When I arrived at Cathedral Park to meet Les Knight, I figured I’d be able to pick his face out of the crowd. I had, after all, watched an interview Knight did with Tucker Carlson in 2005, during which he was dressed in a shade of khaki that only a soft-spoken environmentalist would wear on-camera.
“If you think Greenpeace is radical,” Carlson said, opening the segment, “brace yourselves.”
Later, when mentioning this interview to Knight, he chuckles.
“Whoever thought Greenpeace was radical?” he retorted. “I’ll introduce you to some real radical people, Tucker.”
Unlike in his TV interview, Knight wasn’t wearing anything at all when I met him. I’d contacted him for an interview just days after reading a Guardian article about his involvement with the Voluntary Human Extinction Movement (VHEMT), but was given a narrow window to make his acquaintance.
“My time is pretty full these days,” he wrote back, “but if you want to meet at Cathedral Park tomorrow evening, I’ll be hanging out with a few thousand other naked beach apes, getting ready to ride the most efficient form of human transportation ever invented.”
I found my way to him just under an hour before the World Naked Bike Ride departed from the park. I drove there.
VHEMT (pronounced “vehement”) has no official founder, Knight explained, but I gather he’s the movement’s most active and persistent renegade. Since 1991, he’s written and circulated its newsletter; he oversees its website and runs the informational booths; he appears for interviews. Knight is, in essence, the mouthpiece for a humanitarian cause that’s promoting the end of the human species, so he fields a lot of questions. Less of an organization and more of an ideology, VHEMT aims to peacefully root out the planet’s crises by convincing people to no longer procreate. Its mainstay slogan is “May we live long and die out,” but despite the movement’s inherent fatalism, there exists a strangely pleasant utopia at its core, a place where humans are more thoughtful and aware of one another, a universe centered around choice rather than circumstance.
When it comes to the planet, procreating is the costliest impact an individual can have. According to a recent study from Swedish researchers, the carbon footprint of having just one child is a whopping 58.6 metric tons of “CO2-equivalent emissions” per year. The next best thing an individual could do to reduce one’s carbon footprint is to go car-free, which would spare the planet 2.4 metric tons a year.
These numbers, paired with the exponential rate at which the world population is growing, make the future of Earth’s resources look pretty grim. And while it’s true that people are having fewer children in general—which Knight attributes to greater access to birth control—the idea of replacement-level fertility (i.e., having one or two children that “replace” the parents and their subsequent footprint) is a myth.
“In 1950, the average woman was having five kids and we were increasing by 35 million,” Knight explains. “Now, the average rate is 2.5 children, and we’re increasing by more than twice that, at 78 million. So it’s counterintuitive. Since there are more of us, it doesn’t take as many of us.”
“By saying you’re only replacing yourself, it’s wrong,” he continues. “It doesn’t work that way. We aren’t salmon; we don’t spawn and die.”
But this takes a lot of convincing, and Knight is well aware of the sheer impossibility of a world in which humans choose to no longer reproduce. Further, the kind of platform that implores people to stop having children is not one that’s likely to be taken up by any major public figurehead.
“It’s untenable to say the intentional creation of one more human by anyone anywhere can’t be justified, but you can’t,” Knight asserts, “You will lose your base of support. Further, the continuation of homo sapiens really can’t be justified if you look at it from the perspective of anything but a human. But even from the perspective of a human, how do we treat each other?”
Thus, VHEMT is a highly individual movement that has slowly created a network of people who view their reproductive choices as a nexus of their environmental, humanitarian, and moral values. Its volunteers span the globe and occupy a host of reasons for choosing not to procreate. The crusade itself is not meant to be taken all that seriously, however, as Knight assures me halfway through our conversation. He shakes his head and smiles, “We know we will never see the day that there are no humans on the planet.”
“You wouldn’t be here to celebrate it!” I say.
While VHEMT has gained slow but steady momentum over the years, the last decade has seen an urgent shift in how we conceptualize rapid population growth within the context of reproductive freedom. Stephanie Feldstein is based in Portland and works for the Center for Biological Diversity (CBD) as the Director of the Population and Sustainability program, the first of its kind in the country.
“We’re actually the only national environmental group that has a full-time program dedicated to helping people make the connection between population growth, family planning, and threats to endangered species and the planet,” Feldstein says, adding that its outreach manifests in a number of ways.
“The subject of population is still really taboo,” Feldstein points out, so the CBD relies on conversation-starters to get the word out. Part of her program oversees the manufacturing of Endangered Species Condoms, which are given away at climate change awareness events. These rubbers come in small and illustrative boxes that remind their users of the wildlife they’re saving in being deliberate about family planning.
“Wrap with care... save the polar bear,” says one. “Before it gets any hotter... remember the sea otter,” says another.
The CBD has also sponsored a Pillow Talk program that takes place at local museums, centers, and zoos where events for those 21 and older are hosted. Recently, some of the organization’s volunteers facilitated a game night at OMSI, where participants played Carbon Budget Monopoly and were given the opportunity to make different life choices based on how many resources they had and how much carbon they could afford to use up. Feldstein says it’s a tangible way for the players to “see just how much of their budget was quickly spent and to see the huge impact that having children has on the climate.”
The CBD is vehement (no pun intended) on supporting legislation and policy to advance reproductive freedom and healthcare. Statistically speaking, nearly half of all pregnancies in the US are unplanned, and thus, an organization focused on the sustainable future of the planet (and all the species that live on it) has a stake in promoting a pro-choice agenda. The way Feldstein sees it, the solution is not to tell people they shouldn’t have children.
“That raises some serious ethical concerns, and it would be ineffective for any number of reasons,” she says, “but we know that by advancing human rights and really making this all about choice and empowerment, that’s how we solve this problem.”
Feldstein continues, “As we see in the news every day, reproductive freedom is under attack... so it’s so important that we continue to advocate for reproductive rights as part of this conversation.”
This aim is at the heart of what we might call an environmental intersectionality, wherein an entire species might thrive in its habitat if its childbearing population were granted equal access, education, and autonomy.
“Women in particular are disproportionately affected by environmental injustices,” she tells me, “whether that’s climate change, pollution, or other environmental impacts. But when women are able to make their own reproductive choices and have the family size that’s best for them, and one they’re able to care for, we see families and communities becoming more resilient in the face of a lot of these environmental disasters.”
This echoed my conversation with Knight, who pointed out myriad ways in which women are coerced into procreating—whether it’s due to lack of access to contraception, the stigmatization of abortion, or through societal conditioning that stems from a woman’s worth and contribution running corollary to her fertility.
“[People say it’s a] violation of human rights to not allow others to have as many offspring as they want, which is a violation of human rights,” he says. “But we ignore the fact that people are coerced into procreating... They are both violations of human rights: to derail a person’s life when that’s not what they wanted to do—that’s just horrible.”
Our sensitivity and norms around reproducing derive from a deeply entrenched natalism, or what Knight defines as a universal, societal agreement that procreation is always good, no matter the implications. Our ecosystem cannot support this widely held doctrine, however, and it’s Knight’s opinion that true enlightenment comes when we decide to make room for species other than our own.
“It seems like this is kind of an evolutionary ideal that we could get to when the surroundings can no longer sustain our impact,” he tells me.
One of Heather Stallman’s earliest memories is driving from Southeast Portland to Vancouver before the I-205 bridge was constructed.
“I remember growing up and ours being one of two houses on a street in Mt. Scott, and virtually growing up in the forest. Then, suddenly, just one house after another went up, and the roads were expanded.” She paused, letting out a small sigh. “There’s just so many more of us now.”
Stallman is 45 and tired of being asked when she’ll become a mother.
“There are other things I can do with my mind and my body than make more humans,” she said while we discussed her decision to join VHEMT. Early in her adult life, she began feeling ambivalent about the prospect of bearing children, but her family members, friends, and partners put consistent pressure on her to get pregnant.
When Stallman met Knight in 1991, however, she felt what she describes as “a bit of relief” in meeting someone who understood her reluctance toward procreating. She had spent several years in long-term relationships with men who wanted children and even married a man who had a son from a previous relationship. Living paycheck to paycheck, she found it difficult to financially support the child and was bewildered that her husband broached the subject of having more kids.
“One of the reasons I’m part of VHEMT is because of the humanitarian aspect,” she says. “We could do a better job of taking care of the people that are already here, and I’m not going to create a person I couldn’t provide for.”
In the short time we talked, I gathered that Stallman is a warm, jovial person; she likes humans. It didn’t surprise me to learn she’s worked in the medical field for years, finding fulfillment in working with those who are in pain or ailing.
“I can make a difference in someone’s life, a positive difference,” she says, “When patients come in and aren’t feeling well, I think, ‘How can I connect with them? How can I support them through this experience and take some of the dread away?’”
So she finds it surprising that in doing events for VHEMT, she’s sometimes mistaken for a cold and heartless misanthrope. When VHEMT held its 11th consecutive booth at the Clinton-Division Street Fair in July, Stallman was berated by a man who found it unethical for the movement to make an appearance at “a child-friendly event.”
“We love children!” Stallman told him. “We want to take care of the ones that are already here.”
In general, however, the community meets VHEMT with either a vague semblance of gratitude or, at the very least, buttoned-up skepticism. It stirs energy on both sides of the issue and facilitates conversation. People often find community around its ideology. Tyler Whitney, 35, met Knight for the first time at the Clinton-Division Street Fair, though he’d been following the movement for years. Whitney underwent a no-scalpel vasectomy in December, and credits VHEMT for making an impact on his decision.
Angela Cortal, 36, became galvanized by the movement in 2010, when she and her husband saw the “Thank you for not breeding” sign hovering over Knight’s booth at the street fair.
“At that point, we were solidly disinterested in having children, but that’s about as far as it had gone,” Cortal says. “Upon looking through the [VHEMT] materials though, we thought, ‘Wow, this is really well-articulated. It doesn’t argue, but just kind of positions this unquestioned belief system that someone is operating from.’”
They spent the rest of their afternoon tabling the booth with Knight.
It might be easy to spin the Voluntary Human Extinction Movement as either cultish or malevolent. On the first page of its spartan, ’90s-era website, its many FAQs include responses to such questions as, “Are you really serious?” “Don’t you like babies?” “Do we have to stop having sex?” and “Is this another one of those suicide cults?” But Knight answers these questions in earnest, and does so in a way that underlines a persuasive dedication to fact, logic, and science.
August 1 marked this year’s Earth Overshoot Day, or, according to the Global Footprint Network, “the date when we (all of humanity) have used more from nature than our planet can renew in an entire year,” and at the rate of our ecological destruction, this date is sure to come earlier each year as time goes on. With 353,000 babies—well over half the population of Portland—making their debut on the planet every day, movements like VHEMT encourage us to be more humane and thoughtful about the kind of resources future children will have available to them.
It’s a dismal topic when you consider it, really. The fact that Knight has spent the last 30 years being the proverbial tongue-in-cheek behind the “Thank you for not breeding” bumper sticker causes one to assume he’s of the glass-half-empty variety. Yet his worldview is far from nihilistic. I think back to his interview with Tucker Carlson, whose first question was, “So you want to eliminate the human race? How unhappy was your childhood?”
“I know a lot of people think that,” Knight says, laughing gently. “No, no, no.”
He’s a tough one to label, as his casual gentility seems remarkably at odds with a somber and anarchistic worldview.
“I am a humanitarian and an environmentalist,” he says, “because I care about people and I care about the environment. You don’t really need to care about one more than the other, and benefiting humans will benefit nature.” He interrupts himself. “When people are happy, they don’t start looking for ways to make themselves happier through buying more stuff or buying into the idea that if they had a family, they would be happy.”
I asked Knight if he would ever consider himself an anti-natalist or ascribe to the philosophy that to procreate is to compromise one’s morals, that life is too painful to be justified in creating.
He smiled, looked out past the St. Johns Bridge as the sun began to set, and said, “I like my life too much to consider myself an anti-natalist.”
And there, casually draping his arms over his bent knees, wearing absolutely nothing, I could tell that Les Knight is glad he was born, that he feels he’s served some purpose on this earth, and that he’ll be at peace knowing he made room for something else, voluntarily.