This post was originally published on Vie de Cirque in March 2014
About a month ago, our family was the subject of a full-page feature in our local newspaper. This is not the first time that my little gang and I appear on the pages of a newspaper: last year, I took part in a Globe & Mail piece on the decision to stay home or return to work.
When you are the mother of a large family and you make a media appearance, you have to expect the global warming trolls to come to the party, regardless of the topic. We seem to be a looming menace: if everybody did what we did, the environmental impact would be disastrous. In theory maybe, but what about reality?
A quick glance at the literature shows that concerns over demographic decline are at least as pressing as those relating to overpopulation. Birth rates (the number of live births per thousand of population per year) and fertility rates (the average number of children born to women of childbearing years) are declining throughout the world. While many under-developed countries still show birth rates over the population renewal rate (2.1 children per women), their birth rates are in decline. Statistics suggest that the increasing world population is not caused by too many births but by an increase in life expectancy. In other words, we didn’t start breeding like rabbits; we just stopped dropping like flies. The elderly population is on the increase worldwide but the children population is decreasing steadily.
Blaming large families like ours for overpopulation discounts the fact that for countries like Canada, the fertility rate is significantly below the population renewal rate despite a handful of large families. Think about it: the fertility rate of 1.1 children per woman includes women like me. We don’t seem to be making a noticeable difference. If anything, we make demographic decline slightly less scary. I often meet funny people who enjoy telling me:
“I’m happy that there are people like you to make up for people like me.”
Except that we are outweighed: there are too many people like you for people like me to compensate.
Some will tell me that demographic decline is desirable to make-up for our poor ecological balance sheet. While it is true that resource abuse is threatening the environment, I would counter that what is killing the planet are abusive mentalities, not large families. If large families are too few to make a statistical difference in birth rates, what makes you think that there are enough of us to compromise the environment? Resource abuse and overuse happened in parallel with demographic decline. The problem is not simply how many people are killing the planet, but how they are doing it!
Our family lives in the suburbs of Ottawa in a typical wealthy suburban neighbourhood found throughout North America. Large single family homes, 4 bedrooms, double car garage. Two cars, or rather, one car and a larger vehicle such as a minivan or a SUV. The house we currently live in was designed for a family of 4 or 5 people. On my street, in houses of similar size and function, you will find mostly couples with no children or 1 or 2 children. Some are young families hoping to expand but most are older. They all live in 3 000+ sq. ft. homes built on prime agricultural land, with 2 vehicles, air conditioning and heating brought to you by some coal-fired power plant somewhere in Ontario. It doesn’t cost more to heat-up 3 000 square feet for a family of 10 than it does for a family of 2 by the way. Except that with the size of my bills, when the weather is nice I open the windows. Most of my neighbours turn-on the A/C in May and turn it off in October. And while my pile of garbage is bigger than theirs, the diesel-powered truck moves for them as much as it does for me… and their garbage pile is not one fifth of mine, although their household is. Their vehicles are never full and move at least as much as mine do. Every March Break, we stay home while most of my children’s school friends fly-off to a sunny destination. And you are shaking your accusatory finger at me?
Let me tell you what is killing the planet. It’s egotism. It’s a culture of entitlement that drives us to grab what should be ours, whether we need it or not. It’s the pursuit of “more”, not to say “too much”. Take a drive through Ottawa’s old neighbourhoods and take a look at the little brick bungalows. 2 or 3 bedrooms, no bigger than a triple car garage. Reflect on the fact that these homes were once considered family-sized, at a time where families were bigger. Today, my single family home features two bedrooms with full ensuites. Ideal for the only teen who would rather not share a toilet with his parents: your children can now sleep, socialize and shower in their very own personal wing. They don’t even need to interact while going to take a pee! Progress would be a built-in meal door. But the problem with the world is my husband, my children and I???
From my home office window, I watch the school buses go by. Every day, a well-meaning mother drives her daughter – who looks to be about 12 years-old — to the corner and picks her up at the end of the day. In Ottawa, a student cannot walk more than 500 m to get to a bus stop. If the distance between his home and the bus stop is greater than 500 m, a new bus stop is created. Throughout this very cold winter, the coldest on recent record, our attentive mother drove her daughter to and from the bus stop. The daughter never wore as much as a hat. No scarf, no mittens, not even a pair of boots. You need to understand that within a 500 m radius of my home office window, there is no low-income housing. We are not talking about a child in need; we are talking about a child who cannot walk 500 m (probably less) in the winter because it is “too cold”. And it’s too cold by choice. That’s the kind of choice, made every day, multiplied by millions of us, over our lifetime that brought planet earth to her knees. Not a handful of large families.
Yes, we use too much electricity, we drive too often and we wear too many clothes. We gather so much that we must build air-conditioned condos for our stuff. Not only have we covered our prime agricultural land with asphalt, we now build apartments for our stuff! We got there while our population was decreasing. Could you be looking for a culprit at the wrong place?
As for me and my husband, we will keep having children and raising them to become responsible citizens. I don’t know if we will succeed: the social forces pushing us toward overconsumption and self-centeredness are strong. But I believe that we have a better chance of succeeding because a large family is an incubator for the values that we hope to pass-on to our children. You should be happy: they will be paying for your adult diapers and performing your hip replacement surgeries for the next 60 years.