If you don’t find a silver lining in the Chernobyl disaster or the Korean War, that can only mean that you are no more than a tepid environmentalist. Alan Weisman is more serious. His book, The World Without Us, reverently chronicles his visit to Chernobyl, where there are no human settlements within a 20-mile radius, “just forests that have begun reclaiming fields and towns, home to birds, deer, wild boar and moose,” according to Newsweek. Korea’s demilitarized zone, similarly free of homo sapiens for 53 years, is “now a mecca for Korean bird watchers.”
Reveries of a world without human beings show us an environmentalism that has the courage of its convictions. The busybodies hectoring us to recycle, drive hybrids and use fluorescent light bulbs are missing the point: Such minor modifications will only slow down the human destruction of the ecosphere. What people smugly and stupidly used to call “progress” necessarily means the degradation of the environment. The ultimate meaning of living lightly on the planet is not living on it at all.
Weisman goes down this road a long way, but not as far as he used to. Once partial to the idea that the world needs the cleansing of human extinction, his reflection on “some of the beautiful things human beings have accomplished,” such as poetry, led him to a “compromise position: a worldwide, voluntary agreement to limit each human couple to one child.” Weisman calculates that this neo-Malthusian solution would reduce the world’s population from 6 billion people today to 1.6 billion by 2100, the size of the human cohort in 1900.
The Voluntary Human Extinction Movement is not so squishy. It believes that “the hopeful alternative to the extinction of millions of species of plants and animals is the voluntary extinction of one species: Homo sapiens . . . us.” Accordingly, “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 eons.” The VHEM website takes the trouble to distinguish its position from Hitler’s, Nazism being more of an involuntary human extinction movement.
The VHEM position is “realistic: We know we’ll never see the day there are no human beings on the planet. . . . The Movement may be considered a success each time one more of us volunteers to breed no more.” The VHEM approach demographically guarantees that its hard task will only get harder. Those non-breeding volunteers will have no children to catechize, while the people who do breed will have set an anti-VHEM example for their children simply by virtue of having them.
It’s hard not to despair. And yet, somewhat inconsistently, VHEM rejects suicide - “retroactive birth control” - because, “There’s no way we could convince enough people to kill themselves to make a difference, especially after we’re too dead to talk.” In this respect, VHEM is itself a little squishy, compared to the Finnish environmentalist who told the Wall Street Journal in 1994 that another world war would be "a happy occasion for the planet . . . If there were a button I could press, I would sacrifice myself without hesitating if it meant millions would die."