Forum of the Future
4 - 11 November 2017
Vânia Rodrigues first invited me to the conference in March 2017:
“We - as part of the curators team - are especially interested in bringing you to Portugal given the thematic start point for this year’s edition of the Forum of the Future: ‘Electric Earth’ and its obvious connections to the VHEMT. Since we first heard of the Voluntary Human Extinction Movement, we haven’t been able to stop thinking how powerful an idea that is to put in the context of a ‘festival of thought’, which annually gathers hundreds of people around big societal themes. We are confident that the ideas you put forward could account for a lively and very useful debate in the context of climate challenges.”
That sounds great, but like previous invitations from other countries, travel’s not in my budget. I didn’t read far enough or I would have seen, “appropriate travel and speaker’s fee apply.” She tried again twice April, and I finally realized I was being offered a free trip to Portugal and a chance to share the VHEMT concepts at an international conference. I gratefully accepted immediately. Looking at their past conferences, I saw I was way out of my league. Still, I couldn’t pass this up. One of the themes is “Happy Together,” which goes well with my name.
A Skype call with Vânia (vah-nuh), who would be the moderator of my talk, reassured her my accent wouldn’t keep me from being understood, unlike “someone from Manchester.” Jonathan da Costa patiently took over the many logistics over the next several months.
Wednesday November 5th, 2017
I landed in Porto where Mariana held a “Les U. Knight” sign. She would be an attentive and unflappable host, helping me buy a phone, walking me to and from events, and keeping me from getting lost in time and space.
On our way to the studio, she handed me a package of information about Porto and the conference, and my lanyard. “Here’s your per diem,” she said and handed me €50.
At the studio, Jonathan showed me to my large private apartment on the third floor. Sparse furnishings were perfect, especially the long table I could center my self at. Wifi!
A long table was set up with a view of the windows.
Thursday November 6, 2017
In the morning, in the basement of Teatro Rivoli, I was interviewed by two journalists: one from the news agency, Lusa, but I don’t remember his name. Mundo, and at least a dozen others picked up the story the next day.
He must have written a long article for the agency, because those who picked it up chose different content. Photos varied as well, but the headline was used by most of the media outlets: “Extinction of Man would be ‘mutually beneficial’ for humans and Nature. Who says it is Les U. Knight, founder of the Movement for the Voluntary Extinction of the Human Species.” Probably sounded better in Portuguese. I couldn’t ask for a better introduction to VHEMT. Sure beats Vice’s “This man wants you dead.”
The other was with Rita Neves Costa from an online newspaper that used to be in print: The Observer. Comments are the same as in the USA.
Mariana walked me to “Rethinking the Anthropocene,” a presentation questioning the human-centered name and concept with a feminist and postcolonial critique. I think part of the objection is blaming all humans for actions of colonialist cultures.
I was, unfortunately, not able to hear well enough to understand what they were saying. Instead, I absorbed the energy of the two speakers, three moderators, and the audience. It was sadly serious. When questions from the audience were encouraged, only one was forthcoming. After polite applause, everyone left as quietly as they had sat, a half an hour early. I feared my presentation might go that way. I hope the speakers weren’t too disappointed. One came from Brazil and the other from Switzerland. They had prepared speeches on the stand in front of them which they read while looking up at the audience as much as they could. I guess that’s standard academic presentation, but people can just read it online if it’s not a spontaneous talk.
After the presentation, waiting for Mariana to show me the way back, I spied graffiti.
“My pussy is the power.”
Late morning, I gave a video interview for an artistic project which includes “eco-visionairies” and will be shown in a Lisbon museum in April 2018. Afterwards, the videographer followed me as I talked with people who had been watching the interview. When I noticed him he said he was playing paparazzi. “Alright! I’ve never had a paparazzi.” When we reached the outside doors, I turned and told the story of Bill Nye being ambushed at an airport and asked if he thought humans would go extinct. He said, “I think there’s no doubt of it. Almost all species have gone extinct.” They posted the video with “Bill Nye predicts human extinction” as click bait.
That afternoon, several of us took a tour of the art installations in the studio. One piece was a postcard display stand with postcards of the Amazon rain forest in every holder, giving the appearance of a tree.
A five foot “car air freshener,” with a photo of the Amazon on one side and a description of presentations on the other, was suspended from the ceiling.
In the next room, two artists created a display that was a greenhouse with a shelf of plants about a meter off the floor There were holes in the shelf, so Keort van Mensvoort from Amsterdam and I climbed in through a low door and stuck our heads up. Our heads were in the plants. We could smell them and examine them up close.
Through an interior courtyard open to the sky, we climbed the stairs to a room with images of the Amazon rain forest and its animals projected on the wall. The artist said she couldn’t afford to go to the Amazon. Her name, Sónia Baptista, is in Amasonia. Background music prevented me from hearing most of her short presentation.
Around 5:00, Jonathan, Vânia and I took a cab to the Museum of Biodiversity for the sound check and set up.
150 people would soon come to hear my talk:
“Voluntary Human Extinction: Fresh Hope for Planet and People.”
Vânia and I were ushered to the side room where we couldn’t be seen by the audience as they came in. We chatted in the dark and shared reassuring hugs. This was the time we’d been working toward for months. We came out to the stage to applause, which was very reassuring.
We sat in the chairs on a slightly raised platform to the side of a massive screen. Vânia explained why I was invited and how many might consider this an extreme solution, but she considered it radical in the Latin sense of the word: getting to the root.
I stood up and opened by explaining the two basic premises: voluntary non-procreation and ceasing perpetuation of our species. I assured them we weren’t blaming people who have already procreated, and that there were many people in the Movement with offspring.
“We’re concerned about both the biosphere and humanity. If there were fewer of us each day instead of more, conditions for both would improve.”
The Anthropocene controversy had to be addressed. “We have altered Earth’s ecosphere more drastically than any species we know of. This is a unique time. We are treating the biosphere the same way one culture will colonize another and displace it. We are converting wildlife habitat into human habitat. It’s domination and oppression, the same as exists within cultures, with patriarchy, classism, and racism. Maybe we can find a name that matches what we want this period to be — the liberation era, perhaps. But first we have to achieve that. Until then, we have to admit the name fits.”
I talked about the importance of gender equality and the reproductive freedom and education of girls that follows.
“The chances of all seven and a half billion of us deciding not to procreate aren’t likely, but neither are the chances we’ll provide for nine or ten billion of us in the future. We aren’t taking care of everyone today. Tens of thousands of children die each day of preventable causes. If there were fewer of us we might be able to provide for everyone.
“All cultures have evolved to be natalist, that is, considering procreation of be a good thing no matter what the circumstances. If you post on Facebook that you’re having a baby, you’ll lots of likes, but if you post that you’ve decided not to… not much.
“Congratulations!” And, as I mimed an aside, “Are you kidding? You can barely take care of yourself.”
If a couple goes to a doctor to see about surgical contraception, the doctor says, “You’re young, you might change your mind.”
“Are we old enough to have a baby?”
“Well, if you feel you’re ready, sure.”
“What if we change our minds?”
“Natalism is like patriarchy: it’s invisible, especially for us men. “There’s no patriarchy. I don’t know what those women are talking about.” Then when you see it, signs are everywhere.”
“I have a two-minute video which illustrates natalism.”
“Individuals and couples will jump for joy at not being pregnant, but that’s not the message from family and society.
“The UN declaration of Human Rights includes the right to marry and found a family, but it doesn’t include the right to not procreate. Forcing a couple to produce an offspring and raise it when they don’t want to is actually worse than denying them their right to procreate. They’re both violations of human rights.”
“We call procreation ‘having a baby’ but really we’re creating a new human who will go off and live as an adult for 60 years. No one says, ‘We’re having a middle-aged man.’”
When I said, “Human society would be greatly diminished if there were no children.” I sensed a subtle change in energy from the audience. “They keep us in touch with our sense of play and wonder, but do we have the right to bring them into existence just for our benefit? Maybe we need to find other ways to reconnect with that.”
“A study this summer examined ways to reduce our environmental impact and created a chart.” I shape it with my hands. “Eat low on the food chain, transportation choices… and when it came to having one less child, the scale had to be broken — it went off the chart.”
“We all have an ecological footprint, measuring how much biologically active land we need. It includes the ocean, so we don’t leave a footprint there, but it’s a convenient measurement. The average person in Portugal needs three hectares, and in the US we use seven. The world as a whole is into ecological overshoot. This year overshoot day was August second. That’s when we used up all the renewable resources Earth produces in a year. Now we’re into deficit.”
I said more, of course, but that’s what I remember.
“You’re not alone,” I said with an exaggerated reassuring tone. That got a laugh. He agreed that over population is a problem, so I asked, “How many people do you think Earth can support? Three billion? Five billion?” He wasn’t interested in answering that one.
“We are a part of Nature.”
“OK, but what part of Nature are we? Exotic invader?” Murmmers of disagreement from the crowd. “No? Super predator?” A few heads nodding. We had to move to the next question before he was satisfied with my answers, but as the mic was being passed, I assured him we could find something we agreed on if we could talk more. Later I learned he’s a professor of Astrophysics at a local university.
“What about the loss of the only species that has consciousness?”
“As far as we know were the only ones.” More murmurs of disagreement arose. This spontaneous expression of engagement made it feel as if we were all involved in a conversation: exactly what I’d hoped. Then Marta, who I would meet the next day, said that the forest has consciousness. “There’s your answer,” I told him.
While I was saying something about the benefit to humans, someone called out, “But you don’t care about people.”
“I care about people. That’s why I’m here. I know it seems paradoxical…” Murmmers of amused agreement. “…but as we phase ourselves out, life will potentially improve for everyone. There will be no human problems when there are no humans.”
“How do we know the earth will recover after we’re gone?”
“Everywhere that humans have abandoned, like Chernobyl, wildlife has returned. They’re having problems with the radiation, but animals are returning after being gone 50 years.” I might have said, “I guess we’re more dangerous than plutonium.”
“What about going to space?”
“In order to keep our population where it is now, ships holding two thousand people would have to blast off every fifteen minutes. Condoms are cheaper.” At least one good laugh on that one.
“What good is biosphere with no one here to appreciate it?” Some snickers and looks back to see who asked that.
“Yeah, we leave and the biosphere is all recovered and there’s no one here to appreciate it. Well, it would be the same good as it was before we furless beach apes came along. I’m not sure we appreciate it anyway. If we did we wouldn’t be treating like we do.”
“Is this political, a religion? Philosophy?”
“I guess it would be a philosophy, though some have deep religious feelings about the biosphere.” *
“I heard about a philosophy about 15 years ago called Efilism, and I wonder what you think of that.”
“Sorry, what philosophy was that?” He repeated and I still didn’t get it. I was afraid of this. People in front relayed it. “Efilism!”
“Oh! Efilism! Life spelled backwards. It’s an extension of anti-natalism — the idea that we have no right to bring someone into existence where they will suffer when they aren’t where they are. Efilism applies that to all life. I don’t think it’s our call to make. We’re just one species out of millions.” I should have added that without humans, suffering would be greatly diminished. Our factory farms cause a lot of suffering and no species suffers like a human. We suffer in anticipation of suffering, while we’re suffering, and afterwards as well. But I didn’t.
Vânia had to end the question period due to a lack of time, and there were plenty more hands up for the mic.
People came up as the audience left. Someone from the Museum ceremoniously handed me their large guest book to sign. In it I thanked them for allowing me into their home to visit with so many wonderful people.
A young woman gushed, “You should take this to Mexico.”
“It is! There are active members there.” She said one of the reasons she came to Portugal was the pressure to have children in Mexico. “Several women have told me there’s a lot of pressure to have children here too.”
“Yes, but nothing like Mexico.”
Two men approached at the same time, though they weren’t together. “We’re a part of Nature,” one insisted. I said that we’ve worked hard to get away from it, and the other agreed. They were discussing as I moved to talk with someone else.
Two women, one with a recorder, approached. “We’re journalism students and we have one question for you. What if it’s too late to do anything to prevent a [collapse of the biosphere]?”
“If it’s too late, then the last thing we’ll want to do is bring someone into the world to live through it.” I thought there was another person waiting or I would have added that even if there’s only a five percent chance we can prevent a collapse, I think we still have to try. There’s too much at stake to just give up.
*On reflection, I don't think it's any of those. People agree with VHEMT for a variety of reasons, including political, religious and philosophical reasons. I see it as simply an expression of two truths: procreation can’t be justified and neither can perpetuation of our species. Reasons for supporting these truths come from all of those and more.
A cab took us to a restaurant in the center of town. I sat next to Koert, who had attended my presentation. Vânia sat across from me. She was upset about the negative response to opening night of “Amazonia” in Lisbon the night before. Apparently there was criticism for their use of humor about such a serious subject. I noted that it could be a good thing if handled right. She didn’t want to respond until she’d talked with others. She complained about political correctness driving the criticism. I didn’t get to see the play. Vânia said my name was on the program, credited for inspiration. Golly. We never know what influences we might have.
A man sitting on the other side of Koert lamented that humor couldn’t be used these days, for example, “There’s no way to make feminism funny.” I censored myself and didn’t ask how many feminists it takes to change a light bulb. He said, “What do you call a billion Chinese at the bottom of the ocean?”
I replied flatly, “Not a good start,”
“A good start to the solution.” No one was laughing, which was his point.
Saturday November 8, 2017
The streets were mostly empty in the morning. During the week they would be full of people by then. I was on the third floor with a view of a narrow street and cafes.
Menus have English descriptions. Ham and cheese is available in many forms. Their standard coffee is like espresso, though I saw “coffee americano” on a menu a couple of days ago. I’d go there if I remembered where. Porto is on a hillside, so walking includes a lot of ups and downs. I used the town center as my compass.
I had the day to myself until a presentation by Koert at 7:00. Lots of people smoke cigarettes. They drive quite fast on narrow streets: assertively but not aggressively, inches apart. I saw no obese people. Vânia tells me it’s a big tourist destination, an important part of their weak economy, which is part of why tourists come. Restaurant prices seem about the same as Portland. Everyone I’ve met so far speaks English. All the presentations are in English with simultaneous translations for some. Mine wasn’t, but the Anthropocene was: wireless receivers were offered at the door. Pretty cool. I didn’t see very many opt for them though. All older folks.
I wandered around, up and down in the sunshine and found a gourmet vegetarian restaurant with a buffet for €12.
Ireland’s Eighth Amendment criminalizes abortion.
Coffee wisdom. Parking on sidewalk and in crosswalk is tolerated.
As I entered, I recognized a woman who had asked a question at my talk. Marta recognized me and introduced herself and her nine-year-old son who isn’t confident in English yet or is just shy. I thanked her for answering the question about the loss of the only species that has consciousness. I gave her a VHEMT button and she translated it for her son, with the context. He pointed to the five-foot green tree "air freshener" with text in Portuguese, including the “Movimento para a Extinção Voluntária da Espécie Humana.” The image of the Amazon rainforest turned into a car air freshener was an integral element of the event. He took a seat near the front and I sat behind him, sharing a smile. Marta soon joined him. She had a lot to say about the tribal peoples of the Amazon who communicated with the forest. I asked If she’d heard of the Uwa people who promised to commit suicide en mass if the oil company went ahead with their plans to drill on their lands. She said there were others as well. She noted that maybe people should not talk so much and listen more. At that moment, she might have realized she was doing all the talking. The presentation was about to begin anyway.
The Pony Express is an artists’ group that installs experiential environments called ecosexual clubs where people can go and get very close to nature’s offerings. Their descriptions made me long to lie nude on a moss covered log in the woods. Ian Sinclair from Australia and Loren Kronmemyer from the EUA (Portuguese for USA) were inspired by Ecosexual Manefesto by Annie Sprinkle and Elizabeth Stephens. EO Wilson calls our ecodesires biophilia.
After the presentation, as I waited for Mariana, I talked with a couple who had been to my talk. He asked what I thought about leaving a warning to future intelligent beings who evolve after we’re gone.
“Yeah, like a Rosetta Stone,” I said. “People have created plaques to go over nuclear waste dumps that don’t use words, just images to show if you dig here you die.”
She asked if I’d heard “conspiracy theories about population — chemtrails and stuff...”
“It all goes together, huh? Some people think there’s an elite who want to depopulate the planet so they can have it to themselves. I don’t think they’re doing a very good job of it. Actually, the elite, or the people who have all the money, want lots of people.”
“Lower wages,” she said.
“Yes, that’s a big one, and we’re more easily controlled. People with children aren’t as likely to take chances.” I mentioned the depopulation conspiracy theory that Bill Gates wants to wipe out Africans using vaccinations. “He did say vaccinations would lower the population, but it was because parents would have fewer children if more survived.”
Walking to the theater, I saw the woman who interviewed me on camera Friday, so I thanked her for the rehearsal. “It was reassuring and got me warmed up for my talk.” She introduced me to a curator of the museum in Lisbon, walking with us.
The presentation at Teatro Rivoli, “Next Nature: how Technology becomes Nature,” was visionary. Koert envisions future possibilities, not what he thinks will be the future, and produces art works of the ideas. Lab grown meat was an exception: it’s already being produced. A meat patty costs €250,000, so they have to get the price down for a quarter pounder. A belt that charges phones using the heat from belly fat was another. He says we need to move forward to Nature, not go back to Nature. He determined that technology progresses like a pyramid, with each level including fewer examples: they get weeded out. It goes from Envisioned, to Operational, to Applied, to Accepted, to Vital, to Invisible. Agriculture and cooking are examples of invisible technology: we don’t even think of them as technology.
He asked how many of us don’t have a smart phone. My hand was the only one I saw go up, but there were a couple hundred and I could have missed them. He recommended that, before adding a piece of technology to our lives, we should ask one question: “Will this increase my humanity?”
Before the talk, a man about my age recognized me from my talk and wanted to discuss it, so we sat together and talked while waiting for Koert’s talk. I remembered seeing him in the audience, looking interested to the point of amazement. He’s been interested in human population for several decades and VHEMT sort of took it all the way for him. He was eager to talk about it with me, having found someone who goes even further than he has.
Guilherme’s card says he’s a doctor of public health, but he’s now a professor at a local university. I think there are two. We exchanged contact information, as he was insistent we stay in touch. We’ve exchanged emails since.
After the talk I waited in the foyer and a couple of young women who had been to my talk asked me if I thought there was a chance we could create a technology that continued on after we went extinct. I wondered if it could repair itself and evolve. One of them thought it was a possibility and one didn’t. As we were talking, Vânia, Koert, Jonathan, Vitol, and Mariana joined us, laughing that we were discussing that. They’d asked Koert after his question period ended and he wished they’d asked when the mic was being passed.
We walked several blocks to a restaurant for a reception for everyone involved in the event. On the way, Koert asked if I received different responses to VHEMT in different places. “People have the same concerns everywhere. At anarchist book fairs, environmental conferences, or street fairs. People wear different clothes but all have the same concerns.”
The mayor of Porto, Rui Moreira, greeted people at the door, and later talked with Vânia, Koert, his moderator Vitol, and me. They talked about what a great event this has become in four years. Being free for attendees was a big draw. Vânia said how pleased she was to see such a wide age range attending. I think the City of Porto funds a lot of it. I savored the moment: sipping wine and chatting with the mayor of the second largest city in Portugal. I saw him squeeze a younger woman’s bicep as she passed by, and wondered if he was another one of those guys. When she returned, it was apparent they were together.
Walking back to the theater in a crowd, many from the reception, the woman behind me commented on how people were looking her up and down. I turned and said it was because she dresses so well. Then I recognized her as Loren, from the ecosexual presentation earlier.
“Yes! I really enjoyed your talk.”
“Oh, did you come?”
“Well, maybe later.”
“And again and again, right?”
“I think I’m ecosensual, maybe not ecosexual.”
I gave her a “Thank you for not breeding” bike sticker so she’d have the website url, then stepped into the street against the light. A car turning into the crosswalk had to stop for us. “I almost got us killed.”
“Well if I have to go, this would be a good time,” she joked.
“To die by your side…” I forgot the rest of The Smiths’ lyric.
We met up with her friends in front of the theater, where Vânia and I shared a long hug, our last before she and Koert went in for the last talk of the forum. We didn’t do the air kisses in each ear, though. We had spent important times together, like waiting a very long time to be called out for my presentation, pacing in the wings. Breathing.
I turned back to Loren and said I planned to hang back and leave when everyone went in. “Ghosting,” Loren said.
“An Irish good-bye,” I added.
“We call it the French good-bye,” another said.
After more joking around, I said an actual good-bye and went back to my apartment to process it all. What a day.
Around 11:00, after a glitch-filled Skype with Heather in Portland, I set my phone alarm for 4:00 so I’d have time for a shower and empty the trash and recycling before the taxi came at 5:30, and went sound asleep.
At 5:38, Mariana called to tell me, as calmly as ever, the taxi was down waiting for me. I made it in six minutes, forgetting my airplane snacks in the fridge. It seems speed limits aren’t enforced in Porto, and we made it to the airport by 6:00. The airline schedule from Madrid to Chicago said “American” but I was happy to find it was Iberia again. Free food, though this time both choices had meat. I’d brought a sandwich in anticipation. My phone alarm went off at 4:00 AM—Pacific time.
In Chicago, multiple lines kept me and my fellow livestock occupied for two and a half hours before my flight. Four hours later, I finished reading Antifa: The Anti-Fascist Handbook I'd picked up in PDX on my way out, and my Portuguese adventure was over, except for happy memories, mainly of the wonderful people I met. I feel we were happy together.