“May We Live Long and Die Out”
A Content Analysis of Environmental Radicals
October 18, 2010
Inspiration for this research came about from learning of the “Church of Euthanasia,” an extremely radical online group, aimed at human extinction through suicide. Their motto is “Save the Planet: Kill Yourself.” The Church of Euthanasia was deemed to be too extreme because the content of the site offended basic moral sensibilities of the researchers. A related organization, The Voluntary Human Extinction Movement (VHEMT), was found through a link and selected for this content analysis. The Voluntary Human Extinction Movement is a movement that people partake in order to “save the planet.” This movement consists of people who want to stop breeding in order to minimize the impact of humans on the natural ecology of the planet. The end result of the movement would be to have all humans dead, and the species Homo sapiens extinct. The members of the movement realize that it is unrealistic for all humans to stop breeding immediately and that it is a long term goal that may be achieved over time.
The researchers found this content to be sociologically relevant for a couple of reasons. First, the VHEMT discourse contributes to the national and international conversation about ecological sustainability. When situated among the many viewpoints in the debate, it is clear that VHEMT can be considered radical. In a way, the solution that VHEMT proposes is external to the traditional viewpoints because such viewpoints are all focused on creating a sustainable global environment for humans; VHEMT’s solution is for the biosphere, not the humans. Secondly, VHEMT is sociologically intriguing because while they base their arguments on alleged science, the ultimate goal is moral and their discussions are filled with moral claims. VHEMT often confronts conventional moralities, implicating that such normative frameworks are problematic.
The researchers’ objective in this content analysis is to get a better understanding of the Voluntary Human Extinction Movement. This includes what their beliefs and goals are and the methods used to go about completing these goals. Particularly, the research seeks to understand the techniques VHEMT employs to recruit volunteers and supporters.
The methodology being used is that of content analysis. The website www.vhemt.org holds the content for the analysis being done. The researchers will hold complete observer roles and will not be in contact with members of the movement. All information can be publicly accessed and thus there are no confidentiality or anonymity issues.
To analyze the website the researchers broke down the subjects studied into the different subheadings of the website. These subgroups are: Politics, Economics, Biology and Breeding, Death, Demography, Ecology, Philosophy and Religion and lastly, Success.
In the Politics section of the website it talks about various past events and present-day programs that existed/exist. One of these programs was China's One Child Act. This act allows a couple to only have one child in their life time. Intuitively one would think that VHEMT would support this act since it lowers the birth rate. However, in the Movement, human freedom supersedes any forced lowering of the birth rate. As the site states “A combination of reproductive freedom and responsibility is needed: freedom to avoid procreation, and responsibility to use that freedom.”
The other topic in the Politics section that really stood out was its section on coercion. They state the question “What about our right to procreate? Could VHEMT eventually lead to coercion?” The site starts addressing the target, not by stating its own views, but by making an example of existing problems that the right to procreate causes.
Eighty million unwanted conceptions occur each year, most because of prohibitions on contraceptive services. Forty-five million of those are not carried to full term. Seventy-four thousand women die and five million suffer injuries from complications of unsafe abortions—an outrageous violation of basic human rights. Each year, roughly 35 million babies are denied their right to not be born into a family that doesn’t want them or can’t provide for their needs.
The Movement is outraged at the thought of people dying from being denied their “basic human rights” and the right of the child to not be born into families that are not prepared for them yet is important to them. VHEMT does not support people committing suicide or the actual killing off of the existing population systematically. Rather, they believe that everyone has the right to life but should not produce more children. They “promote reproductive freedom and responsibility.”
In the Economics section the VHEMT talks about everything from whether or not a growing economy needs a growing population to who is going to pay social security for when we are older. While talking about who is going to pay for social security the website says that since social security is “artificial”, population can decrease for it to still work. This section gives an overall negative feeling towards social security, however this feeling is caused by multiple statements that are somewhat unrelated.
Automation removes more workers from payrolls than birth control does. Owners of the machines gain the “wages” formerly paid to workers, without paying a percentage into pension funds. Adjustments could be made. Unemployment reveals that we already have enough potential workers. Increasing employment and increasing wages will increase funds paid to social security. In the USA, a pea-and-shell game is being played on taxpayers. More money is taken in for social security than is shelled out, but the remainder vanishes instead of being invested for future pensioners. The solution to having our nest eggs stolen isn’t to lay more eggs.
The website plants negative statements into a larger argument trying to persuade the reader into agreeing with their viewpoints.
Another topic in the Economics section was whether or not overpopulation was more environmentally detrimental in poorer countries. The VHEMT views there to be a greater ecological impact on countries with a low birth rate and high consumption, while there is a greater human impact on the high birth rate and low consumption countries. The first uses more resources while the latter has more human suffering.
Biology and Breeding
The Biology and Breeding section starts off by telling the reader that babies are fine, the problem is when they grow up and become adults. To refrain from having children shows more love to the world around us than actually having a child would. According to the site a person is doing a baby a favor today by not having them, because the future is grim.
Considering the future world we are creating for future generations, procreation today is like renting rooms in a burning building—renting them to our children no less. Choosing to refrain from producing another person demonstrates a profound love for all life.
Not only this but the site cracks a joke about dumb people procreating a little ways down the web page:
Q: I’m extra smart. Shouldn’t I pass on my genes? Well, could you pass a minimal intelligence test if one were required for a “license to breed“? To find out, simply answer this question: In light of the tens of thousands of children dying of malnutrition each day, and considering the number of species going extinct as a result of our excessive reproduction, do you think it would be a good idea to create another of yourself? (Click yes or no)
If one clicks yes, this message pops up: “We’re sorry, your intelligence is not high enough to perform basic logic. Thank you for trying. Please consider the many options to creating “one of your own.” By working humor into the website it tries to make a less serious connection with the audience that is on the Movement's website.
Another topic covered in the Biology and Breeding section is whether or not it is natural for humans to want to procreate. The argument put forth by the Movement is that it is natural for humans to want to have sex but not to procreate. Instead of sex serving as a means of procreation, the movement argues that it is a way to bond to people together. VHEMT argues that our desire for sex is actually just an evolutionary characteristic that serves to keep humans together in order to care for an infant. They end the section by stating that there is no logical reason to breed more humans.
In the Death section the website covers such topics as disease, war, and suicide. The general consensus on these topics is that death in general sparks population growth. The killings in war are only a short term solution to population growth. Wars actually encourage more population growth than it does encourage it to shrink.
Suicide is not a mission of the VHEMT because it does not have a big enough impact on the Earth’s biosphere. There would have to be a large part of the population committing suicide for it to make any type of impact and even if that did happen the site argues it is immoral to commit suicide because it is everyone's responsibility to help make the world a better place. Leaving the work for the next generation is just irresponsible.
VHEMT presents U.S. Census Bureau data on world population growth rates, population changes, and population predictions. The point that VHEMT stresses is that although growth rates and fertility rates are declining, because there are so many of us now, even adding at a slower rate than before will create more than nine billion humans by 2050—VHEMT calls this “momentum.” VHEMT argues against the notion that each person simply replacing themselves is sustainable because of the supposedly permanent environmental impact each person has:
We aren’t salmon - we don’t spawn and die. Most of us will be around to see our progeny beget, and those begotten beget to boot… for example, in terms of energy consumption, when a North American couple stops at two it’s about the same as an average East Indian couple stopping at 30, or a Bangaledesh couple stopping at 97.
While the Demography section of the website is relatively tame and empirically grounded, the 11-page Ecology section presents arguments more emotionally through the use of propaganda. VHEMT indicates that having “achieved awareness” is possible for parents that already have kids; some volunteers and supporters have children of their own. VHMET does not oppose parenting itself, but only advocates for parenting of existing children.
Many have heard the claim that “99.9% of all species of plants and animals that have ever existed have gone extinct.” VHEMT proceeds from this claim by stating that we should not have moral opposition to humans going extinct then either—it shouldn’t “raise an eyebrow.” In this section, the arguments are a sort mishmash of defending the value of non-human species while arguing for the insignificant value of the human species. VHEMT argues that “virtually every species’ demise stems from the activities of one species. Guess who” and such extinctions constitute “outrageous crime[s] against Nature.” VHEMT poses the question “Are humans the most important species on Earth?” Surely, “importance” is an ambiguous term that is essentially devoid of meaning without it being qualified. It appeared that VHEMT understands importance with respect to our place in the Earth’s biosphere, and in it, we are “expendable” because we “have virtually left the food chain and will not create a missing link when going extinct.”
An image is inserted in a break between arguments. This “Eco Depth Gauge” is a self-test to understand a person’s commitment to ecology. It is presented on the following page.
Clearly, ethical considerations are central in this self-test. This “Eco Depth Gauge” attempts to shift the discussion from various valid viewpoints for ecological action into one of morality using a scale of little to extreme commitment to ecology. Essentially, the image frames it as “if you care about ecology at all, these are the available viewpoints.” So, if one really cares, then they should be either “radically deep” or “abysmally deep.” What’s odd about this image is that both of those levels of extreme commitment are explicitly not the philosophy of VHEMT—“profoundly deep” is.
It is realized that some arguments presented by VHMET are exceedingly cynical and do not hold up well against facts. It appears that this is part of the moralizing techniques employed. According to VHMET humans are a “fluke of evolution, apart from nature” and we are exploiters of nature, “giving nothing back.” We are “exotic invaders [who] disrupt ecosystems.”
VHEMT argues that the current global situation is similar to that of Easter Island—collapse is imminent. In discussing various methods of population control, VHEMT argues that “modern societies potentially have an alternative to this death control: birth control.” However, it appears that that phrase is more playing with words than a true reflection of VHEMT’s goal because it would be the absence of births, not the controlling of births that is an ideal state. VHEMT states that extinction is “the only sure way.”
Philosophy and Religion
In this section, VHEMT attempts to answer the “big questions” about human extinction. While philosophical argumentation occurs throughout the website, this section focuses on ethics, existentialism, and theology. In answering the question “What good is a healthy biosphere if there are no humans around to enjoy it?” VHEMT argues that:
A human-centered world view only values other species by what they can do for us, or for “our children’s children.” We’re collectively so centered on our own species that nothing matters except in relation to ourselves. It’s like our ancient view of the universe with Earth at the center: it took a long time for people to accept that our planet is just one of many orbiting a star, which is also just one of many in a galaxy, which is also just one of many in the universe. An Earth-centered world view sees Homo sapiens as one of tens of millions of species in Earth’s biosphere. We are exceptional in many ways, and so are the other life forms we share this rare and wonderful place with.
This argument is grounded in secular thought in that it frames our existence as a species in physical relation to the entire universe. In this framing, Homo sapiens are insignificant.
According to VHEMT, the following image is not meant to be taken literally, but rather to “clarify values.” Again, it is interesting that the imagery presented on the site is incongruent with the stated philosophy.
VHEMT starts their religion argument by stating “All major religions include warnings against irresponsible breeding. Churches, perhaps in hopes of increasing their flock sizes, ignore those passages and emphasize natalist aspects of their dogma.” The often repeated phrase from Genesis 1:28 KJV that we ought to “be fruitful and multiply” represents such a “natalist aspect.” However, VHEMT argues that there are passages that indicate a limited breeding responsibility: “Woe unto them that join house to house, that lay field to field, ‘til there be no place, that they may be placed alone in the midst of the Earth!” (Isaiah 5:8 KJV)
VHEMT offers more interpretation and analysis of Christian doctrine:
If the second coming of Jesus is to be soon, then this is not the time to bring another person into the world…extinction of the human race on Earth doesn’t mean an end to humanity. Extinction is in accordance with God’s plan for us. Jesus Christ lived His life as a lesson to us all, and begat naught. Let us follow His example and concentrate on the spiritual journey to God, rather than on human endeavors such as producing more humans. We have been fruitful and multiplied, now it is time to mature and nurture.
It is conventional wisdom that religion can provide the foundational justifications for a variety of beliefs and actions. It is apparent that VHEMT is employing such a technique. In analyzing the other sections of the website, secular and quasi-scientific arguments are made, revealing the insignificance theology has in shaping the Movement. And, running along traditional theological lines, the very idea of mass organization for human extinction appears to be in conflict with a divine order.
VHEMT defines success in two ways. An absolute success would be when the species is extinct, therefore we will not be around to appreciate such success. The second form of success, their more realistic goal, is for a substantial number of humans to volunteer and become part of the Movement. If that happens, green areas will replace some cities, as it was in the beginning. More focus will be given to children being born because there are fewer actually being born. And more housing would be available for the existing humans.
The content analysis of the VHEMT website produced some useful knowledge. As is explained in this paper, VHEMT believes that the solution to our global ecological problems is for us to “live long and die out.” With the species Homo sapiens extinct, the Earth will return to its natural state. According to VHEMT, joining the Movement is the only ethical action to take.
The research objective was to understand the specific techniques used by VHEMT to attract people to the Movement. The three techniques used are analysis of empirical data, philosophical argumentation, and propaganda. As explained above, VHEMT employs statistics to explain how population predictions are unsustainable, how the global economy would be better off without so many people, and to illustrate the need for responsible contraceptive use. Argumentation was employed by VHEMT throughout the website. However, it was rarely in pure form; it often included leaps of logic or baseless ideological statements. The propaganda used was primarily emotionally loaded language and imagery. The researchers often noticed this propaganda coloring rational or scientific based arguments. Many of the sections included confusing arguments within arguments that appeared to be unrelated and most likely introduced to create an emotional response from the reader.
These techniques are most likely the primary techniques used to recruit members. The breadth of the website seems sufficient on first encounter, but the researchers became suspicious of its adequacy during the research. For such an extreme Movement to be successful, it seems that more literature that has more authoritative grounding would be necessary in order to fully articulate and defend the claims.