Vanina Saracino in conversation with Les U. Knight, founder of the Voluntary Human Extinction Movement
In 1969, while the first human was stepping onto the lunar surface and the whole Earth had been fitted into one photo for the first time, the global human population counted approximately 3.5 billion people. As we write, it is bordering 7.7 billion and projections state that by 2050 it could exceed 9 billion, all coexisting on a warmer planet with less land to inhabit, as a result of rising water levels and desertification. The future we can foresee today is one of forced mass migrations and, as it is logical to assume, of generalized conflict over space and resources that will increase the economic inequalities between the Global North and the Global South, as well as harshen the exploitation perpetuated by the former on the latter. In addition, we are already experiencing an unprecedented loss of biodiversity across the planet and the extinction of countless species (it has been written that 1/10 will be gone by 2050).
Undoubtedly, human overpopulation plays a crucial role in climate change. With this in mind, in 1991, activist Les U. Knight founded a radical environmental movement that rages against the foreseeable aftermath of massive human breeding—the Voluntary Human Extinction Movement (VHEMT).
Vanina Saracino: What is VHEMT and what brought you to it?
Les U. Knight: I followed a trail of logic guided by love, as perhaps millions of us have also done. Looking at Earth’s biosphere as a whole, it becomes clear that one species adversely impacts all the others. The modern environmental movement seeks to mitigate our impact by changing our behavior, and though necessary, it’s not enough. It’s hard to tread lightly with 16 billion feet.
In the early 1970s, I joined Zero Population Growth, now Population Connection, with the slogan “Stop at two.” It’s easy to convince people to do something when they were going to do it anyway, so ZPG was successful, with local chapters throughout the US. It allowed couples to feel good about doubling their environmental impact by claiming “We’re just replacing ourselves.” This fallacy continues today, with “replacement level fertility” being conflated with zero population growth. I realized that rather than stopping at two, we must stop at once.
I named this growing awareness The Voluntary Human Extinction Movement and printed the first newsletter in 1991. VHEMT is a movement, not an organization, and anyone may consider themselves a part of it by choosing to refrain from procreating more than they already have. We’re procreation-free, not childfree. Supporters aren’t in favor of our extinction, just a moratorium until the size of our human family becomes sustainable. Volunteers like myself feel there’s too great a risk that we would be right back where we are if we don’t disappear completely. Homo sapiens is the only species with the consciousness to voluntarily go extinct for the good of all life on Earth, or which needs to.
VS: In her book Staying With the Trouble. Making Kin in the Chthulucene (2016), Donna Haraway encourages us to “make kin, not babies” with both humans and non-humans in a non-genealogical way, as a material practice toward multispecies environmental justice. Similarly to what happened with VHEMT, she has been accused of misanthropic populism, although what she proposes is, in her view, a truly pro-child practice—making babies rare and precious, as opposed to the pronatalist but anti-child world we inhabit.
LK: She’s right, and many who have the option are creating families with existing people and non-human animals. We aren’t taking care of existing humans, and making more of us inhibits our ability to do so. Eight hundred million now suffer food insecurity—usually blamed on political corruption, exploitation and crop failures. Those factors are real, but someone not born is not going to go hungry. We need to feed them, not breed them. Half of humanity barely ekes out a living, a third lacks clean water, and tens of thousands of children die on an average day. By focusing on the needs of people already here, everyone could live more abundantly, and we wouldn’t have to convert wildlife habitat into human habitat. All forms of life would benefit with our peaceful and voluntary phase-out.
VS: From the extensive information on the VHEMT website it is clear that the movement does not support top-down governmental impositions (for example the one-child policy imposed in China, which now became two-child policy). Instead, it aims at increasing individual consciousness, education and awareness toward the environment, to make parenthood a conscious choice. But collective organization, mobilization and activism is also historically aimed at influencing governmental laws and policies toward social change. In this aspect, what does VHEMT wish to obtain?
LK: The Movement focuses on awareness, helping others along their way. Many of us choose to work on related issues that need our assistance, like organizations which promote and enable reproductive freedom. Globally, restrictions on reproductive rights vary from inconvenient to violent and deadly. Misogyny, patriarchal pressures, exploitative economic interests, and ideological influence conspire to deprive people of their freedom to not breed.
Present US government administration’s anti-freedom efforts are among the worst in the world, with global effects. In the long run, the response to these attacks could gain more freedom than ever before. In the meantime, lives are tragically impacted and even lost. VHEMT promotes an end to this population control, and an increase in population freedom.
VS: In 2015, a series of sex campaigns were released in Denmark, both by the city of Copenhagen and by lucrative private companies, with the aim to encourage national procreation. I remember one in particular, whose pragmatic arguments were that the welfare system could not handle a population decrease (namely we need young tax-contributors to provide the capital for an increasingly aging population) but also that our mothers will die miserable and alone, as they will never know the joy of having grandchildren. One year after, the population registered indeed an increment of approximately 1200 newborns.
LK: Government incentives or disincentives for procreating have never been effective in the long run. Even China’s one-child policy may not be the main reason for their low fertility rates, which were already falling and haven’t increased much since the restriction was lifted.
Draconian elimination of reproductive freedom, as in Romania 1966-1990, is effective in increasing birth rates, but with tragic results. Thousands of abandoned children had no choice but to band together for survival, living in the sewers and stealing what they needed. Mandatory motherhood harms the woman, society, the environment, and perhaps worst of all, the unwanted child. It’s exploitative at best to create a new human just to prop up a flawed economic system.
VS: The body of the woman is historically a territory of biopolitical conflict and techno-pharmacological exploitation, especially concerning reproductive rights. In wealthy countries, aspirant parents resort more and more often to highly invasive procedures in order to pass on their genes, usually instead of opting for other forms of non-genealogical parenthood—for example adoption. Conversely, the womb (mostly that of low-income women) has become a commodity, a space to be rented by wealthier, infertile families to procreate. Is the desire to transmit one’s own genetic code rooted in biology, or is it more complex? Could it be argued that it tacitly conceals discriminatory positions?
LK: A couple’s obsession with creating a person carrying their genes is racism on its most basic level. This isn’t biologically driven, since we know what we’re doing. Most of us have biological urges to engage in activities which cause conceptions, but the urge to create an offspring is culturally induced. Natalist programming is so strong it may as well be biological, but fortunately, we are able to override society’s mandates if we think about them deeply enough.
Many who are fully aware of our situation, and the ramifications of creating another of us, will ignore reality and do whatever it takes to make sure their genes live on, including IVF.
VS: But there are also some important, problematic aspects in the homogenic suggestion to stop breeding. For example, for indigenous peoples who fight against land expropriation and the destructive force of extractive capitalism, a population decrease would weaken the collective agency and undermine the fight. In addition, obstetric violence is extensively perpetuated by doctors and caretakers on indigenous and low-income women, who are forced to procedures like C-section or to receive contraceptive devices installed in their bodies without informed consent. Such forms of medical discrimination happen globally, not only in the Global South, and are by no means justifiable under the wish of a global population decrease. So who should stop breeding first? And how can VHEMT’s radical proposal be a conscious choice inscribed within a wider, global strategy of degrowth, one that does not end up benefiting, one more time, only the wealthiests?
LK: Voltaire wrote, “the comfort of the rich depends upon an abundant supply of the poor” and it holds true today. Exploited people’s ability to break free from oppression is hampered by the imposition of child care. We’re less likely to go on strike with a family to feed. Our ability to work for whatever cause we feel important is less restrained when we choose not to create more dependents than we already have. While examples of depriving women of their right to procreate, especially by involuntary sterilization, are plentiful, denial of the right to not procreate is far more prevalent and more egregious. This violation of a basic human right doesn’t generate the outrage it deserves because of our collective natalist bias. Rather than identifying a group more deserving of non-procreation, justice demands we extend reproductive freedom to everyone. This includes eliminating patriarchal demands on women to have more offspring than they want or can care for. Increasing awareness of the right to not procreate is essential: a choice isn’t much good if you don’t know you have one.
VS: In a recent article Franco “Bifo” Berardi addressed the topic of young generations refusing to attend school and striking massively for climate change (#FridaysForFuture). In his view, the previous generation who gave birth to these protesting children, is also responsible for the current climate breakdown and the subsequent “slow cancellation of the future.”
Why is environmental awareness not as strong as the desire of parenthood, given the fact that they are both so deeply tied, even co-dependent within ideas of future and legacy?
LK: Because of cultural conditioning, though millions are now questioning the default life their ancestors blindly followed. Connections between our personal procreative choice and humanity’s impacts on other species are slowing emerging, and I look forward to a critical mass of awareness. The childfree are still asked to justify their decision, even though reasons abound. Couples choosing to procreate are still congratulated, despite the lack of reason. The time for a shift in consciousness has come. As our collective consciousness evolves from human-centered to nature-centered, we’ll be able to envision Earth’s biosphere restored and flourishing as our legacy. Congratulations all around.
Naturally, there are obstacles to such an overwhelming shift. Those amassing wealth in the present pyramid scheme have used their political and social influence to prevent change. For example, falling birth rates are usually presented as a serious problem in corporate media. Young people increasingly see no good reason to breed—giving up their freedom and losing what little stability they’ve managed to create for themselves. Media owners probe society for a place to lay the blame. Accusations of laziness, self-entitlement, and immaturity don’t have the power to shame an awake generation into playing a game that’s rigged against them.
VS: As a white male suggesting to phase out the human population by stopping procreation, but also as an activist who is aware that the choice of parenthood ultimately belongs to women, do you find your sex/gender/skin colour do make a difference in the way your radical ideas are received? Have you ever thought about this as inherently problematic?
LK: Not much, thanks to my privilege. If I were struggling to make it through life, as most of our human family is doing, I doubt I’d have the luxury of thinking about Earth’s entire ecosphere and what we might do about our situation globally. I feel an obligation to use my privileged position to share what I’ve learned and to help improve conditions for all life. We’re all in this together.
Berlin / Portland, September 2019
REFERENCES AND NOTES
 Elizabeth Kolbert, The Sixth Extinction. An Unnatural History, Bloomsbury Publishing plc, London, 2014.
 Sophie Lewis, “Cthulhu plays no role for me” on Viewpoint Magazine (May 8, 2017) https://www.viewpointmag.com/2017/05/08/cthulhu-plays-no-role-for-me/#rf55-7774
 Interview to Donna Haraway on Art Forum (September 6, 2016) https://www.artforum.com/interviews/donna-j-haraway-speaks-about-her-latest-book-63147
 Voltaire, Candide, 1759
 Franco “Bifo” Berardi, “Game Over” on E-Flux, Journal #100 (May 2019) https://www.e-flux.com/journal/100/268601/game-over/
LES U. KNIGHT is a spokesperson for the Voluntary Human Extinction Movement and editor of its newsletter, These EXIT Times, now published as a website. He has promoted VHEMT through numerous international media outlets, and has presented the concept at Oberlin College in Ohio, USA, the Forum on the Future at Porto, Portugal, and the University of Oregon School of Law. From his home in Portland, Oregon, he is currently working on a book about VHEMT: Fresh Hope for Planet and People.
VANINA SARACINO is an independent curator and film programmer currently based in Berlin. She has co-curated the Screen City Biennial 2019, Ecologies – lost, found and continued, together with Daniela Arriado. In 2015, she co-founded OLHO, an international project about contemporary art and cinema, initiated in Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo, also shown at the Teatrino di Palazzo Grassi (2017) and Palais de Tokyo (2018). From 2013 to 2017 she curated monthly selections of artists’ video works on the experimental channel ikonoTV, also being in charge of collaborations with museums and artist-run spaces worldwide.