Going off the Deep End
The Human Extinction Movement takes flight

The original article is no longer available on their website

Francis Martel in The Harvard Independent September 20, 2007

America’s environmental lobby has grown desperate. Throughout the 1990s, when Bill Clinton was president, foreign policy was the constant background noise to the drama of the American federal government (siginificant moments from that series included Waco, the failure of universal health insurance, and the Lewinsky scandal). The Clintons’ interests were difficult to decipher, and their policy goals equally omnidirectional. Thus went into the books eight years of history, during which the President and his wife frisked about the White House grounds, taking oftentimes insincere interest in a broad range of topics and nurturing causes as they saw fit. At a prosperous time, with no war in sight, the political environment for the nature crowd was ideal.

Then any environmentalist’s worst nightmare came to life.

In the blink of an eye, they became passé, and the influence that they had gained with the rise of Bill Clinton crumbled at the base of the World Trade Center. They lost sympathy in the White House and became completely irrelevant to American concerns. Their cause was temporarily a political relic, a back-burner issue, a distraction.

So, for a few years, they hired mercenaries like Jake Gyllenhaal to star in movies like The Day After Tomorrow and played Dr. Frankenstein on the political corpse of Al Gore, giving his eyes a faux twinkle à la Bill Clinton and his hips the salacious curves of Michael Moore. They remained positively unwilling to admit that their time had come and gone, that war and terrorism were now center stage. Widespread accusations flourished about anti-environment conspiracies and propaganda.

The typically docile fringe of the movement has chosen to go out with a bang, however, by hammering the last nail into its own coffin via the Voluntary Human Extinction Movement. VHEMT (pronounced “vehement”—how clever!) calls for its members to remain childless, arguing that the damage human beings cause to the environment is so great that the world would be a much better place without us. Founder Les U. Knight—again, so clever I don’t know whether to laugh or cry—might be one of the more moderate members of the American extinction crew; he proposes it should be completely voluntary and occur within a time frame that is appropriate, while colleagues like author Alan Weisman propose the Chinese solution: a governmental mandate to prohibit families from having more than one child.

“Let’s unite in peace and love and not make any more kids,” sounds like a great idea for Starbucks poets and basket weavers from sea to shining sea, but it might take the more sensible populace of the United States a little time to warm up to the idea. Little thought was given to how Knight’s explanation that “as long as there’s one breeding pair of homo sapiens, there’s too great a threat to the biosphere,” would play in the mainstream. Moreover, how the already low-fertility American population would be able to offset population gains elsewhere in the world remains shrouded in mystery. Given that the population growth in this country relies as heavily on immigration as it does on births, it seems unlikely that VHEMT will find an audience even among the darkest fringes of the green movement.

It’s a ploy to be sure, but what is responsible for the rise and prominence of such ill-considered ideas? Is there such widespread frustration with the perceived lack of progress on the environmental front? If nothing else, VHEMT is a sign that perhaps rational thought and deliberation is in short supply in this policy arena, and that every bright idea should be accompanied by a thorough causes-and-effects analysis before it sees the light of day. Otherwise, the human extinction movement is only the beginning. VHEMT should be a bright red flag: the mainstream accepetance of environmentalism and conservation means that we’ll need to keep a close ear to the ground to separate practicable soultions from crazy schemes.

Frances Martel ’09 is a renowned Starbucks poet.