The Discreet Charm of Human Extinction
The New York Times recently published a profile of Les Knight, founder of the Voluntary Human Extinction movement, which contends that it would be best for other species and the Earth generally were human beings to go extinct. Consensually, of course. He hopes to persuade people to stop having children. “Look at what we did to the planet,” says Knight, “We’re not a good species.” The Times describes him as kind and cheerful, a fun guy who hosts nude croquet tournaments. Well then.
The Voluntary Human Extinction website explains that humans have done bad things such as hunting other species to extinction and cutting down forests to build temples. Humans selfishly exploit the rest of nature without regard for the interests of other beings. The goal of the movement is “returning earth to its natural splendor.”
But, one wonders, is “splendor” a fair description of the “natural” state of things? There is plenty of natural splendor. A mountain range piercing the clouds, turquoise surf on pristine white sand, etc. But there doesn’t seem to be much splendor in a sickly bear defecating a thirty-foot tapeworm or a python strangling a horror-stricken monkey. Which is to say, a lot of nature is terrifying. Not to mention gross.
Knight complains that the defenders of humanity appeal to “music and art and literature and the great things that we have done” but ignore “the bad things we’ve done.” Fair enough. But his approach — both ignoring the bad things that happen in nature and discounting human achievements — leads him similarly astray.
By any standard we choose, humanity and nature are both a mixed bag. Neither one seems to be mainly or essentially good or bad. So why value nature as a whole and condemn humanity as a whole? If we should preserve pristine waters and majestic mountains, we should also preserve the "Goldberg" Variations — and the only beings on the planet capable of appreciating them.
Anti-natalism (as Knight’s position is often called) seems then to be driven by an unreflective anti-human prejudice: the human is bad because he's human, and everything else is good because it is not. Anti-natalists — including those at Voluntary Human Extinction — suggest that this presentation is missing the point: There’s a difference between the bad things that happen in nature because of us and those which occur without our interference. When violence, suffering, death, and destruction happen naturally they’re part of a delicate balance, which respects the harmony of "earth's ecosystems," but human intervention upsets that balance. Once we’re gone, the earth will begin to heal. Mankind, in other words, is like cancer.
Yet the healthy natural balance includes mass extinctions, plagues, earthquakes, volcanoes, and sudden shifts in climate that eradicate ecosystems and species. They contend that, “the rate of extinctions today rivals the days of the dinosaurs’ demise,” but presumably their demise was itself part of the fine balance.
Strangely for one who so admires the natural world, Knight's position is remarkably unnatural. No animal could decide to forego reproduction, let alone for something as abstract as the environment. Only man can act against his every instinct for the sake of some higher end, which is what Knight himself believes he is doing. While his end is supremely misguided, it is sad that Knight can't appreciate the nobility of that.