Voluntary human extinction worth contemplation
Published: Thursday, September 20, 2012
Updated: Thursday, September 20, 2012 21:09
Robert Louis Stevenson’s extraordinary travelogue “Across the Plains” does not portray the human species in particularly adulatory terms. In 1892 Stevenson wrote, “Poor soul, here for so little, cast among so many hardships, filled with desires so incommensurate and so inconsistent, savagely surrounded, savagely descended, irremediably condemned to prey upon his fellow lives, who should have blamed him had he been of a piece with his destiny and a being merely barbarous?” One hundred and twenty years later, his depiction seems to have even understated the ignorance and wretchedness of which the twentieth century proved mankind capable. It is perhaps the great irony of our existence that a sentient and proud species that holds life to be the greatest of objective values is also responsible for the wholesale defilement of that value.
Despite our grandiose pretensions, we are still a species – a variation on the genetic code for life. As was true for the other 99.9 percent of species that have ever existed on Earth, ours will someday meet with extinction. But there is something unique about Homo sapiens that Stevenson failed to recognize in his lamentation: we are the only one – so far as we know – that can choose to become extinct.
Believe it or not, there exists a movement devoted to making that choice. The Voluntary Human Extinction Movement (VHEMT) proposes a radically simple plan of action to that end: all humans must refuse to procreate. If the worldwide birth rate were to drop to zero at this instant, the end of all human life on Earth would likely occur just a little over one hundred years from now. The movement contends that if this unlikely series of events were to occur, pressures on the environment from anthropogenic climate change would ease; wars would become unnecessary due to a decline in the demand for natural resources and the quality of life on a less-densely populated planet would significantly improve. If human extinction is not carried out along these lines, the argument goes, it will be thrust upon us unexpectedly and violently.
If nothing else, the VHEMT represents a dramatic reorientation of our conception of human ecology. It is not merely concerned with the future well-being of humans, but also with man’s relation to the almost ten million other eukaryotic species with which it shares the planet. Mankind is on pace at this moment, biologist E. O. Wilson claims, to destroy half of the species currently in existence on Earth by the year 2100. Billions of living creatures sacrificed, out of malice, ignorance or desensitized slaughter, to the needs and indulgences of one species. This is our ecological legacy. It is no wonder that Stevenson called his fellow men “the disease of the agglutinated dust.” From a purely ecological perspective, we are, after all, extremely powerful and efficient parasites. And to the advocates of voluntary human extinction, “we’re the only species evolved enough to consciously go extinct for the good of all life, or which needs to.”
The VHEMT seems to be parodic in nature or too far-fetched to represent an earnest vision for mankind’s future. And, in a sense, it is. At this point in human history, the world population is growing so fast as to render utterly meaningless the flights of fancy of a small cohort of radical ecologists. Furthermore, I don’t think that VHEMT offers a convincing rationale for why people should not simply commit suicide rather than wait out their lives for their impending demise. Neither does it recognize the value that humans derive from the meanings they create for themselves. The joys of culture, beauty, religion and love are all sacrificed to the achievement of ecological consciousness in its worldview. Thus, at the moment, VHEMT remains a mere curiosity of human thought: flawed and radical, though probably harmless. Nonetheless, it is worth our consideration. The fact remains that, in most ways, we are not much different – in biological terms – from the animals we slaughter or the plants we consume. Yet we are “condemned to prey upon our fellow lives” on a vast and distressing scale. Whether or not we decide to make ourselves extinct, I think that the reflection itself on human power and responsibility would not fail to transform us into more ethical creatures.