“We can't be breeding right now,” says Les Knight. “It's obvious that the intentional creation of another [human being] by anyone anywhere can't be justified today.”
Knight is the founder of the Voluntary Human Extinction Movement (VHEMT), an informal network of people dedicated to phasing out the human race in the interest of the health of the Earth. Knight, whose convictions led him to get a vasectomy in the 1970s, when he was 25, believes that the human race is inherently dangerous to the planet and inevitably creates an unsustainable situation.
“As long as there's one breeding couple,” he says cheerfully, “we're in danger of being right back here again. Wherever humans live, not much else lives. It isn't that we're evil and want to kill everything—it's just how we live.”
Knight's position might sound extreme at first blush, but there's an undeniable logic to it: Human activities—from development to travel, from farming to just turning on the lights at night—are damaging the biosphere. More people means more damage. So if fewer people means less destruction, wouldn't no people at all be the best solution for the planet?
I've been thinking about this a lot lately because my wife and I have been talking about having a child. We're the kind of people who reduce, reuse and recycle. We try hard not to needlessly fritter away resources. We think globally and act locally in our day-to-day decisions. So while the biggest quandary of most couples in our shoes might be what color to paint the nursery, we have to ask ourselves: Is the impact of a new person justified?
The problem is stark: The United Nations estimates that the human population, currently at 6.5 billion, will reach 9.1 billion in 2050. Many estimates place a sustainable population in which most of the people on Earth are able to enjoy their lives at between one and two billion.
By nearly every measure—pollution, carbon emissions, forest loss, fishery depletion, soil fertility, water availability and others—the growing population is wreaking havoc on the Earth's systems. And it's setting our civilization up for a big, hard fall.
Meanwhile, almost 16,000 humans are born each hour. Regardless of the merits of reducing the population to nil—as Knight advocates—it's pretty clear that the world could do without any additional people. In 1994, Charles Hall, an ecologist at SUNY Syracuse, performed a life-cycle analysis of the average American by determining each person's lifetime share of the nation's total consumption of various resources. It's the kind of study usually undertaken for assessing the impact of a new product or policy, and the results are unsettling.
Hall and his colleagues found that a single American born in the 1990s will be responsible, over his or her life, for 22 million pounds of liquid waste and 2.2 million pounds each of solid and atmospheric waste. He or she will have a lifetime consumption of 4,000 barrels of oil, 1.5 million pounds of minerals and 62,000 pounds of animal products that will entail the slaughter of 2,000 animals.
“In terms of energy usage alone, [which is] a convenient measure of environmental impact,” Knight says, “the average Ethiopian uses one 310th of what we use. So when an American couple stops at two kids it's like an Ethiopian couple stopping at 620.”
According to Knight, there are other ways people can have kids in their lives. “Adoption, foster-parenting, step-parenting—there are a lot of opportunities for people who really do want to get involved with children.” Knight himself is a substitute high-school teacher in Portland, Oregon, as befits his patient but forcefully clear demeanor.
Knight takes care to point out that VHEMT isn't anti-child. Many of its members are parents. Some of its members are children. In many ways, the idea of reducing the world's population is as much about human quality of life as it is about the health of the planet.
“May we live long and die out,” says Naomi Thompson, quoting the VHEMT slogan. Thompson, who is in her late 20s and works as an analyst for Wells Fargo in San Francisco, has also concluded that childbearing is irresponsible. "It's not about wanting to kill people, but it's selfish to have a kid at this point when so many aren't getting the love and attention that they deserve.”
“I really do love kids,” she continues. (Thompson and Knight say they were raised in large, happy families.) “I know it might seem odd for someone who really likes kids to have this stance on breeding—women are mothering, nurturing people, and I definitely have that in me. But women in this society feel a lot of pressure to have babies, and I would like to see more people expressing that by adopting instead.”
But does approaching the issue as an emotional question hinder our ability to address population problems? Knight says there's a taboo against talking about population control in what he calls our "natalist” culture—a barrier that has resulted in many environmental groups either not addressing population or doing so inadequately.
“Nobody will come right out and say that this is unsustainable, you can't do this,” says Knight. “If you really are serious about the environment and your impact, zero is the optimal number of offspring that we should be producing.”
“In light of the number of species going extinct because of our increase, and the tens of thousands of children dying every day from preventable causes, there's just no good reason to have a child,” adds Knight. “We have to ignore all those children to create another one. It's like saying, ‘Well, they just don't matter.’ But they do matter: They're all children in the human family.”
It really comes down to whether you are an optimist about human nature. Having a kid is an implicit endorsement of the idea that it's possible to have a sustainable ecosystem that includes humans—that it's possible to find a way out of the mess we've created.
Even Knight, in his oddly cheery brand of pessimism, thinks that the drive to breed may be insurmountable.
“It's not too likely that the Voluntary Human Extinction Movement is going to succeed,” he told me. “I don't think any of us are so naïve as to think that 6.5 billion people are going to say, 'Yeah, let's stop breeding, this is great.’ But it's still the right thing to do.”
Gregory Dicum is the author of "Window Seat: Reading the Landscape from the Air" (Chronicle Books). His writing credits include The New York Times Magazine, Harper’s, Salon and Wired News.