& why we should talk more about it
By Teodora-Alexia Matei
With tireless humour and constant reminders that grim attitudes have never spared cursed faiths; through creative charts and bitterly ironic comics, the Voluntary Human Extinction Movement (VHEMT, pronounced “vehement”) promotes a powerful philosophy: humans should refrain from breeding. The goal is simple: restoring the health of Earth’s biosphere through the gradual extinction of homo sapiens.
In this article, I will not judge the feasibility of the solution proposed by the movement. Instead, my aim is to briefly introduce VHEMT’s values and to draw attention to its cornerstone, a belief that has been granted “He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named” status by natalist societies: bringing children into our world is immoral.
Let us first turn towards the extinctionists.
It is very important to understand what the movement really is about. I’ll give it to you, at first glance, it does seem like a radical, deeply pessimistic collective of eccentrics have united in their hate for human civilisation. But that is untrue in every way, shape or form. In the words of its own members, the movement’s ideology “has existed for as long as humans have been sapient”, and is rooted in a deep love for nature and humankind in-and-of-itself.
Drawing on the incontestable, voluntary extinctionists reasonably believe that the planet will be better off without us. When you look at the numbers, it is hard to say they are wrong. The United Nations warns that as many as 1 million species might go extinct as a result of human activity. What is even more telling of our dysfunctional nature is that we haven’t only failed to protect our home, but also each other. The callous drive for profit has condemned 27.6 million people to modern slavery, according to the International Labour Organization. Moreover, The crimes committed by humans against their conspecifics are of unfathomable horror, and even those who condemn the atrocities in public, profit from them in private. The Council on Foreign Relations puts into perspective how the supposed gatekeeper of democracy and human rights – The United States – is getting richer by fueling conflicts all over the globe. In 2020, American firms banked $111 billion from arms dealing. The bad news doesn’t stop here. A truly unnerving fact is that we have reached a point where suffering doesn’t only arise from certain actions of our species. Just the fact that we’re here is bad enough. Overpopulation and overconsumption are draining the planet: UNICEF has stated that if all of us consumed at the rate of OECD and EU countries, we would need 3.3. Earths. If we consumed at the rate of Canada and the US, that number rises to 5. If we look at things this way, VHEMT seems to be making a reasonable point.
Equally important to understanding what the movement supports is understanding what it doesn’t support. The word “voluntary” is key. VHEMT members hope that we will all come to the realisation that we are parasitic in nature, and the planet would be better if we followed the slogan “Live Long and Die Out”. Still, their way of convincing non-members is limited to presenting their worldview. Forced extinction – such as ethnic cleansing, wars or mass murder – coerced sterilizations or voluntary mass suicide are strongly rejected, on both pragmatic and moral grounds. To quote from their website,
What does it mean to be a member or supporter of VHEMT? You are a part of VHEMT from the moment you choose to not have children. Moreover, VHEMT promotes a forward-thinking philosophy: there is no point in shaming anyone and no point in feeling guilty about the past. That is why parents are more than welcome. All they have to do is stop having any more kids, as well as adopt a parenting style that abounds in lessons about “responsible fertility” and lacks pressures to receive grandchildren.
You can become an ally of the movement even if you do not fully believe in extinction, but still recognize that, at least for the time being, not bringing any more people into this world is the morally appropriate choice.
Now that we have become somewhat acquainted with VHEMT, let’s talk about the elephant in the room: how can something so widely embraced as both noble and necessary be immoral? Why do these lunatics wish to deprive individuals of life’s greatest joy? They surely can’t be talking about good people not reproducing.
They sure can. And when they say they wish everyone chose to stop procreating, they do mean EVERYONE. They’re quite vehement about it. The following section examines three lines of reasoning employed by the movement.
“The Future is Not What It Used to Be”
There is a difference between life and existence. Sadly, it looks like it’s getting increasingly harder for aspiring parents to offer their would-be children the first option.
Probably one of the most famous arguments in favour of a child-free life – one that
VHEMT also stands behind – says that it is cruel to bring someone into a decaying world. The logic behind it is as simple as it is powerful (the Doomsday Clock is at 90 seconds to midnight for valid reasons). The World Health Organization makes grim predictions for the future: climate change will increase the yearly global death toll by 250000 souls. The World Food Programme also says that a 4°C increase from Earth’s pre-industrial temperature would condemn 1.8 billion people to famine.
Of course, one might think that this nightmare only ravages certain parts of the world, while sparing the majority of society. That person would be correct, but they would fail to understand something of fundamental importance: a new life brought into one part of the Globe can sign the death warrant of someone on the other side. The 10 countries most in danger of facing acute climate-change-induced hunger – Afghanistan, Burkina Faso, Djibouti, Guatemala, Haiti, Kenya, Madagascar, Niger, Somalia and Zimbabwe – are responsible for 0.1% of global carbon emissions, while the G20 and European Union, on the other hand, are responsible for a staggering 80%. If we look at statistics like these, it seems like being born in this world puts you in one of two places: with your head in the noose or your hand on the lever.
The belief that having children isn’t something we should do anymore isn’t only supported by environmentalist concerns. VHEMT also deals consistently with larger philosophical and societal issues, which I find to be extremely relevant. The “Why Breed?” chart is a fantastic compilation where the most frequently heard justifications for wanting children come face to face with their true roots, as well as with a series of short but effective rebuttals. VHEMT calls out the reasons people give for conceiving as the strange manifestations of unresolved needs. To be more precise, “pregnancy and having children are must-have life experiences” translates to “I have failed to understand myself and develop a sense of fulfilment that is not corrupted by social standards of contentment”. Similarly, “I love babies” – one of the most innocent and uncontroversial ones – is rightly dismantled for being a concerningly short-termist view of the life you are coercively bringing onto Earth. To put it in VHMET’s own words, “we are adults much longer than we are children”. Critique applies even to those reasons whose logic isn’t flawed, but still lacks in explaining why having children is the only answer. Take couples who want to “build something together”; of course, building a family could be one of those somethings, but, for far too long, it has also been treated as unrivalled in meaning.
Adopting, fostering, working in child-care or education, caring for the disadvantaged, or focusing on the family you already have, discovering – or rediscovering – yourself, following your life’s passions up until the very end and so many more things are capable of bringing people fulfilment. Nurture, love and the possibility to give back do not have to be solely directed towards the unconceived.
While these revelations are unlikely to actually bring about the mass mindset change that voluntary extinctionists are seeking, they nevertheless remain incredibly important. The takeaway here is that, through philosophies and debates such as the ones promoted by VHEMT, you add critical thinking to what was previously an almost blind, highly complacent following of a “recipe for happiness”. It’s true that a significant amount of people will always believe that having a child is the highlight of their brief stay on the planet. And they might very well be right. But what is equally true is the fact that too many children are born out of their parents’ lack of reflexivity and their ignorance towards alternatives for reaching fulfilment.
Having a child is no small endeavour; if you’re really going to do it, the decent thing is to at least make sure your grounds for conceiving aren’t just overall bad guesses at how one can consolidate social and familial relations or embark on a personal-development journey.
What is even more tragic than having children as a means to an end is that we don’t even get to choose the end – it is chosen for us. The “Breeding Pressure Gauge” and “Breeder Bingo” are great tools for visualising how centuries of natalism have impaired our freedom of choice when it comes to procreation. After understanding the true objectives for which the need to reproduce became engraved in the human psyche, you might start proudly waving the VHEMT flag (and wearing their t-shirts).
I think it is useful to look at your community and search for the motivations behind its baby fever. Almost all leaders – religious, political and communitarian – will say they encourage reproduction because it is in the best interest of those under their protection. But how true is that? Do priests urge couples to procreate out of deep, pure love for human life or out of a desire to strengthen the “flock” by adding more future churchgoers? Are the reproductive incentives offered by your country an honest attempt of maximising citizens’ fulfilment? Or is it just an effort to preempt the financial hurdles of an ageing population? Do those you look up to praise having children because they truly know it would be the highlight of your life? Or are they just imposing their definitions of “normal” – that they themselves are unsure of?
Again, these questions aren’t new, nor is answering them guaranteed to stop people from having children. Still, I would dare to say that they haven’t yet reached the place they are supposed to: an indispensable part of the decision-making process that precedes the choice to reproduce.
At the end of the day…
VHEMT draws some sensible conclusions about the state of our world and it is definitely worth giving their website a read (you can do this right here). But, whether you were an extinctionist without knowing it, or will become one, or believe the movement is unreasonable and outright stupid, there is one thing I want to stress once more.
Bringing a person into this world, without their consent and with no ability to predict their future should not be treated lightly. The lottery of birth is a cruel game and spinning its wheel should be done more cautiously. To quote VHEMT one last time, “think before you breed, and you might not”.