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.