The most important book about human population’s impact and future since The Population Bomb

The World Without Us was written by the right writer. Although Alan Weisman doesn’t agree with phasing out humanity completely, he makes the connection between our excessive increase, severe environmental impacts, and our impending population crash, unless. . .

Weisman suggests a compromise between our voluntary extinction and UN projections, which a computer model shows would be effective in improving our density—provided there’s enough time and we actually implement the plan.

Listen to a podcast of this plan outlined by Weisman in a talk sponsored by The Long Now Foundation given February 10, 2010.

Here’s his interview of me:

“By definition, we’re the alien invader. Everywhere except Africa. Every time Homo sapiens went anywhere else, things went extinct.”

Les Knight, the founder of VHEMT—the Voluntary Human Extinction Movement—is thoughtful, soft-spoken, articulate, and quite serious. Unlike more-strident proponents of human expulsion from an aggrieved planet—such as the Church of Euthanasia, with its four pillars of abortion, suicide, sodomy, and cannibalism, and a Web site guide to butchering a human carcass that includes a recipe for barbeque sauce—Knight takes no misanthropic joy in anyone’s war, illness, or suffering. A schoolteacher, he just keeps doing math problems that keep giving him the same answer.

“No virus could ever get all 6 Billion of us. A 99.99 percent die-off would still leave 650,000 naturally immune survivors. Epidemics actually strengthen a species. In 50,000 years we could easily be right back where we are now.”

War doesn’t work either, he says. “Millions have died in wars, and yet the human family continues to increase. Most of the time, wars encourage both winners and losers to repopulate. The net result is usually an increase rather than a decrease in total population. Besides,” he adds, “killing is immoral. Mass murder should never be considered a way to improve life on Earth.”

Although he lives in Oregon, his movement, he says, is based everywhere—meaning on the Internet, with web sites in 11 languages. At Earth Day fairs and environmental conferences, Knight posts charts that acknowledge U.N. predictions that, worldwide, population growth rates and birthrates will both decline by 2050—but the punch line is the third chart, which shows sheer numbers still soaring.

“We have too many active breeders. China’s down to 1.3 percent reproduction [total fertility rate], but still adds 10 million a year. Famine, disease, and war are harvesting as fast as ever, but can’t keep up with our growth.”

Under the motto “May we live long and die out,” his movement advocates that humanity avoid the agonizing, massive die-off that will occur when, as Knight foresees, it becomes brutally clear that it was naive to think that we could all have our planet and eat it, too. Rather than face horrific resource wars and starvation that decimate us and nearly everything else as well, VHEMT proposes gently laying the human race to rest.

“Suppose we all agree to stop procreating. Or that the one virus that would truly be effective strikes, and all human sperm loses viability. The first to notice would be crisis-pregnancy centers, because no one would be coming in. Happily, in a few months abortion providers would be out of business. It would be tragic for people who kept trying to conceive. But in five years, there would be no more children under five dying horribly.”

The lot of all living children would improve, he says, as they became more valuable rather than more disposable. No orphan would go unadopted.

“In 21 years, there would be, by definition, no juvenile delinquency.” By then, as resignation sinks in, Knight predicts that spiritual awakening would replace panic, because of a dawning realization that as human life drew toward a close, it was improving. There would be more than enough to eat, and resources would again be plentiful, including water. The seas would replenish. Because new housing wouldn’t be necessary, so would forests and wetlands.

“With no more resource conflicts, I doubt we’d be wasting each other’s lives in combat.” Like retired business executives who suddenly find serenity by tending a garden, Knight envisions us spending our remaining time helping rid an increasingly natural world of unsightly and now useless clutter, in pursuit of which we’d once swapped something alive and lovely.

“The last humans could enjoy their final sunsets peacefully, knowing they have returned the planet as close as possible to the Garden of Eden.” (Pages 241-243)

And Weisman’s feelings about that:

For the rest of us, sentimentally clinging to our carbon-based human nature, voluntary-extinction advocate Les Knight’s twilight prophecy hits a vulnerable spot: the weariness that genuinely humane beings feel as they witness the collapse of much biology and beauty. The vision of a world relieved of our burden, with its flora and fauna blossoming wildly and wonderfully in every direction, is initially seductive. Yet it’s quickly followed by a stab of bereavement over the loss of all the wonder that humans have wrought amid our harm and excess. If that most wondrous of all human creations—a child—is never more to roll and play on the green Earth, then what really would be left of us? What of our spirit might be truly immortal? (page 244)

Weisman’s suggestion:
The intelligent solution would require the courage and the wisdom to put our knowledge to the test. It would be poignant and distressing in ways, but not fatal. It would henceforth limit every human female on Earth capable of bearing children to one.

The numbers resulting from such a draconian measure, fairly applied, are tricky to predict with precision: Fewer births, for example would lower infant mortality, because resources would be devoted to protecting each precious member of the latest generation. Using the United Nations’ medium benchmark, Dr. Sergei Scherbov, who is the research group leader at the Vienna Institute of Demography of the Austrian Academy of Sciences and an analyst for the World Population Program, calculated what would happen to human population if, from now on, all fertile women have only one child (in 2004, the rate was 2.6 births per female; in the medium scenario that would lower to about two children by 2050).

TFR 1.0

If this somehow began tomorrow, our current 6.5 billion human population would drop by 1 billion by the middle of this century. (If we continue as projected, it will reach 9 billion.) At that point, keeping to one-child-per-human-mother, life on Earth for all species would change dramatically. Because of natural attrition, today’s bloated human population bubble would not be reinflated at anything near the former pace. By 2075, we would have reduced our presence by almost half, down to 3.43 billion, and our impact by much more, because so much of what we do is magnified by chain reactions we set off through the ecosystem.

By 2100, less that a century from now, we would be at 1.6 billion: back to levels last seen in the 19th century, just before quantum advances in energy, medicine, and food production doubled our numbers and then doubled us again. At the time, those discoveries seemed like miracles. Today, like too much of any good thing, we indulge in more only at our peril.

At such far-more-manageable numbers, however, we would have the benefit of all our progress plus the wisdom to keep our presence under control. That wisdom would come partly from losses and extinctions too late to reverse, but also from the growing joy of watching the world daily become more wonderful. The evidence wouldn’t hide in statistics. It would be outside every human’s window, where refreshed air would fill each season with more birdsong. (Pages 272-273)

Sounds sweet. A one-child plan has potential for acceptance—much more so than VHEMT’s zero-child plan. This moderate plan has been attacked as anti-human by a few, but people who read enough of the book to gain an understanding acknowledge the validity of his suggestion or at least let it go unchallenged. That’s progress.

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