The Radical Environmental Solution You've Never Heard Of
In 1967, there were three billion people on planet Earth. One year later, the idea that overpopulation would eventually kill us entered mainstream consciousness with the publication of Paul Ehrlich’s book, The Population Bomb. But if consciousness was raised, it didn’t do much to slow population growth. Today there are 7 billion people and counting.
As far back as the 18th century, a clergyman named Thomas Robert Malthus warned that as the population increased, resources would dwindle and famine and disease would result. Malthus never anticipated some of the horrific side effects of overpopulation we are seeing today, like species extinction and environmental disaster. But in many ways, the idea of population control has taken a back seat to what seem like even more pressing concerns like cutting carbon emissions.
One group, however, is offering a radical solution to our Malthusian mess: the Voluntary Human Extinction Movement. Their motto is: “May we live long and die out.” An informal movement that coalesced in the ‘70s, the Extinctionists value the Earth and its millions of species more than human survival. Their goal is to convince humans to stop breeding, cease making new babies altogether and allow the human race to slowly disappear—quietly, peacefully and without the suffering and pain overpopulation has wrought on so much of the world. Only then can the world and all the surviving species recover and prosper.
Although their agenda is a long way from the mainstream, they may have a point. The statistics related to overpopulation are sobering:
- Each year, for every 55 million people who die, 135 million are born to replace them. That’s 80 million extra people a year, or the equivalent of one entire USA every four years.
- 1 in 7 people on the planet, more than one billion people, have inadequate supplies of food and water. 25,000 people a day die of malnutrition, 18,000 of them children under 5 years old.
- As the need for energy grows, energy resources are becoming more and more depleted. The search for more resources is degrading the lands and seas that nurture us. Burning fossil fuels is heating up the Earth’s climate to dangerous levels. By the year 2020, oil production will likely begin to decline, as we will have accessed the majority of the easily accessible oil reservoirs. The search for less accessible supplies risks more disastrous events like the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.
- Overpopulation is forcing the less fortunate of us to live in unsafe areas vulnerable to devastating floods and storms.
- Population sprawl is destroying valuable farmland and forests (2.2 million acres in the US alone last year).
- Millions of cars clog our roads and choke our atmosphere. The asthma rate among children is soaring, caused by particulates in the air. The average American spends 2200 hours trapped in traffic jams. Increasing prosperity in countries like China and India is adding millions of cars to the world’s roads.
- The need for more and more farmland is leading to the destruction of the world’s invaluable rainforests and the degradation of the oceans. Pesticide and fertilizer runoff is killing the oceans and waterways of the planet. Overfishing is driving marine life to the brink of extinction. Habitat destruction is leading to extinction of thousands of land animals, plants and insects every year.
Human extinction is in itself not a particularly new idea. Biblical texts recount how Jehovah, fed up with his experiment, decided that humans were screwing up the planet. As we know, though, in a last-minute reprieve, he relented and allowed Noah and his family to live through the 40 days and nights of endless rain. Afterward, Noah and his relatives went forth and multiplied, and here we are now. What most religious extinction myths share is the idea that catastrophes like the Great Flood lead to extinction. The Voluntary Extinctionists’ somewhat revolutionary idea is that by purposely engineering our own non-catastrophic extinction, we can save the world and improve human lives in the meantime.
Leslie Knight, the Voluntary Human Extinction’s chief cheerleader, gave the movement its name, but he is not its leader, as there is no formal organization. An active environmentalist who lives in Portland, Oregon, Knight arrived at the idea that Homo sapiens were destroying the Earth (or Gaia, as he prefers to call it) in college in the ‘70s.
“You just start looking at the world and thinking about the problems and solutions to the problems, and eventually you come down to the fact that our excessive breeding has increased the population to the point where we’re not taking care of everybody, and if there weren’t any humans on the planet, everything would be fine,” he told Grist.org in an interview in 2010. “The biosphere would recover, species that we are driving to extinction would no longer be endangered and could flourish, and there’d be no more human suffering.”
Looking at the world as an interacting living organism, he began to see humans as an invader species, choking out other species wherever we popped up. “There are many species that have gone extinct, due to our increase,” he said in an MSNBC interview some years ago. “There are so many of us. Wherever we live, not much else lives. It's either us or millions of other species going extinct.”
The movement’s idea is simple: stop reproducing, voluntarily. As babies stop being born, species slowly start to recover, oceans recover, and the Earth recovers. With fewer resources being depleted, and as the older population dies off, the remaining younger people will live better lives, with greater access to Earth’s bounty. Fewer people, less air, land and water pollution, fewer cars, decreased traffic, and on and on.
Knight is careful to emphasize that Voluntary Human Extinction does not favor or encourage euthanasia, genocide, abortion, forcible population control (like China’s one-child policy), or anything of the kind. It’s voluntary: that’s the whole point. How exactly this universal agreement would be accomplished is not clear. But Knight does identify some of the forces standing in the way. He believes religious bureaucracies are the driving force behind overpopulation, encouraging large families, creating more adherents to religion, and increasing the power of those institutions.
There is plenty of evidence that he is right. Look at the Catholic Church’s stance on abortion and birth control. “In defense of the human person, the Church stands opposed to the imposition of limits on family size,” wrote John Paul II in 1994. “All propaganda and misinformation directed at persuading couples that they must limit their family to one or two children should be steadfastly avoided, and couples that generously choose to have large families are to be supported.” Other major religions share the sentiment.
“The idea that more of us is an unquestioned good is going to start to be questioned,” Knight told the Huffington Post last year. “It doesn’t take a whole lot of thinking. What it takes is rethinking. It takes overcoming the natalist mindset of society.” Knight also insists the movement is not anti-children, but anti-reproduction, citing the millions of children who will live better lives, not to mention the countless unborn children spared inevitable starvation and disease. Procreation, he feels, is akin to child abuse. “It isn’t that I don’t like kids and don’t really want to be a parent — it’s just that I don’t think we should create more of us, especially since we’re not taking care of all of us who are here today,” he told Grist.
Though perhaps extreme, Knight is not alone in his belief that something drastic must be done to avoid truly horrific events. Frank Fenner, a world-renowned microbiologist credited with helping to wipe out smallpox, said shortly before he died in 2010 that he expected humans to become extinct within 100 years, destroyed by overpopulation. "A lot of other animals will [die], too. It's an irreversible situation. I think it's too late. I try not to express that because people are trying to do something, but they keep putting it off. Mitigation would slow things down a bit, but there are too many people here already."
The idea of ceasing to reproduce is radical and much ridiculed. "We believe, as does every mainstream religion, that God made the world and God made everything in the world," New York Archdiocese spokesman Joseph Zwilling told Fox News. "It's part of God's plan of creation, and it is absurd to suggest that the world would be better off without the human race."
Knight knows the odds are not in his favor. But he does believe it is an idea whose time has come, and the Voluntary Human Extinction website even takes the criticism with a bit of humor: "Warning: Some of the words in the following messages may be offensive to those who find certain combinations of letters offensive.” They also sell bumper-stickers, for those millions of fossil fuel burning vehicles that only humans can drive. “Thank you for not breeding” they say, which works a lot better when there’s no “Baby on Board” bumper-sticker next to it.