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In Portland, Oregon, hardly a weekend goes by without some kind of street fair or outdoor market. Even on a blisteringly hot Saturday last July, the Division-Clinton street fair was in full swing. Food vendors and political groups lined the streets; families with kids and strollers filled in the gaps. But one of the booths was not like the others. It had a prominent green banner reading, “Thank you for not breeding.” A table was perched underneath the tent canopy, with a cartoon of a dodo bird alongside a dinosaur with its left arm around a human silhouette. “Visualize VOLUNTARY HUMAN EXTINCTION,” it read. “May we live long and die out.” Behind the table was a man named Les U. Knight.
A young couple looked quizzically at the signs, then approached Knight.
“Is this about not breeding cats and dogs?” they asked.
“It’s about all domesticated animals,” replied Knight, smiling. The corners of his piercing blue-gray eyes turned up as well. “But especially humans.”
Knight, a tall, lanky man in his early seventies with a mat of silver hair, is the leader of the Voluntary Human Extinction Movement—VHEMT (pronounced “vehement”) for short — a worldwide crusade of at least 9,000 people who have voluntarily decided not to have children. The idea behind VHEMT is that Homo sapiens have caused so much damage to the planet already that the only thing that can restore the balance is for humanity to go extinct, and the only humane way to do that is by refusing to procreate.
At first blush, the idea of mass self-extinction sounds so radical, so uncomfortable, that it makes you wonder whether the person behind it is troubled, or cynical, or at least blind to the wonders and possibilities of human life. But Knight insists he’s not a misanthrope, that he didn’t have an unhappy childhood, that he thinks pandas are cute. And he doesn’t think humans are intrinsically evil. He sees the beauty in the creation of all lives. It’s just that, to him, there’s a tradeoff — especially when one species is unintentionally causing the death and decline of so many others.
“We’re just incompatible with the biosphere,” Knight says. “And the fact that VHEMT exists and so many people agree shows that we do have compassion and care about other species. We have no right to bring children into a world where they will suffer.”
As it happens, that very thing was on my mind when I first learned about VHEMT last winter. Like many of my peers of childbearing age, I was grappling with the question of whether I wanted children, and when, and possibly even why. When an environmentally conscious friend texted me, “I’m interested in the Voluntary Human Extinction Movement, which is a real thing,” followed by an excerpt about it from a book, I was curious. The concept just seemed so contrarian and provocative, but Knight, being logical and approachable and funny in the way he made his argument, convinced me to at least listen to him.
So I got in touch. We met twice at his home in Portland—once last May, and then, ironically enough, this past Fathers’ Day. It was just another day for Knight, who got a vasectomy when he was 25. But for me, these conversations changed everything.
Les U. Knight is not his real name, but rather, it represents his wish for humanity: to unite in order to make the world a better place. I’m withholding his real name, because his affiliation with VHEMT could lead to professional reprisal (for reasons that will become evident shortly).
Knight was born in central Oregon to the biggest family in his small town. Despite his stance on reproduction, he has never given his parents a hard time for having so many children. That’s what people did in the years after World War II, he figures. They had babies. As the middle child of five, Knight often wound up by himself. His older brother and older sister would play together, as would his two younger sisters. But he didn’t mind; Knight relished the solitude and freedom. And, growing up in a small semidesert town where environmental devastation can’t hide behind tree farms, he was well aware of the impact humans were having on the planet.
The seed for VHEMT was first planted when Knight was 12. He was at a family picnic, and the conversation turned to things that were becoming obsolete and needed to be disposed or replaced. “That was the mood of the country after World War II,” Knight recalls. It was the dawn of the age of disposable goods. Amid this discussion, Knight’s uncle Richard — a jazz musician and “really outrageous guy” — stood up and said, “I think mankind is no longer economically feasible and should be phased out!”
“Taking care of the humans that are already here is a major part of VHEMT. We can take better care of those who are here by not creating more,” Knight says.
Nobody took Uncle Richard’s outlandish remark to heart, except for Knight. The very idea that humans should be phased out turned in his mind for years.
When Knight graduated from high school, it was at the height of the Vietnam War. His options were to go to college or get drafted, so he went to college. He likes to joke that he majored in draft dodging for two years and then flunked out. “I wasn’t prepared for college. I was way over my head,” he says. Knight was drafted thereafter. When he joined the military, he was sent to Germany and Indiana with the rest of his platoon to work as support personnel instead of being sent to Vietnam. That type of work drove him mad. “It was just mindless obedience, an example of the constant insult of being forced to do what you’re told,” he says.
After spending a little under two years in the military, Knight was able to live off the GI Bill and went back for his degree at Oregon College of Education, a teacher’s school now known as Western Oregon University. He majored in secondary education with a focus in social science, which fascinated him, particularly the question of why people procreate. He saw no reason for it, no benefit.
After college, Knight took a job as a live-in counselor in a halfway home in Hood River, Oregon, helping four boys and four girls through a challenging period in their lives. After his short stint there, Knight started substitute teaching. At first it was just another job to live on while he looked for something longer-term, but Knight soon realized he enjoyed teaching, and his experience with kids in the group home helped him relate to students in schools — most of whom seemed to be having a hard time.
In 1986, Knight took a side job writing ads for an industrial company, where he was given a desktop computer with publishing tools. His time spent teaching children had not diminished his obsession with the idea of a world without humans, and five years later, he used those tools to publish the first issue of the newsletter for VHEMT, called These Exit Times, under his pseudonym. In it, he estimated that if enough people made a commitment to not procreate, population growth could start decreasing as early as the beginning of the 21st century. “In choosing to phase ourselves out of existence,” Knight wrote, “we are choosing a better life for all.”
The idea that the planet would be better off if humans weren’t a part of it wasn’t new; Knight was just the first person to think to organize it into a movement. (In fact, he launched VHEMT in part because he was worried that someone would beat him to the punch.) But since then, membership has grown steadily. He doesn’t think that he or the movement is necessarily changing people’s minds about having children, but that it’s attracting people who realize they don’t want to have children. “It’s not so much that people are joining the movement, but rather, the movement is joining them,” Knight says.
Today, Knight still works as a substitute teacher in Portland’s public schools. Although some might think nourishing the minds of children runs counter to the philosophy of VHEMT, he disagrees. “Taking care of the humans that are already here is a major part of VHEMT. We can take better care of those who are here by not creating more,” Knight says. He argues that he’d only be contributing to population growth if he was encouraging students to procreate, which he avoids doing directly. “I don’t try to put my ideas into their heads. I try to help them form their own concepts,” Knight says. “But if some student says, ‘I’m never having kids,’ I can’t help but to say, ‘That’s not required, so congratulations,’ because they won’t hear it from anyone else.”
Of course, it’s not easy to get a species to effectively root for its own demise. And the concept that Knight is proposing is extreme, even to Alan Weisman, who wrote The World Without Us, a nonfiction book that envisions a future in which humanity blinks out of existence. “Voluntary human extinction would be like committing species-wide suicide,” Weisman says. “We cringe when we think of all humans jumping off a cliff.”
Weisman was a few weeks away from submitting the book manuscript to his editor when he wondered if there was anyone else he needed to round out his reporting — anyone who was actively advocating for a world without humans. He stumbled across VHEMT and got in touch with Knight. “Talking with Les made me realize why I was writing that book,” Weisman says. “I wasn’t writing it because I want a world without us. I want a world with us. I wrote the book so people could see: The world would be really lovely if we weren’t crushing everything right now. Is there some way we could add ourselves back into the picture?”
Some philosophers also contend that a world without humans would be less valuable. For instance, humans uniquely have the abilities to reason, create institutions, develop complex technologies, and form long-term plans and projects that could possibly help the planet. “If one wants to do best for the environment,” says Julia Mosquera, a philosopher and researcher at Stockholm’s Institute for Future Studies, “one should focus on employing human capacities into making a better prospect for the environment. And this is a task that perhaps only humans are actually able to pursue.”
“Either we are going to manage it ourselves or nature will do it for us.”
Philosophical and moral arguments aside, researchers are actually finding that having no children is perhaps the most environmentally friendly thing to do — whether it’s done with the intent to fully extinguish humans or not. Last year, graduate student Seth Wynes and Kimberly Nicholas, a climate scientist at the University of Lund in Sweden, published a study that compared the impact different individual actions could have on lessening one’s environmental footprint. Not having another child saves, on average, 58.6 tons of carbon dioxide a year worldwide — a “stunning” figure, Nicholas says. Living car-free, the runner-up, only saves around 2.5 tons of carbon dioxide a year.
Despite these findings, Wynes and Nicholas don’t want their results to infringe on anyone’s rights to family planning. Nicholas sees the voluntary aspect of VHEMT as the most important component of the movement. “Involuntary or coercive population-control policies in the past have led to some terrible human consequences,” she says. “I’ve always tried to be clear that my intent with our research was not to suggest population-control policies, but to inform personal, individual choices.”
The ideal world population is somewhere between 1.5 billion to 2 billion, according to a study published by three Stanford ecologists in 1994. We’re currently pretty far beyond this target, given current population projections from the United Nations, and gaining momentum. Our world population of 7.6 billion humans will balloon to 9.8 billion in 2050 and 11.2 billion in 2100. But, Weisman says, “If everyone had one kid, the world population would come down to 2 billion by the end of the century. If our species is going to have a future on this planet, our numbers are going to have to come down. Either we are going to manage it ourselves or nature will do it for us.”
When I learned of VHEMT, I was about to turn 27 and my social media feeds were an amalgam of engagement, wedding, and baby photos. I was single at the time, and seeing these images got me thinking: How quickly did I need to get into a relationship if I wanted to have children? (It didn’t even matter to me that I wasn’t especially yearning to have children. I just took it for granted that I would.) I recall doing the math and working out a timeline. If I wanted my first kid in my early thirties, the clock was ticking fast. I needed to find a partner now so we could date for a few years before deciding to get married and have children.
The fact that I considered such a plan at all, Knight may argue, is proof of the power of our natalism — the idea that having children is a desirable, even nonnegotiable thing. He says that all societies evolved to be natalist, and the ones that didn’t were outbred by those that were and disappeared. This, Knight believes, is why humanity came to overrun the planet. “The pressure [to procreate] is so great and the assumption and conditioning is so strong that people really have to think through it,” he says. “It’s amazing so many people have decided not to procreate.”
During my first conversation with Knight over the phone, I told him that it had never crossed my mind to not have children. “You’re not alone,” he said. “It’s the default life. And natalism is a very strong force. It’s everywhere. It’s insidious. It’s invisible. You can’t put your hands on it. It’s like the patriarchy.”
It’s quite easy for me to see the natalist forces in my own life. My mother gave birth to me in China when she was 27, so the fact that I haven’t yet had children often feels like an affront to her. I moved to the United States when I was two and a half. My grandparents took care of me lovingly in those early years — almost treating me as if I were their own child — bearing witness to my first steps, helping me memorize poems in Mandarin, and teaching me how to ride a bike. My mother, too, was raised by her grandparents. Where I come from, having babies in the family to take care of is the default.
“I like to imagine quite a few humans don’t exist because of my propaganda efforts,” Knight says.
A few years ago, when my I broke up with my last serious partner, my mom lamented, “But when will I have grandchildren?” When I told her that I still have time, she responded that my eggs were already too old. This idea — that women have a biological clock and we need to beat it — is further proof of our natalist culture.
When I finally met Knight in person, I found myself in the stages of a new relationship — the nebulous “will we or won’t we?” period where you’re still figuring out whether you and your partner are aligned in terms of long-term goals. It was also a unique moment when I allowed and even welcomed new perspectives, and when my thoughts and beliefs were not influenced by those of my partner.
Despite being resolute in his own beliefs, Knight doesn’t rant or condemn. He fights emotion and ego with reason, which I found refreshing given how heated these debates can be. For instance, on the VHEMT website, Knight published a table titled “Why Breed?” For every reason people might have for wanting a child, Knight attempts to delve into the real motivation and suggests an alternative. For those who wish to breed to carry on the family name, he suggests donating blood as a means of passing on their bloodline. For those who understand the state of the environment but still want to procreate, Knight urges them to consider the ethics of sentencing an innocent person to life and death in a world of ecological collapse. And for those who think having a kid will give them a sense of immortality, Knight counters, “Accept mortality. Spread memes not genes. Socrates’ heirs are not apparent, but his ideas linger strong.”
In some ways, Knight sees his movement as a form of birth control; people who learn about it from street fairs, for instance, might then rethink their own reproductive choices. “I like to imagine quite a few humans don’t exist because of my propaganda efforts,” he says. Although he knows the movement might never meet its goal of human extinction, at least not in his lifetime, he thinks VHEMT will grow as more people accept that the intentional creation of one more human by anyone, anywhere, can’t be justified. “Choosing to live child-free doesn’t have the stigma it used to,” Knight says. “Younger people are recognizing the personal, societal, and ecological consequences of procreating.”
My conversations with Knight made me realize that I don’t actually have a compelling personal reason to want to have children, that my desires to have children were not genuinely my own. Instead of asking myself, “Why breed?” I asked, “Why not breed?” For starters, with a screaming and crying baby, I would no longer have my quiet mornings to write. I would no longer be able to leave for a weekend adventure at the last minute. I wouldn’t be able to go abroad for long reporting trips. Arguably, I could bring a baby with me, but flights would be brutal — not only for me, but also for the other passengers. There’s no guarantee that once they grow up, they’ll turn out okay, despite the time I spend with them. And the expense of raising a child and sending them off to college is almost prohibitive, particularly when working as a journalist means that there’s a degree of uncertainty with our income and job stability. Having a child could ultimately mean quitting the meaningful, satisfying career that I love. Are these reasons for not wanting to have children selfish? Perhaps, but at least they are my own.
Furthermore, as a science and environmental journalist, I believe in doing the best thing for the planet based on the available facts.
For all those reasons, I have decided not to have children.
Does it nag at me that the 56.8 tons of carbon dioxide a year I’ll be saving the environment could—and likely will—be undone by another family’s decision to have three children? Sure. But Knight says not to undercut the potential impact that individuals can have, because every person who learns about the movement can educate others. Like he wrote in the first issue of These Exit Times, “Each time another one of us decides not to add another one of us to the burgeoning billions already squatting on this ravaged planet, another ray of hope shines through the gloom.”
Journalist based in Seattle. wudanyan.com
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