Close your eyes and imagine that it's the year 3000. For the first time since the dinosaurs, large animals rule Planet Earth. In the ruins of its former civilisation, a forlorn species called mankind finds itself marooned on the brink of extinction.
This sounds like apocalyptic stuff, the subject of a Darwinian disaster movie, perhaps. But to a small and dedicated group of environmentalists, the disappearance of our species would mark the triumph of a long-running battle to save the planet.
The Voluntary Human Extinction Movement is an informal organisation that has spent the past decade campaigning for the phasing out of the entire human race. It is, if you like, the pressure group to end all pressure groups.
Followers crusade under the slogan "may we live long and die out", and advocate a lemming-like approach to the problem of overpopulation. Mankind, they say, is a destructive force at the root of every environmental problem now facing the planet; as a result, it should now commit biological hara-kiri.
This may sound like some sort of Monty Python spoof, but it's deadly serious. Even the organisation's shorthand has stern method to it: members call the group VHEMT, "pronounced vehement, because that's what we are".
Their logic runs as follows. All human activity, from farming and urbanisation to turning on the tap or flicking a switch, harms our biosphere. The more humans, the more damage we inevitably inflict; only extinction will reduce mankind's impact on Mother Earth to nothing.
As a result, VHEMT's supporters forswear procreation, and campaign for their friends and relatives to do the same. It's a novel idea, but one that may (if you think about it) just mark the first move towards an idea that will transform humanity.
"Each time another one of us decides to not add another one of us to the burgeoning billions already squatting on this ravaged planet, another ray of hope shines through the gloom," reads VHEMT's jaunty manifesto. "When every human chooses to stop breeding, Earth's biosphere will be allowed to return to its former glory, and all remaining creatures will be free to live, die, evolve, and will perhaps pass away, as so many of nature's 'experiments' have done throughout the aeons."
The man behind this intellectual movement is Les U Knight, a middle-aged supply teacher from Oregon who became interested in the environmental lobby in the early 1970s after returning from Vietnam. He quickly made a number of major changes to his lifestyle, inserting the "U" in his name, and joining an organisation called Zero Population Growth. Later, while still in his mid-twenties, he underwent a voluntary vasectomy. Soon, though, Knight realised simply standing still, in population terms, was no solution to what he believed was a burgeoning crisis. The only solution, he decided, would be "for us to phase ourselves out completely".
He founded VHEMT in 1991, and now boasts a mailing list of several thousand, who receive a quarterly newsletter called These Exit Times, in which they exchange ideas about things such as mass-sterilisation and compulsory contraception.
Visitors to the group's internet site can find answers to topical questions from the logical ("Why extinction? Why not just get our population down to a sustainable size?") to the more outlandish: "Didn't Hitler have the same ideas?"
Knight argues that if human reproduction is allowed to proceed unchecked, overpopulation will become one of the defining problems of the century. In the year 2000, global population reached six billion. By 2050, he says, it's likely to have hit nine or 10. "There are 200,000 more of us in the world each day, and that's more than the entire population of great apes in existence," he says. "It's extraordinary, and it's not sustainable. We are an exotic invader, and when an exotic invader comes along, no ecosystem can tolerate it."
Knight has a ready answer to flippant observers who wonder why, if he believes mankind is so destructive, he doesn't just top himself: he says extinctionists are more valuable to the cause alive, and spreading the word, than dead and silent.
However, he admits that having the chop in your early twenties may bring social problems. "I'm in a relationship, and my partner wants to reproduce," he says. "The decision is what people call a deal-breaker, and one of us had to compromise. We talked about it and eventually Kirsten did. She's made the right decision."
In VHEMT's view, every time someone in the UK decides not to create another person, they are preserving 5.6 hectares of productive land for a lifetime.In the gas-guzzling US, they're saving even more.
On this side of the pond, VHEMT boasts a vociferous body of supporters, many of whom are also members of the Optimum Population Trust, a Manchester-based group that believes the global population must be halved to prevent armageddon.
"I'm not a strict extinctionist, but I've had strong views about population growth for a while," says one of OPT's members, Glenn Sayers. "I don't go as far as saying we should make the human species extinct, although the planet would undoubtedly be better off without us, but I do agree with a lot of VEHMT's views."
Although they are on the extreme of the political spectrum, Sayers, a 29-year-old cartographer from north London, predicts that extinctionists will move into the mainstream. "If you want to get a point across, the first place to always start is education. Thirty or 35 years ago environmentalists were laughed at. With education, it's got bigger and bigger, and I think that's also going to happen with the population issue."
Sayers is yet to undergo sterilisation, but isn't ruling it out. He is also mystified by the apparent political taboo on discussion of the population issue. "More people need more land, more buildings, more woods, more landfills, and everyone's footprint is growing larger. We already import three-fifths of our food. North Sea fishing is going to run out. It's a global issue and politicians need to deal with it."
Battle will be joined, though. A host of perfectly intelligent people will pick holes in the extinctionist world-view, noting, for example, that scientific advances always have (and perhaps always will) allowed us to survive on fewer natural resources.
Others will claim their campaign is doomed to failure, since reproduction is one of our strongest urges. But Les U Knight disagrees. "The human instinct is not to reproduce: it's to have sex," he says. "Cultural conditioning makes us think we want to pass genes on to the next generation. In fact, all we want to do is to have sex."
Many non-believers approach Knight at environmental conferences, where he often has a stand, and cite social or religious objections to his campaign. However, he has a ready reply for all of them. "Every major religion has warnings about overpopulation. There are at least three in the Bible. Yeah, I know there's a bit where it says go forth and be fruitful and multiply. Hell, we've been fruitful and multiplied, and we need to stop. Now."
So while VHEMT may for now be at the end of the green spectrum, its campaign is gathering pace. Whether you want to reproduce or not, there is a certain refreshing logic to its world view. All that remains is for Knight and his followers to convert six billion sceptics to the cause.
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