These dehumanizing analogies may help us understand our place in Earth’s biosphere and the effects we are generating, but unless we probe deeper, we risk being reduced to misanthropic despair and cynicism. And that’s no fun. Our vast capacities for compassion and reason have the power to reverse humanity’s current direction. Turning around, we can aspire to rewild and undo what our collective efforts have wrought—except for the extinctions, of course.
For this, we need half a revolution: a whole revolution would just have us going in the same direction again. While we turn our backs on over-industrialized civilization and strive to create the better world we envision, the stimulating and contentious question always arises: “How do we get there from here?”
In Mutant Message Downunder, Marlo Morgan describes an Australian aboriginal tribe which decided they couldn’t adapt to the world created by modern humans—the “mutants” for whom the message from downunder was written. Their way of life for 60,000 years had become unsustainable due to changes in their environment, also caused by the mutants. They decided to stop breeding and die out, rather than suffer undignified and early deaths, the fate of so many of their brothers and sisters who try living in the world of mutants. They chose Morgan to deliver the message to her fellow mutants. Naturally I would love it if the wise and ancient tribe actually existed as Morgan’s fascinating tale relates: wisdom of the ages concludes voluntary human extinction is our solution. Alas, it’s unlikely.
And yet, we “mutants” fit that mythical tribe’s description all too well. The civilized industrial world we’ve created over the past ten thousand years is not one we evolved to live in. We try escaping our human zoo but we almost always return to the security of captivity. We’re rather domesticated and virtually extinct in the wild.
Although choosing to stop creating more of ourselves is often seen as giving up in our struggle for a greener and freer world, in reality it’s the single most significant action we can take toward achieving both goals. Our redundant breeding feeds the very forces we are trying to counter, and prevents us from living as freely as we might.
As our human family approaches seven billion, the fact that we’ve exceeded the carrying capacity for our kind becomes impossible to ignore. We utilize 40% of Earth’s biomass, depriving other species of habitat and often their very existence. We’re not evil, we’re just incompatible with Earth’s biosphere. We are literally exotic invaders everywhere except Africa, where other creatures co-evolved with us and instinctively fear us. As we moved into other regions, dinner often stood and watched as we bludgeoned it into extinction.
In Africa, we have evolved into virtual exotics, with only a few tribes retaining the primitive lifestyle of our ancient ancestors. Although we might learn much from these amazing survivors, we aren’t going to voluntarily emulate their culture, nor could we. Hunting and gathering requires at least a square mile of biologically productive land per person, 640 acres, and there’s only 4.5 acres per person available today. An average human uses 6.4 acres, so we’re steadily using up our future by 1.9 acres per person. As ecosystems degrade and our population increases, this deficit grows. Turning it around requires both environmental restoration and a greatly improved birth rate.
Perhaps it’s just our culture that’s causing trouble and not our biology, as so many argue. Our big brains and opposable thumbs don’t have to be used this way. Although our use of fire is likely to have altered Africa’s ecosystems even before we evolved into Homo sapiens, now we know better. Well, let’s give it a try. As we phase ourselves out, this and other exciting cultural experiments will become feasible.
Supporters of the Voluntary Human Extinction Movement (VHEMT) advocate reconsidering our reproduction if and when we achieve a sustainable size and culture. VHEMT Volunteers, like myself, feel that our species is too great a threat to the rest of life on Earth. A mere 73,000 years ago our total population was less than 10,000. We’re just too freakin’ fecund and clever.
In either case, creating more of us takes us farther away from the possibility of a more feral humanity. Our voluntary extinction is a long range effort. No one alive today is likely to see the day there are fewer of us than there are now—barring the massive dieoff which commonly follows overshoot of carrying capacity. Collapse of our global economy and civilization would have this effect, but would not cause our extinction. A significant collapse of the biosphere would eliminate most higher-order species, ourselves included.
There may be time to avoid both of these tragedies. As they say, if we keep going where we’re going, we’ll get there. The alternative to heading toward global catastrophe is to turn around and go another way, and other ways make for much more pleasant travel.
Human society will benefit from an improved birth rate, as shortages of food, housing, and resources are potentially lessened. Existing children could be better cared for when there are fewer of them. Tens of thousands are dying on an average day from preventable causes.
By not procreating further, we’ll have more time and energy for promoting social change, restoring wildlife habitat, or whatever we choose. We could stop encroaching on wildlife habitat and reopen corridors between ecosystems if we didn’t need more living room. We all have to live somewhere, and wherever we live not much else lives.
In the US, each new person we don’t create preserves over 22 acres of potential wildlife habitat. Those who feel they would do a good job as parents have opportunities to adopt or foster children who need a loving home. Parenting requires traits which not all of us have, and yet virtually all couples are expected to breed and successfully parent their offspring.
To do our parts individually, all we have to do is stop breeding. However, more is needed to achieve global or regional change in our direction.
Reproductive freedom is actively restricted today, especially the freedom to not breed. Hundreds of millions of couples want to control their fertility and yet contraceptive services are denied or are inadequate. As a result, an estimated 80 million unwanted pregnancies plague the human family each year. Fifty million are not carried to term, and unsafe abortions claim about 80,000 womens lives. Survivors of unsafe abortions often suffer serious complications, untreated due to a lack of medical services.
This criminal situation, actively perpetrated for eight years by the Bush administration, the Vatican, and Islamic fundamentalists, grows out of patriarchy and misogyny. Where women’s social status is lowest, birth rates are highest. At the risk of promoting cultural imperialism, I think we have a duty to help our sisters who are oppressed by patriarchic societies—including our own. Restoring funding for international family planning is a good start. We might also financially support NGOs working to restore reproductive freedom if we’re able.
Heterosexual men can support women’s rights at home by not impregnating them against their wishes. Being pro-choice also means respecting the choice to not have an unwanted pregnancy in the first place. There’s a man behind the need for every abortion, and if we all used condoms or got vasectomies, women would rarely need abortions.
A few questions about VHEMT were raised by Felonious Skunk in the Spring/Summer 2008 issue which deserve answers.
Wanting humans to go extinct understandably appears misanthropic at first glance, and I’m sure some Volunteers consider themselves misanthropes. However, phasing ourselves out is as humanitarian as it is ecological: all life benefits.
When thinking about bringing another human to life, a major consideration should be the state of the world they will be living in. Clearly, the future isn’t what it used to be. Procreation today is like selling berths on a sinking ship. Non-existent humans are likely better off staying that way.
Conflicts among humans have always been about resources. Excuses for waging war might be ideological, but a shortage of resources is at the root today as it has been since one tribe encroached on the territory of another in our distant past. A world beyond war is possible when everyone has what they need.
Finite resources such as potable water and arable land, divided by our population size, tells us how much we potentially have to live on. A couple billion of us don’t have enough, and equal distribution could still leave us short.
The utilitarian term “breeding” describes conceiving and giving birth, but doesn’t include nurturing young ones—unfortunately for them. The sad fact fact is that we are breeding far more than we are nurturing. Yes, this could be seen as a crime against nature and humanity, though that’s not what couples who intentionally breed have in mind.
“Ignorant error in judgement” would be a harsh condemnation of human procreation, but much of reality does need to be ignored when choosing to breed today. Considering that around half of all conceptions are unintended, even when contraceptive services are available, perhaps errors in judgement sometimes figure in. Nonetheless, it was rude of me to reveal that “We all make mistakes” was what I was thinking when hearing of Felonious and partner’s addition to our human family. I wish them well in their parenting adventures. I enjoy seeing children at annual conferences, seeming to advance toward adulthood in spurts.
Felonious notes that “bringing children into the world is just one of many ways to go about connecting to the webs of life but it is a significant one that many environmentalists are willing to discard and criticize in a knee-jerk reactionary fashion.” Yes, many of us do, myself included.
Human breeding may attune us to cycles of life, but our species’ connection to Nature’s web of life hangs by a thin thread. Increasing the ratio of people-to-wildlife further weakens our connections. For example, more humans are born each day than the entire existing population of great apes combined. Bringing wild, non-human “children” into the world would really connect us to webs of life. Ecosystem restoration work—such as removing exotic invaders—connects us without philosophical abstractions.
VHEMT’s contention that each of us is a net loss for the biosphere does beg the question, why don’t we commit suicide? Trying to improve our population density by increasing deaths is impractical and immoral. It’s like trying to bail out a sinking boat without plugging the gushing hole in the bottom: more than four of us are born every second, while fewer than two die. I respect a person’s right to choose death with dignity, but there’s already too much suffering in the world without encouraging or committing suicide. Besides, we have a lot of messes to clean up before we check out.
From my perspective, the concept of VHEMT fits hand-in-hand with Green Anarchy. Voluntary is the first word in Voluntary Human Extinction Movement—except in Italian and Spanish where its the last word.
Thank you for not breeding.