In Bergman's story "Yesterday's Whales," Lauren faces a tough decision when she discovers she's pregnant. Lauren and her boyfriend Malachi are proponents of "voluntary human extermination," and as such have signed a "No Breeding Pledge." Malachi, in fact, is the founder of a non-profit called Enough with Us, a population control organization modeled after the Voluntary Human Extinction Movement (VHEMT), a group that proposes to "Phase out the human race by voluntarily ceasing to breed," so that "Earth's biosphere can return to good health."
When we think about human population control in contemporary times, we usually think of government intervention into human reproduction, like China's one-child policy. But since the 1960s, the human population control movement has become increasingly more diverse, and championed for reasons like environmental impact, infant-death rates, overcrowding, ecological scarcity, and biodiversity.
In 1968, Stanford University Professor Paul R. Ehrlich published The Population Bomb, in which he predicted human starvation on a massive scale within his lifetime. Ehrlich started the organization Zero Population Growth (now called Population Connection), whose mission statement is: "Overpopulation threatens the quality of life for people everywhere. Population Connection is the national grassroots population organization that educates young people and advocates progressive action to stabilize world population at a level that can be sustained by Earth's resources."
Population Connection does not call for the extinction of human life on earth, and their main thrust is, currently, "to ensure that every woman around the world who wants to delay or end her childbearing has access to the health services and contraceptive supplies she needs in order to do so." Yet, as we move into the 21st century, some streams of population control advocacy, like VHEMT, are proposing agendas that may seem, to many people, rather extreme.
Les U. Knight was a proponent of Zero Population Growth in the seventies, and went on to found VHEMT, whose motto is: "May we live long and die out." Knight says, "We're the only species evolved enough to consciously go extinct for the good of all life, or which needs to. Success would be humanity's crowning achievement."
What about low-impact living, or a one-child policy? Knight says that's not enough: "I do think that if you added up a whole lifetime of one person, even living lightly, reproducing would bump you up into the Hummer-driver category.... In light of the number of species going extinct because of our increase, and the tens of thousands of children dying every day from preventable causes, there's just no good reason to have a child. We have to ignore all those children to create another one."
Criticism of VHEMT has been sharp, and Knight's public comments tend to incite ridicule. In an interview with Macleans magazine, Brian Bethune called Knight's claim, that "the last humans could enjoy their final sunsets peacefully, knowing they have returned the planet as close as possible to the Garden of Eden," "absurd," and his stance "anti-human."
We see this issue cropping up everywhere these days, even in fiction. A good chunk of Jonathan Franzen's Freedom centers around Walter, a man seemingly obsessed with population control.
In America, the most visible population control movement centers around Negative Population Growth, an organization that, "promotes concepts such as 'the two-child family', lowered rates of migration to the United States, and the development of conceptual systems such as the steady state economy." They believe that a healthy American population would lie between 150 and 200 million, and that the ideal world population is 2-3 billion.
As we stand now, (approximately 311 million in the USA, and a global population a little more than 7 billion), it looks like all varieties of population control, from the moderate to total human extinction, have a lot of work to do.
This article was originally published in March 2012, and has been updated for the
November 2012 paperback release.
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