Population Bomb Scare

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CEI’s visiting investigative writer, Kevin D. Williamson, shares part two of a three-part cultural investigation of the environmental movement

Les U. Knight has the gentle voice of an old Oregon hippie, which is what he is, and he cares deeply about alternative transportation, women’s rights, and exterminating all human life on Earth.

Right now, Knight — not his real name; the nom de plume is meant to sound like “Let’s Unite” — is very concerned about the need to follow Covid-19 masking protocols, and he is tweeting a bit about that as well as the possibility that the Russian invasion of Ukraine is being secretly encouraged by international arms dealers. But as the founder of the Voluntary Human Extinction Movement (VHEMT, as it styles itself), he is mainly concerned with speciecide, annihilating Homo sapiens and leaving behind a planet that would be liberated even from the memory that human beings had once existed.

He is a lunatic, of course, one of those gray madmen who haunt college towns and political conventions. But he is not alone in his crusade, only one of the more colorful and entertaining spokesmen for a view of the world that goes back at least to the 18th century and Thomas Robert Malthus’s An Essay on the Principle of Population. Like generations of eugenicists, concentration-camp commandants, and pop scholars such as Population Bomb author Paul Ehrlich, he describes his project — human extinction — as “humanitarian.”

“It seems contradictory, right?” he tells me. “Our unofficial motto is ‘May We Live Long and Die Out.’ We can go extinct and still have a great life. It’s actually a humanitarian idea to voluntarily phase out humanity. There would be no more suffering by anyone.”

Knight specifically disclaims any religious inclination — “I have no god,” he says, “this isn’t about that” — but he constantly resorts to religious thinking, religious argument, and religious concepts. At times, he argues that he is doing God’s work — literally: In what serves as a VHEMT manifesto, he writes about the failure of “the Middle Eastern god, Yahweh/Jehovah/Allah.” Knight explains: “Tradition tells how, in prehistoric times, this creator-god realized his mistake in making humans and was going to flush us from the system, but in a weak moment he spared one breeding family. Oops!” He cites the Sumerian version of the great-flood story to reinforce his point, and laments that the “cedars of Lebanon were sacrificed for temples.” His religious enthusiasms run quickly to the grotesque and the horrifying: “Glory to God for abortion providers who catch the zygotes He failed to miscarry.”

Knight spends a great deal of time in what can only be de­scribed as missionary work, and, of course, he has a conversion story of his own.

“It was a slow process, not an epiphany,” he says. “In Oregon, we see a lot of trees getting cut down, big old ones, and that makes an impression on you. After the Army, I went back to college and joined Zero Population Growth. Their idea was, ‘Let’s stop at two.’ Easy. But I figured it out real quick that that was not going to be enough, due to momentum. One more can’t be justified.” VHEMT doesn’t have membership rules per se or an organization to enforce them, but it does expect one thing of its members: to forgo having any children after making their profession of faith. An expecting couple could join, he says, but that child would have to be their last.

Knight says he rejects coercion, but he also calls China’s former one-child policy a “tremendous success.” He acknowledges Beijing’s human-rights abuses but also insists: “They have pulled everybody out of severe poverty, their standard of living has increased tremendously, and they don’t have famines anymore.” That is true of much of the rest of the world, too, including the many countries that have not enacted population-control policies; Knight pronounces himself “suspicious” of statistics attesting to the radical reduction in worldwide poverty over the past few decades. Like every true believer, he lives by faith.

But his faith produces some strange conundrums. For example, he forswears eugenics on the grounds that it invariably has been allied with racism, which is true, but it is very strange to be bound by concern for the relative well-being of a subpopulation of a species he proposes to eliminate entirely. He says that his movement will leave behind a better world, but never seems to have considered the question: Better for whom?

He is, in fact, obviously nonplussed when I put the question to him.

Citing Malthus, he speaks of a concept he calls “overshoot.” “There are limits to growth and finite resources,” he says. “We went into overshoot in the 1970s, meaning that every year we have been using more resources than Earth naturally produces in a year. Overshoot Day this year is July 29, the date when we will have used up as much as the planet can regenerate in one year.” This is, from an empirical point of view, hogwash, a purportedly precise calculation of something that is practically incalculable. Professor Robert Richardson, an ecological economist and scholar of sustainability at Michigan State, politely describes this as the nonsense it is (“conceptually flawed and practically unusable in any science or policy context”) but concedes that it is a “compelling concept.” A compelling fiction that illustrates some underlying natural or social phenomenon is a myth, and the construction and propagation of myths is the business of religion.

Knight very strongly resists the suggestion that he is in the religion business. But he isn’t in the ecology business, the economics business, or the policy business, and his great enemy is a competing belief system, which he calls “natalism.” Natalism is his Great Satan, while the world’s traditional religions (and the modes of life that go along with them) are his Little Satans.

“We have to fight the natalist or pro-natalist society, the cultural conditioning that says ‘Baby, good, no baby, bad.’ It’s very deep. It started perhaps even before we became Homo sapiens, where the tribe or the troop increased and this was a good thing almost always: Any tribe that didn’t have more members would be overrun by a tribe that did, to the point that natalism became an absolute essential for survival. I think that’s why patriarchy began, to enforce natalism.”

His imagined end state, a world free of human beings, would represent a return to paradise. Speaking with Alan Weisman, the like-minded author of The World Without Us (a 2007 best seller that the New York Times reviewer rightly characterized as “religious”), Knight prophesied: “The last humans could enjoy their final sunsets peacefully, knowing they have returned the planet as close as possible to the Garden of Eden.”

Eden. Of course. What else?

And there you have it: creation myth, a fall from grace, a pledge to go forth and sin no more, and — always the most popular part — an apocalypse.

Read the full piece at National Review.