The Earth today has 8 billion people. This man wishes there weren’t.


For the good of the planet, Les Knight, the founder of the Voluntary Human Extinction movement, has spent decades spreading a message: “May we live long and die.

Les Knight, the founder of the Voluntary Human Extinction movement. Mason Trinca/The New York Times

PORTLAND, Ore. — For someone who wants his own kind to disappear, Les Knight is a remarkably carefree human.

He regularly held meteor shower parties with fireworks on the roof. He hosted a long game of nude croquet in his backyard, which, it’s worth mentioning, is surrounded by 20-foot-tall laurel hedges. Even Tucker Carlson was no match for Knight’s exuberance. During a 2005 interview with Knight on MSNBC, Carlson criticized him for espousing “the sickest” of beliefs, but then added, “You are one of the happiest guests we’ve ever had. “

Knight, 75, is the founder of the Voluntary Human Extinction movement, which is less of a movement and more of a loose consortium of people who believe the best thing humans can do to help the Earth is to stop having children .

Knight added the word “volunteer” decades ago to make it clear that adherents do not support mass murder or forced birth control, or encourage suicide. Their philosophy is reflected in their motto, “May we live long and die”, and in another of their slogans, which Knight hangs at various conventions and street fairs, “Please don’t breed”.

On November 15, Earth became home to a record 8 billion human beings. Despite declining birth rates, their number is expected to peak at 10.4 billion over the next few decades, largely due to rising life expectancies and falling infant mortality.

Knight is among those who believe overpopulation is a primary driver of the climate crisis, but that idea can be weighty. Poor countries with large populations, such as India, contribute relatively little per capita to emissions of greenhouse gases that warm the planet. Wealthy countries with relatively smaller populations like the United States generate most of the pollution that causes global warming.

“The problem that is spiraling out of control is consumption,” said John Wilmoth, director of the United Nations population division, who said that focusing on limiting population as a potential climate solution diverts attention from the world. urgent need for everyone to give up fossil fuels. and use resources more efficiently. “We need to transform the economic incentives that allow profiting from environmental pollution.”

The idea that the population must be controlled has also led to forced sterilizations and measures that have proven to be inhumane or have been linked to racist theories like eugenics.

Still, Stephanie Feldstein, director of population and sustainability at the Center for Biological Diversity, said while greater human longevity and health are good things, they come at a cost to other living things on the planet.

While the human population has doubled over the past half-century, wildlife populations have declined by 70%. While declining fertility rates today won’t change near-term emissions, she said increasing human populations will put increasing pressure on dwindling natural resources and the complex web of animals, birds and plants that depend on them.

“Biodiversity loss can be just as devastating as it destroys the ecosystems we need to survive,” Feldstein said. “We are already using almost twice as many resources as the Earth can replenish in a year.”

One of the most effective ways to fight global warming, say both climate activists and those worried about overcrowding, is to expand access to education for girls around the world. , in addition to birth control and family planning. Nearly half of all pregnancies worldwide, some 121 million a year, are unintended. The Center for Biological Diversity, for its part, distributed 1 million endangered species-themed condoms, colorfully packaged with slogans such as “for the sake of the horned lizard, slow down, love the wizard.”

The Earth today has 8 billion people. This man wishes there weren't.
Smoke from a wildfire above the Klamath National Forest in California. Knight said he’s come to see humans as the most destructive of invasive species. – Mason Trinca/The New York Times

But it’s rare to find someone who publicly goes as far as Knight, who never had children and had a vasectomy in 1973 at the age of 25. lack of freedom not to procreate,” Knight said, despite our many accomplishments, humans are a net detriment to the Earth.

“Look what we’ve done to this planet,” Knight said during conversation in her sunny backyard one warm morning this fall. “We are not a good species.”

It is unclear how many adherents are in Knight’s group or the extent of its reach. After being largely underground, the group gained popularity when Knight created a website in 1996. Both text-rich and airy, the site includes quotes from philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer and cartoons by the artist Nina Paley, as well as arguments against procreation and for adoption. It has been translated into around thirty languages ​​and remains a refuge for many.

“It was very good news for me that this kind of group existed, because usually, with this kind of philosophy, you feel alone,” said Mario Buenfil, 73, a water engineer in Mexico City involved in the movement. for 20 years. years.

Yet the words “voluntary human extinction” often elicit sputtering reactions of horror, and terms like “eco-fascist” and “Malthusian” are often hurled at the group. John Seager, the president of Population Connection, a nonprofit that advocates population stabilization through voluntary means, likened it to a sideshow. Yet if the band’s provocative name and seemingly pugilist stance suggest an embittered or even menacing founder, Knight seems anything but.

Tall and gentle, Knight comes across as lucid and thoughtful, like a mix of Bill Nye and Fred Rogers. While Knight may be against the creation of more humans, he shows great compassion for those who already exist.

A substitute high school teacher for most of his professional life, Knight is regarded with affection by students. He spends hours every Sunday morning picking up litter from the nearby main road. During an interview, he stopped to appreciate two juicy garden spiders sunning themselves on gauze webs woven between hedges and lawn chairs. The sight was cause for celebration, Knight said, after so many creatures were killed during last year’s heat dome in the Pacific Northwest. A self-proclaimed serial monogamist, he lives alone, but his girlfriend lives next door and is fully on board with his cause.

“He doesn’t have a giant ego that he struts around with. He doesn’t try to argue with people,” said Knight’s former roommate and longtime friend Marv Ross. “He was always on the humor side, to make his message as fun as possible, and I’ve seen him do that many times. He would deflect people who got upset with a joke or a smile.

As a child growing up in a tolerant Oregon family, Knight watched logging companies cut down the state’s forests. After drafting into the military during the Vietnam War (he served but never deployed), he attended Oregon College of Education and joined the local chapter of Zero Population Growth, which cemented her resolution not to have children. “It was always because of the ecology, because of the damage that humans do to the environment,” he said.

His beliefs were rooted in deep ecology, which challenges assumptions of human dominance and argues that other species are equally important. Knight came to view humans as the most destructive of invasive species and super predators.

The Earth today has 8 billion people. This man wishes there weren't.
Knight’s message on a sweatshirt. – Mason Trinca/The New York Times

“We became and then went wild,” Knight said. “And because we are smart enough, we should know enough to end it.

“People mention music and art and literature and the great things we’ve done. It’s funny that they never mention the bad things we’ve done,” he continued. “I don’t think the whales will miss our songs.”

While the United States has seen a surge in births during the coronavirus pandemic, reversing the decline in the country’s birth rate, a 2020 poll found that one in four Americans who had no children had cited climate change as the reason. Research has shown that having one less child is perhaps the most important way to reduce your carbon footprint, and while Knight doesn’t like to impose his beliefs on people, he likes to think there are humans out there. which do not exist because of his efforts.

Feldstein said Knight was successful in getting people’s attention and starting conversations.

“He advocates for many of the same things as the rest of us, trying to make sure everyone has the ability, the autonomy and the resources they need to choose if and when to have children,” said she declared.

And while the world’s population is at an all-time high, Knight said, that doesn’t depress him.

“I didn’t expect to be successful,” he said. “I think that’s the secret to not burning out.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.


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