“A person would have to be delusional to appreciate existence”,“life is a net negative” and “existence perpetuates suffering” is just some of the festive wisdom Diane Brandy imparted on me over the Christmas vac. No, she’s not an Oxford student in the grips of a pre-collections crisis: she’s a subscriber to the Voluntary Human Extinction Movement (VHEMT).
The VHEMT, as Vonnegutesque as it sounds, is essetially an environmentalist movement, albeit with a slightly darker premise than going veggie or litter-picking. It has its roots in the ‘60s and ‘70s, when nuclear testing and use of carcinogenic insecticides by the U.S government spawned the likes of Greenpeace, and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). The movement was given its name in 1991 by Les U. Knight, its most high-profile activist to date; even his name, if you say it quickly enough, is a piece of subliminal propaganda. One of the most common rumours which swirls around the VHEMT is that it’s a suicide cult – it’s not. It’s not even an organisation, let alone a cult. Voluntary-human-extinction is a philosophy, set of beliefs, lifestyle more than anything else, revolving around stewardship of the planet. What are the tenets of the VHEMT? Is there some truth in the movement’s beliefs or is it just nonsensical pessimism? Does it actually offer a solution to environmental issues?
The movement’s tenets are hard to define; they don’t really have any. The VHEMT isn’t an organisation, it’s a disorganisation. Its lively Facebook community, with nearly 9,000 members, hasn’t accepted anyone new in 2 years. Its website hasn’t been updated since its creation – the formatting is quite medieval. The movement’s official newspaper, ‘The Exit Times’, was discontinued in 1994, after only three issues. In short, there is no definitive list of the movement’s beliefs. The Facebook group is a forum for everything from articles entitled ‘If Spiders Worked Together, They Could Eat All Humans In Just One Year’, to anti-pornography activism and contraception advertisements. Perhaps the only recurring theme which cuts through the eclectic swamp of posts is that of antinatalism. This philosophy is a convoluted jumble of anti-affirmative ethics, negative utilitarianism and Kantian imperatives – whatever that means. Fundamentally, antinatalism is the belief that having children is harmful, and thus implicitly that the Earth is overpopulated. Hence the idea of human extinction. The VHEMT’s slogan is “May we live long and die out”. But harmful to what? While many environmentalists agree humans are harmful to the Earth’s ecology, some hardcore antinatalists go a step further.
Over the Christmas vacation, I spoke to Diane “Childfree” Brandy, an avid antinatalist, vegan, animal rights activist and VHEMT subscriber from Pennsylvania. She represents many of the views on the antinatalist-extinctionist spectrum.
Diane left me under no illusion that humans are cause of environmental degradation, with statements like “the only way to spare suffering to our species and that which is done to other species by mankind is to stop reproducing” and “mankind has been harmed and harmful since the beginning”.
She’s not wrong. Despite claims that climate change is an organic process, the result of natural warming in an interglacial period, or even, ahem, a hoax by the Chinese government (as Trump has suggested), it’s irrefutable that human activity is at the crux of this environmental cataclysm. Global atmospheric temperatures are fast approaching 1.5 °C above pre-industrial levels, as the concentration of ‘greenhouse’ carbon-dioxide gas in the atmosphere increases. Massive anthropogenic emission of CO2 and reduction of biospheric carbon sequestration mean we are on a course to reach 2 °C above pre-industrial levels within decades.Coral reefs will ‘bleach’ and die as ocean temperatures and acidity increase, depriving millions of species of their habitat. The half-billion human beings who rely on coral reefs for protection from tropical storms, for food or employment, would see their livelihoods threatened. The global rate of eustatic sea-level rise has already decupled since the 1990s to an average of 3 mm a year, but reaching as much as 10mm in the Pacific Ocean; Asia-Pacific is home to 60% of the world’s population. Ironically, unchecked global warming could plunge north and western Europe into an ice-age. Glacial meltwater off the coast of Greenland dilutes and desalinises the water of the Gulf Stream, which gives western Europe its temperate climate, slowing it down by 20% already in the last 50 years. Humanity’s so-called stewardship of the planet has been the antithesis for centuries. Diane’s argument, which she suggests is a maxim of any antinatalist or human-extinctionist, is logical and scientifically proven. Earth and the environment would be better off without its bipedal tyrants.
That’s where the logic ended. From here onwards Diane’s VHEMT philosophy strayed from science to the realms of depressing misanthropy. I found it striking that, while she raised the issue of humanity’s impact on the environment, her focus always turned back to humanity’s impact on itself. For a self-identified environmentalist and animal activist, the human predicament seems to take surprising primacy over the environmental. Diane certainly cares about nature, and animals, having “rescued dogs and cats for over two decades”. She describes them as “vulnerable and voiceless” while calling her stance towards human welfare “indifferent”. She went on to say “It’s impossible to be vegan as we all inadvertently kill insects and mammals…because of massive amounts of animal slaughter globally and domestic pet euthanasia rates in my country alone, this is a major reason that I want humans to become extinct”.
The mention of animals and the environment seem just interlaced into, and secondary to, her belief in self-perpetuated human suffering. Diane believes that voluntary human extinction, a mass abstinence from procreation until humankind dies out naturally, would “do humans a favour” as much as it would alleviate environmental problems.
Part of this is what Diane calls the “tragedy of the birth”, a central antinatalist belief that birth and procreation is selfish and negative and that children are hauled unfairly into a world of suffering, almost as a pet for their parents to love, and receive unconditional love back. “The child’s birth, suffering and eventual death was not consensual” and “parents should be fully accountable for their offspring’s welfare and financial needs till death” indicate how in the eyes of the VHEMT, procreation is criminal. When I asked Diane how she justifies this view, she gave me her rendition of life as a hopeless struggle: “growing numbers are seeing the rawness of reality. Get up, shower, go to work after being in traffic, spend your youth in the workforce, take heed that animals suffered and were slaughtered for your meal, drive home, pay bills, resolve tension at home with the children, go to the doctor, worry and die”.
Perhaps her views stem from somewhere else entirely. When I asked about her religious orientation, she replied: “for the most part I was raised with religion. I eventually rejected it because it wasn’t logical. Antinatalism is logical”. Les U. Knight writes on the VHEMT website: “We call The Movement VHEMT, but it’s undoubtedly been given other names throughout history. None have been recorded, as far as we know.” In fact, antinatalist, VHEMT-esque thinking can be traced back to one of the oldest and most seminal texts of all: the Bible. In chapter six of Genesis, it says that “God saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth” and “it repented the Lord that he had made man on the earth”. Then “the Lord said, I will destroy man whom I have created from the face of the earth”. Luckily for us, Noah convinces God to spare his family alone. Misanthropy is an irrefutable theme in many religions, as well as philanthropy, incorporating ideas such as original sin, and cause each other as well as themselves suffering.
So why does this phenomenon of someone “losing one’s faith”exist? Diane rejected her faith out of a pessimism for humanity, refuting religion as illogical compared to the rationality of antinatalism. Yet her own ‘logical’ beliefs and some of the core ideas of religion intertwine. Some religions posit that human beings have great capacity for evil, and for causing damage, as well as for good. In believing in the former, in a sense, Diane hasn’t entirely rejected her faith. Rather, like many, her beliefs align with religion selectively. In her indictment of humans and human life, she sounds more like someone who has lost faith than a passionate environmentalist, with views as uncoupled from rationality as the Bible she calls illogical. Many of her beliefs seem more emotional than logical. Ironically, her claim that “a person would have to be delusional to appreciate existence” seems itself delusional.
But Diane’s views do not represent that of all VHEMT supporters, and certainly not those of the movement’s figurehead, Les U. Knight. Living somewhere along the Willamette River in Oregon, U.S.A., he lists his personal information on the VHEMT website. His religious orientation is “Eclectic”, drawing on the Christian Golden Rule – treat others how you wish to be treated and other “nice stuff like that”. His political stance is anarchism; not in the pejorative sense of anarchy, but rather the rejection of a controlling government and hierarchy. He describes himself as being part of the “human family” which has “over seven billion members”. He sounds like a humanist, and this is reflected in his brand of antinatalism, which he calls “pro-human”. His definition of VHEMT philosophy is a “simple train of logic, guided by love, and [arriving] at the conclusion that Gaia would be better off without humans”. He doesn’t even insist, like Diane, that “many parents are in denial over their resentment over having children”, instead saying of people who have already had children that “there is no reason to feel guilty about the past”. He summarises the role of a VHEMT subscriber as: “they don’t pressure their children to give them grandchildren and might encourage them to make a responsible choice with their fertility”. On balance, Les is almost the polar opposite of Diane: he values rather than denounces humans, takes a tolerant view towards non-antinatalists, and emits a hopefulness rather than a despair toward the human race. In this positive, less human-hating form, VHEMT appears more logical, more environmental, and less mental. In any case, the stark differences between Les and Diane’s VHEMT views show just how vague and personalised it is as a concept. The 9,000 people in the movement’s Facebook group – and perhaps many thousands of supporters worldwide – are like moths, each with their own perspective and life experience, attracted to the shining light of antinatalism. But what attracts them to it, and to Voluntary Human Extinction, can vary dramatically. Are they all attracted to it for the right reasons?
Misanthropy certainly doesn’t feel like the right reason, or the reason Les intended, for supporting human extinction. A genuine concern for the environment, does. But though Knight’s philanthropic, environmentalist beliefs are quite rational and convincing, there is a central flaw in antinatalism, and thus in VHEMT. There is an assumption that people can just stop having children. This has more than a tinge of white middle-class privilege about it. The developing world doesn’t always have the privilege of readily-available, cheap contraception. In parts of the developing world, the deficit in female emancipation means some women cannot assert control of their own biology. In countries like Uganda, where 75% of the population are in primary occupations, mostly working on farms, where state welfare for the elderly is non-existent, children are almost a necessity. Conversely, in the developed western world, it really costs to have children. A recent article in The Guardian (‘Is having five children really a middle-class status symbol?’) satirises the idea of having a higher number of children as a symbol of status. It places the cost of children at “about £150,000 a child” in the UK. Whether you think children have been commodified into ‘wealth trophies’ by an exhibitionist middle-class or not, it doesn’t matter. What matters is that parts of the developing world can’t afford not to have children, while in the developed world it is a matter of who can afford them. We have the capacity, and choice, to abstain. Financially, it even makes sense. Ultimately antinatalism is a luxury billions cannot afford, and the idea that everyone should just stop reproducing, as simply as that, feels almost pompous.
For me, the VHEMT and its twin philosophy, antinatalism,certainly contain a degree of reason. Especially when considering the toxicity of human activity to the natural world, and its major role in what feels like the insurmountable threat of climate change. Then again, any great human mission seems insurmountable…until it’s surmounted. Voluntary human extinction feels overwhelmingly defeatist. It appears a sensible course of action only for the exhausted environmentalist or the misanthropic nihilist, and seems to attract mostly the latter. Les U. Knight’s cheery environmentalist and philanthropic rationalism doesn’t change the fact that he’s given up. Anybody who subscribes to VHEMT is proverbially abandoning ship. The ship being deep ecology, sustainable living, the Paris Agreement, and technological innovations like carbon-capture storage. Les U. Knight says that parents shouldn’t feel guilty for having children in the past, because “guilt doesn’t lead to positive solutions”. Nor does admitting defeat. Though the movement is by no means organised or popular, it is international, and highlights an intensifying pessimism towards our environmental predicament. Pessimism isn’t productive, and is hardly the remedy needed to combat climate change and pressure on natural resources.
This, I suppose, is where Oxford students should come in. Allegedly this is quite a good university, and seeing as we, in our carbon-emitting, (predominantly) meat-eating existence, are part of the problem, we might as well attempt to fix it. Instead of turning to movements grounded in unproductive, self-pitying, and often very questionable philosophy, this generation needs to devise a solution, or at least a mitigation to threats such as climate change, be it scientific, social or political. It’s either that, or pick up a Slipknot album from HMV and book that vasectomy. Your choice…