This article appears in the latest issue of Hack Circus which you can preview and buy. The chat was really long and interesting and we had to cut it down a lot to fit in the magazine, so here's the full version...
We caught up with Les Knight, founder of the Voluntary Human Extinction Movement, to discuss instinct, compassion, and being the change.
HC: What you propose could be seen as quite extreme, but the alternatives people always suggest aren't much more achievable. Do you think there are any realistic viable alternatives?
LK: Extinction is about as extreme as things can get for any species. We are all animated by the same spark of life passed on unextinguished from life form to life form over billions of years. However, considering the number of other species we're driving to extinction, just one more isn't that extreme.
The most realistic alternative to our voluntary extinction is the involuntary extinction we are working so hard to bring about. If we succeed in getting our population down to a sustainable size, there's no way to be sure we wouldn't be right back where we are today someday. As long as there's one breeding couple of us, the rest of life on Earth is at risk.
HC:Yes, perhaps innate self-obsession is keeping us from facing up to the reality of death, and that this is ultimately making us unhappy. Are there then ways we can be encouraged to see beyond ourselves?
LK: Our collective lack of empathy may be a case of arrested development. As we mature from infancy, our realm of awareness expands. We grow beyond family and become a part of our community, eventually identifying with a nation, or at best, embracing all of humanity as one family. Our full maturity, empathy for all life we share this planet with, is often delayed by our daily struggle to simply maintain our lives. Billions of people don't have the luxury of thinking much beyond themselves and their family's needs.
Privileged people generally impact the biosphere more, so it's critical that we advance our awareness. When we care that co-creating another of us amplifies our impact by at least 50%, we'll choose not to do it. Each of us progresses at our own rate. Maturity can't be rushed by persuasive arguments, though we might have an epiphany when we're ready.
HC: I suppose people see raising families as a 'self-actualising' gesture in order to make their choice have a larger, more general significance: "It's what life is all about, after all". It is the least questioned life choice, because there is such a crushing biological imperative: life will do everything to keep itself going – however, this bitter fight is not about hanging onto life generally, but to the specific DNA the life form identifies as its own. Do you think humans are programmed to believe they are not being destructive?
HC: Pairing and procreating is our default life, but I think cultural conditioning deserves more blame than our DNA. Selfish genes ruling our lives is a popular concept, and a biological drive to reproduce is accepted without question, but too many of us feel no such drive – more than could be explained by mutations. Like biological evolution, cultural evolution rewards reproduction, resulting in the natalist cultures we have today. Our programming is so strong it may as well be biological, but like all animals, our inborn urge is to engage in activities which lead to procreation, not to procreate. A squirrel instinctively buries nuts, and trees often result.
Our indoctrinated desires to mate and breed rank at the top of a revised pyramid of needs, where Maslow placed self-actualization. Rather than being paths to self-actualization, or obstacles to it, mate acquisition, mate retention, and parenting represent our highest potential. This exemplifies the depth of our natalist conditioning.
Rather than being programmed to ignore the destruction that results from our striving to achieve more, I think we constantly employ our frontal lobes to deny and make excuses. Subconsciously, we know destroying life support systems is immoral and ultimately suicidal. Vehemently emotional reactions to evidence of our destruction reveal this suppressed awareness. Methinks they protesteth too much.
HC: It is as though the more similarities we see to other animals, the more determined we are to contrive superior motivations for things that simply feel good. But there is a confusion of the biological and the ethical. We want to have it both ways: to be sophisticated enough to 'simply enjoy' plenty of sex and food and superiority to mere animals, while maintaining at other times that we simply can't help ourselves because it's what we're 'designed for'. Also the curiously circular morality – because we are human, we must be doing the right thing, because humans are best, because they do things right.
The squirrel's nut-burying instinct is interesting because it ties it into another species. Do you think we have any innate instincts to behaviours which may protect other life on the planet, behaviours which we are suppressing?
LK: If we use a strict biological definition of instinct – a complex pattern of behavior, present at birth, invariant in the species, which can't be unlearned – we don't have any.
Psychologists who placed parenting at the top of our pyramid of needs referred to "basic facts about human nature," assuming we all share innate traits. The wide variety of human attitudes implies that these traits are malleable, with some encouraged and some suppressed, depending on our culture. Biophilia, our innate love of all life, doesn't serve industrial civilization's needs and often gets in the way.
Just beneath our civilized facades lurks a wild animal, lusting to run through the wilderness with abandon. When our natural feelings of connectedness to all life are allowed to flourish, we care about our impact on Earth's biosphere. Biophilia might rest at the top of our pyramid of needs, perhaps as an aspect of self-actualization.
Trying to have it both ways, alternately claiming species exceptionalism or animal nature as suits our desires, is used to justify procreative choices: carrying capacity doesn't apply to us and it's the purpose of all organisms to pass on their genes.
HC: Do you consider the movement to be ultimately symbolic, a demonstration to encourage people to move in the right direction, or is it a practical plan already carried out by each participating, non-reproducing individual?
LK: The Voluntary Human Extinction Movement is motivated by two basic facts: we can't justify creating more of us, and we can't justify continuing the existence of Homo Sapiens. There's a non-zero chance that everyone will agree to stop breeding, but it's about as close to zero as it can get. This compares favorably with solutions which ignore population growth.
It might be more philosophical than practical, only due a lack of acceptance, but we can be the change we want to see. Phasing ourselves out would enable us to solve major problems like war, hunger, poverty, shortages, habitat loss, climate change, and disposable nappies. Our likely failure is another good reason to not send someone into life in the world we're engineering.
The VHEMT concept challenges people to explain why they believe their genetic material should be replicated, and to defend continuing a species which drives so many others to extinction. Attempts are humorously illogical. Otherwise intellectual people offer reasons that fall apart with the slightest analysis. Some realize they can't justify our breeding, so they take a side track: "Justify it to whom? Ethics are just a human invention. There's no right or wrong in Nature." (Trying to have it both ways again). Some admit it's not rational, but not everything in life has to be.
Have members of the VEHMT community modelled a future without humans? What would such a world be like?
In The World Without Us, Alan Weisman describes what Earth would be like if humans suddenly disappeared, inspiring several TV shows depicting life after humans. None have chronicled our gradual, peaceful disappearance -- too boring, no doubt. The movie The Children of Men starts 18 years after the last human birth, and portrays a violent dystopia, because without future generations, there's nothing to live for. People seem to accept this as believable. We are dealing with the Spiral of Silence.