already here will be able to live life more abundantly.”

The message of the Voluntary Human Extinction Movement might rightly be claimed as the dominant ideology of our society and culture.

The Voluntary Human Extinction Movement has never commanded anything close to mass appeal. Their main output is a newsletter called These Exit Times, which may have as few as 230 subscribers — although, to its credit, it does apparently feature a cartoon strip about a voluntarily childless woman raising a bonobo.

To many, Knight's ideas must seem strange, even crazy; in opposition to everything humanity ought to hold dear. But on another — perhaps even more accurate — level, the message of the Voluntary Human Extinction Movement might rightly be claimed as the dominant ideology of our society and culture.

Knight himself has claimed that his movement consists of “anyone who supports the idea” of humanity going extinct. And it is interesting to consider what this “support” might plausibly consist of.

For one thing, we could count anyone, at any point in human history, regardless of VHEM membership, who subscribes in some way to Knight's views. Thus the Medieval Cathars, who believed that reproduction was a sin, were unwitting members of the Voluntary Human Extinction Movement. So too are any followers of the South African philosopher David Benatar, whose “anti-natalism” is premised on the intuition that it is always bad to bring a new conscious being into existence, since with existence comes the capacity to suffer. Some members of the r/childfree subreddit seem to believe that others should stop having children because it makes it more difficult for them personally to win costume contests.

Knight also appears to be willing to claim as allies people who remain voluntarily childless as a result of concerns over climate change — although not wanting to have kids because you're worried about your kids’ carbon footprint, or the quality of life they might very well be denied in a rapidly warming world, is not the same as thinking it might be better if the whole human race went extinct. More plausibly, it seems motivated by a concern that the planet should be as liveable as possible for those who do happen to be born.

But then in addition to these people, we should probably also think to include those whose actions — regardless of what they say, or think, they are doing — in fact seem to be helping to bring the extinction of the human race about. (Some theoretical grounding here might be provided by Robert Pippin’s Hegelian, “expressivist” theory of intention, on which actions “disclose what an agent takes herself to be doing” — often, indeed, to the agent herself).

Perhaps non-existence, in all its finality, has a certain sort of libidinal appeal

And into this category of by-fruits-knowners would fall rather a lot of people, especially those people currently in power. Take the Prime Minister of Australia, Scott Morrison. Morrison might not explicitly want his country to be reduced to a permanently blazing apocalyptic hell, he might not make speeches openly in favor of bringing death and punishment to Australia. But his actions, and those of his government, are in fact working to make Australia’s complete devastation by climate change a lot more likely. It is a similar situation with Brazil President Jair Bolsanaro, and his enthusiasm for burning down his country’s rainforests.

But the very powerful don’t only help accelerate the destruction of the planet/the human species by being cartoonish goons or villains. They also do it much more quietly, by producing structures which force us into “choices” that necessarily make us complicit with the death-spiral: driving cars; eating food farmed on land grown on cleared rainforests, or in monocultures that kill bees; even just going online. As Pippinian, expressivists agents — do even we want everything to die?

So why would anyone, powerful or otherwise, want all conscious life to go extinct? It's worth considering what the death of all conscious life on earth would actually mean. Without anyone or anything left to experience it, the planet will — yes — persist. But not as the Earth — not as a planet; for there will be nothing left to conceptualize it as such. Non-existence beckons.

And perhaps non-existence, in all its finality, has a certain sort of libidinal appeal. Freud, for instance, identified the “death drive” (or “death instincts”) as being one of the fundamental forces shaping our psychic lives — aside from the life instincts (towards survival, sexual pleasure, and so forth), we all share the “urge inherent in organic life to restore an earlier state of things”, i.e. non-existence. In a sense, then, “the aim of all life is death.” Which can be fine, since any living species eventually has older generations die off — but only if the death instincts are properly balanced with their opposites. If the death instincts ever won out completely, there would be no more life left to speak of (interestingly, Freud speaks of the death drive as a fundamentally “conservative” drive, which seems about right). Knight's own essay speaks of his desire for a less cluttered world, where everything beautiful beyond human life could finally thrive — his own life-instincts seem to have been projected onto the non-human.

Maybe all of this is in fact motivated not by the death drive, but its opposite. Knight claims he wants all human beings now living to live life to its fullest while voluntarily choosing to wind down the human race. In a way then he doesn't really want to eliminate human life as such: What he actually wants to eliminate are future human generations.

And perhaps that's what the powers-that-be want as well. Knight is a Baby Boomer: a generation the members of whom are notorious for having material interests often starkly opposed to those of their children. What if endless, consequence-free life could be secured for all Boomers, with no pesky shape-of-things-to-come emerging to oppose it? (Was this not, in a sense, the desire behind that paradigmatic work of Boomer philosophy, Francis Fukuyama’s The End of History?) Perhaps something like the sterile, polymorphically perverse utopia imagined by Michael Moorcock in his series The Dancers at the End of Time. Or the “Grand Hotel Abyss” Georg Lukács described in order to zing his Frankfurt School opponents, who stayed to live comfortably complaining about the capitalist West rather than try and build communism in the East:

“a beautiful hotel, equipped with every comfort, on the edge of an abyss, of nothingness, of absurdity. And the daily contemplation of the abyss between excellent meals or artistic entertainments, can only heighten the enjoyment of the subtle comforts offered.”

What if climate disaster is simply a failed attempt to secure this nihilist utopia — the elimination of future generations, without yet having secured eternal life for those now living?

When one considers the extreme electoral polarization between old and young people in the UK or the US, it is possible to conclude with a sort of grim hope that the death spiral can only last so long, that eventually socialism will become the inevitable norm. But just as not all Boomers are selfish, pampered landlords who blundered their way through life riding a wave of extreme historical luck, it would seem strange to think of this utopic nihilism as being purely generational: if nothing else, Millennials were raised in a wholly Boomerfied world, and so we carry the seed of this nihilism with us.

In years to come, how might utopic nihilism continue to manifest? As forests blaze, icebergs melt, and oceans rise, will it continue to be a viable electoral force? What might the political settlement of the future be — between people who actively want the human species, now perilously threatened, to be some sort of ongoing concern, and people who would be perfectly happy for it to end with themselves, just so long as they can have some fun right now?

Tom Whyman, a contributing writer at The Outline, is a writer and philosopher from the UK.