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VHEMT ilustration
The Voluntary Human Extinction Movement (VHEMT) dreams for a world without human beings. (credit: VHEMT)

Destroy all humans!

“It is important for the human race to spread out into space for the survival of the species,” said Stephen Hawking recently in Hong Kong. Although many individuals have expressed the same view (see http://www.spacequotes.com and http://www.spaext.com for some examples), many people are hearing it for the first time. Widespread media coverage of Hawking’s comments began a welcome public discussion of this important topic.

However, this attention is unwelcome to those who want the complete opposite. The opposite of Stephen Hawking’s statement would be something like, “It is important for the human race to stay on Earth for the extinction of the species.” It is hard to believe, but some people want their own kind to end, the sooner the better.

One of the most famous is Les U. Knight, founder of the Voluntary Human Extinction Movement. VHEMT (pronounced “vehement”) states that “Phasing out the human race by voluntarily ceasing to breed will allow Earth’s biosphere to return to good health.” In other words, humans should stop having children to eliminate humankind and improve the environment. The appeal of VHEMT to its followers is its non-violent, passive approach to extinction. There’s no need for mass suicides, war, or disease to kill off humankind; only avoiding the difficult work of having and raising children. VHEMT is the lazy person’s extinction.

The appeal of VHEMT to its followers is its non-violent, passive approach to extinction. There’s no need for mass suicides, war, or disease to kill off humankind; only avoiding the difficult work of having and raising children. VHEMT is the lazy person’s extinction.

Of course, the repulsion of VHEMT lies in the end of humankind: the loss of cumulative achievements in the arts and sciences, the elimination of countless future human lives, and the end of intelligent life on Earth. Of great consequence is the loss of a future for life itself. The colonization of space and planets can only occur with human science and engineering. The end of humankind would also mean the end of life’s expansion from Earth. Since life, particularly complex life, appears to be rare or absent in the universe beyond Earth, confining Earth life harms the progress of all life in the universe.

On the VHEMT website, Knight addresses this very issue:

Q: If we spread life to other planets, wouldn’t there be more chance for it to survive?

At first, spreading life might sound like a noble idea. British explorer Captain Cook would offer Pacific islands chiefs a breeding pair of pigs, and was disgusted by the ignorance of some primitives who just slaughtered the gifts for a luau. Yum, European exotic invader… Cook, et all. Feral pigs are still negatively impacting ecosystems in Hawai’i and elsewhere.

Our experience here on Earth with exotic species devastating ecosystems should give adequate warning of the folly of introducing species to other seemingly-uninhabited planets. Take starlings and house sparrows… please. Folks who blessed North America with all the birds from Shakespeare’s works thought they were on a righteous mission—sort of like the fantasy of spreading Earth life all over the Universe might be.

The ecosystems of other planets in our solar system either do not exist or are composed of extremophilic microbes. It would be difficult to argue that diverse and complex life, including humans, on a planet that is either sterile or inhabited by microbes would be a bad thing.

Knight mentions starlings and house sparrows as examples of invasive species. But another species that could be described as invasive is Homo sapiens. Current theories indicate that modern humans originated in Africa, and later spread out to colonize the rest of the planet. So on every continent apart from Africa—Antarctica, Asia, Australia, Europe, North America, and South America—humans are an invasive species. The traditional response to an invasive species is to get rid of them, which leaves Africa as the last remaining habitat for all humanity. Of course, this is a moot point for Knight, since he is aiming at eliminating all humans, everywhere.

The above point could be stretched to cover life itself. The first organisms on Earth reproduced and spread out, colonized and invaded the rest of the sterile planet. These actions ensured their survival and led to the life we see on Earth today.

It’s not impossible that someday we may be able to create conditions on some lifeless orbiting rock to support life as we imagine it could be. We could also find lifeless places right here and restore them to ecological integrity. Chernobyl, Hanford, and other death zones would be good starts. Perhaps before we figure on terra-forming elsewhere we ought to stop terra-deforming here.

This is the old do-everything-on-Earth-before-doing-anything-in-space argument. Associated with this argument is the do-more-than-one-thing-at-the-same-time response.

Down-to-Earth solutions exist already—we only need to use them, coupled with improved birth rates on a global scale. Adjustments of our priorities could create a wonderful world for all life. It starts with each of us making responsible choices.

In the context of VHEMT, “improved birth rates on a global scale” means birth rates that are precisely zero. Knight opposes China’s one-child policy because “even one child is too many”.

Another question that Knight answers is on the subject of hypocrisy:

Q: Why don’t you just kill yourself?

This could be the most frequently asked question of all…

It would be easy to dismiss VHEMT and its followers as offbeat extremists, but they are seriously pursuing the elimination of humanity, and they have sympathizers in unusually high places.

This is similar to how anti-human-spaceflight humans are asked, “Why don’t you just replace yourself with a robot?” (See “The new humans vs. robots debate: introducing the FH Prize”, The Space Review, February 13, 2006). Knight gives a variety of reasons why VHEMT does not advocate mass suicide. This is a relief, because one would think that anti-human humans are particularly susceptible to suicide. It is paradoxical to be against the existence of human beings while simultaneously existing yourself. But the followers of VHEMT should continue to live. One of the benefits of existing is the opportunity to change your mind.

It would be easy to dismiss VHEMT and its followers as offbeat extremists, but they are seriously pursuing the elimination of humanity, and they have sympathizers in unusually high places.

At about this point in the article, the clever reader begins to wonder why a serious newspaper is wasting ink on such silly ideas. The answer is that once in a while someone comes up with the right idea for the wrong reasons. Mr Knight’s notion of voluntary human extinction is one of those profoundly right ideas.
“Sui genocide”, The Economist, Dec 19, 1998–Jan 1, 1999, volume 349, issue 8099, page 130.

There is always the possibility that The Economist’s article, and VHEMT itself, are hoaxes. But there is nothing to suggest that they are anything other than attempts to support the strange new idea of voluntary human extinction. Knight wants extinction to save the environment, but The Economist favors another reason altogether:

An exit chosen, not ordained

It is clear that human history will end; the only mystery is when. It is also clear that if the timing is left to nature (or, if you prefer, to God) and humans hang on until the bloody end, the race’s final exit will be ignoble. If future generations escape the saurian agony of extermination by a wandering chunk of rock or ice, the sun’s unavoidable growth to gianthood will still incinerate their last successors: only cinders and gases and dust will remain.

Far future generations might prolong the process by posting colonies beyond the earth’s orbit, but these would be sad outposts at the end of the solar system’s long day, clutching memories of a lost planet and of billions of immolated souls. The difficulties—fantastic difficulties—of interstellar travel might be overcome, but the mightiest of starships could do no more than defer the dies irae. An ignoble existence hopping from planet to planet—clinging to each clod until it, in its turn, was vaporised or frozen—might still be bearable were it not for the knowledge of its final futility. In the end, there is only death by gravity or entropy, the fiery quantum pit or the heatless grey soup.

The great violinist Jascha Heifetz was great not least because he quit the concert stage at his peak, before the show became stale or the audience drifted away. To exit gracefully is sublime, as Heifetz understood. And only one species is capable of choosing a similarly graceful exit; all others march on like robots. To call time on the human race by choice, not necessity, would be the final victory of the human spirit over animal nature, an absolute emancipation from the diktat of DNA. Precisely because no other known life-form could do or even conceive such a thing, humanity must.

The Economist’s argument is that humanity is going to die anyway, so we might as well die painlessly by our own hand rather than wait for a painful, natural death—euthanasia, but for the species and not the individual. Regardless of one’s position on euthanasia, committing voluntary extinction—when the death of the universe is so far in the future—is analogous to a 10-year-old committing suicide to avoid dying at 100. A waste of life and time.

Human colonies beyond Earth are described as “sad outposts” and “an ignoble existence”, maintaining The Economist’s editorial position against humans in space. “We’ve said it before, and we’ll say it again: sending people into space is pointless,” it declared in 2001. The opposition to human spaceflight, together with the endorsement of voluntary human extinction, make a strangely coherent pair.

An Economist reader sent his congratulations.

SIR – A Voluntary Human Extinction Movement: what a splendid idea. Naturally, being in the vanguard of this movement, The Economist will want to set an example for the less imaginative members of the species by practising Voluntary Newspaper Extinction. I only wish that I could be there for your last editorial meeting. I can picture The Economist’s boardroom deep in the gloaming of a London winter evening. Johnson, Bagehot, Lexington and the rest of the staff sipping cyanide-laced Flavor-Aid; well rehearsed bon mots flying about the room for the television cameras. Think of the effect you will have on the likes of Time, Newsweek, People, and Weekly News of the World. Bravo Economist. Please have your executors remit the balance of my subscription payment.
JEFF RAINES
Chicago
“Letters”, The Economist, Jan 16, 1999, volume 350, issue 8102, page 6.

Again, this is similar to how Knight was asked to kill himself and how anti-human-spaceflight humans are asked to replace themselves with robots. Despite this advice, anti-human sentiment persists:

Why should the species survive? (Score: 4, Interesting)
I’m not anti-human or anything (in fact, I’m good friends with a number of them!). But why should an individual care about whether or not the drama of humanity continues? For instance, if we permit let every person who currently lives to live out a natural and good life, and somehow do so without creating any new people, would that be acceptable? “Hawking Says Humans Must Go Into Space”, Slashdot, June 13, 2006

Seeing how humans on Earth are increasingly being asked to defend our own continued existence, it is no surprise that humans-in-space are continually criticized.

If someone expressed the view that a particular ethnic or national group should die off, that person would be condemned, and rightly so. But for some reason, when it comes to the entire human race dying out (including every single ethnic and national group), it becomes much more acceptable.

Seeing how humans on Earth are increasingly being asked to defend our own continued existence, it is no surprise that humans-in-space are continually criticized. But in the spirit of do-more-than-one-thing-at-the-same-time, we should be able to justify human beings both on Earth and in space. Human existence is not perfect, but it’s better than the alternative.


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