Are we killing you yet?

By popular demand, I translated my previous post on large families and the environment.

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?

You don’t have to be a scholar in demographics to see that large families are not the cause of overpopulation. Assuming that you accept the arguments in favour of overpopulation. 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 former 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 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, filled to the brim. This March Break, we stayed home bar a 60 minute drive to the nearest ski hill. Half of my children’s school friends flew-off to a sunnier 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 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.

Waiting for the bus as I write. Not making stuff up.
Waiting for the bus as I write. Not making stuff up.

Yes, we use too much electricity, we drive too often and we wear too many clothes. We gather so much stuff that we must now build air-conditioned spaces to store our things. Do you really think that families like mine made Dymon Storage facilities pop like mushrooms? 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.

Picture by Jenna Sparks, Lifestyle photographer:
Picture by Jenna Sparks, Lifestyle photographer:

17 thoughts on “Are we killing you yet?

  1. I could not agree more!!! Your blog is so well written – dans les deux langues! I share your opinions, and only wish I had started younger so that I could also raise a “large” family of responsible, compassionate global citizens. Bravo!! 🙂

  2. Right on!

    Previously, worries of overpopulation was one of the reasons that we wanted a small family, but recently I’ve learned a lot more about global population, and I realize that it isn’t really that much of a concern. It’s way more about the way we’re using our resources, not the number of people. I have a small family and we want to downsize because our 3 bedroom home is too big for us. My mom (who lives in a 3000sq/ft home and spends $900/month on winter heating!!!!) tried to tell me yesterday that 2 bedrooms is too small for a family of three, because there’s “no room to put your stuff” and no room to “have your own space”.

  3. Right on!

    Previously, worries of overpopulation was one of the reasons that we wanted a small family, but recently I’ve learned a lot more about global population, and I realize that it isn’t really that much of a concern. It’s way more about the way we’re using our resources, not the number of people. I have a small family and we want to downsize because our 3 bedroom home is too big for us. My mom (who lives in a 3000sq/ft home and spends $900/month on winter heating!!!!) tried to tell me yesterday that 2 bedrooms is too small for a family of three, because there’s “no room to put your stuff” and no room to “have your own space”.

  4. Oh my goodness, this is the best thing I’ve read in AGES. I want to boil your post down to bullet points, print it on business cards, and pass them out to the strangers who make those comments to my modest family of six.

  5. I now have 11 kids, but have been getting “family size” comments since I was expecting my third. However, people have given up on me and now mostly keep their opinions to themselves but not all their observations…. I did enjoy your post and look forward to seeing more! Congratulations on your beautiful family.

  6. I also have 11 kids. My youngest is 22 but I did get the comments and most of them were just cruel. I also agreed to an interview during a March Break one year. It opened me to ridicule and really bothered me until I came to the realization that people were just jealous. They wished they could have had a large family but they let society talk them out of it. I really enjoyed your article. It confirms what we have always believed which is that “all is provided”.

  7. Ahhhhh! Amen sister! That’s all I can say. LOL! From a mom of 7, thanks for stating the truth on this matter. 🙂

  8. Great post! I have two children, now nearly grown, and I live in a three-bedroom house built in the 1930s. Most houses on my street are smaller and they ALL held families bigger than mine when they were built. I met someone who used to live down the street in a slightly larger house than mine — the couple had eight children. Most of the people I went to school with live in houses at least double the size of mine, and bigger than the house down the street that once held 10. Whose carbon footprint is bigger, pray tell? People had a lot less stuff and did lot more together back then.

  9. Mom of eight :). The view out of our window looked a lot like yours – now we are on a farm, still in a regular sizd house, butroom to play without worrying about disturbing anyone. I love Alberta – much more large family friendly, but Vive La Quebec, and Felicitations on a great blog post, saying things i think All the Time!

  10. Hello, yes you made some good points here. I agree that most Canadians live way to ‘big’ for their needs. As we become ever more aware that our resources are limited the resource consumption argument is much more relevant than perhaps the birth rate argument, because lifestyle dictates much of that consumption burden. You hit the nail on the head that suburban homes built for 5 will be generally as energy consuming regardless of number of individuals in the house.

    That being said, large families do consume more water, food and other material resources (which you acknowledge with your garbage concern). As many large families seem to be reading this blog I appreciate you made that point, and it is good to be aware of these things so that recycling, and waste is consciously thought of and reduced. No need for paper plates when you have so many extra pairs of hands to wash dishes. And kids can be encouraged to take short showers to improve water conservation etc. This would be a way to ‘offset’ the number of people argument.

    On a global scale I worry that your analysis of birthrate is a little under researched and under-thought. I am no expert but from my reading, as a researcher studying an aspect of climate change I can tell you that over population is a global problem with immense local implication. While you may be right that Canadian fertility is below fecundity estimates, it does not mean that our population is not growing. You cannot ignore or deny that immigration is a large part of our nations population growth. Canada is not an island with closed doors. We allow immigrants in, as we should because of humanitarian reasons, and this is a large factor in our population projections. If every Canadian started having large families, and immigration continued to increase our population would rise exponentially undoubtedly. Its good to be aware of these things. This is not an argument against large families, its a reality and something that deserves deeper thought and analysis.

    I grew up in a household of 2 and was always sad that mom and dad didn’t have 3-5 more of us so I could have lots of siblings to play with. Her stories of childhood were all about the amazing times she had with her 7 siblings. I wanted this too. But as an adult, retrospectively I have realized that I did have that just in a different way. In my suburban neighborhood with neighbors meters away I usually fond friends to play with. The people I depend on are a mixture of family and friends. Some of my childhood girlfriends are as close to me as my own sibling. The tight sibling bonds are still made, only now its across blood lines. I am starting to realize that maybe to have that sense of community that a large family traditionally brings maybe what we can do is be better neighbors and better friends. Just a thought I am playing with.

    Good article non-the-less! And you have a beautiful family!

    1. Thank you for your message! For sure, demographics is a more complex subject than I make it to be in my post. Like many topics, it is not only divisive but polarizing and polarization is always the enemy of a balanced and thoughtful approach. It seems that we are either social conservatives with a large family and therefore believe that environmental degradation is a sham, or we are left-wing tree huggers with no kids, a cat and a Prius and we think that people like me are killing the planet. I would like to see my children grow-up in a much cleaner, gentler, simpler and more sustainable world.

      Many people seem to make the argument that large families by definition reduce, reuse and recycle. Not necessarily! There is definitely more water flowing at shower time in my house! But my point was that there is simply not enough of us large families to make a difference, either in birth rates or environmental degradation. For sure if everyone did like us, it would be different. But it’s a big “if”: not only are people not doing like us, they are taking the opposite path.

    2. “That being said, large families do consume more water, food and other material resources (which you acknowledge with your garbage concern).”

      Not necessarily. I have five children, so a seven-person household. We put out a small fraction — perhaps a quarter or a third — of the garbage that our neighbors with two and three person households do. They have twice a week pickups and overflowing bins; we have a single weekly pickup and never fill the trash.

      I do tend to be thrifty, but I’ve not yet figured out what all their garbage consists of. What are two or three people consuming so much of that the remnants take up two huge bins each week?

      Honestly, the demographics and economies of scale are such that the large-family-shaming that the author and others experience is little more than spite and irrational anxiety.

  11. I absolutely love this post! I love the points you make about our urban sprawl and covering our agricultural land. I actually live near you and this past spring, when my husband, my baby and I were out walking our dog in the area behind you house, we found your husband and many of your children out picking up the insane amount of dog feces left behind by other people over the course of the winter! Your children were doing it with wonderful smiles on their faces and such a beautiful spirit of service. We were absolutely blown away and thanked them all profusely for this service. We would have stayed to help but we were expected somewhere, but we made sure that on our next walk we brought some extra bags to clean up any more that we saw lying around (and there was plenty!). Anyway, it takes a very special group of people to care that much about the environment that they would go out and clean up other peoples’ messes (and it really drives me crazy that people don’t pick up after their dogs), ensuring that those feces did not make into the nearby lake and helping that lovely natural area stay clean and stink-free. I would say that is the more important “environmental impact” of your big family.

    1. Hi Miquela! Thanks for your message! My husband and my kids told me that someone had thanked them for picking up the dog poop. It’s funny because the way this all started is that my oldest daughter had let the dog out our back door to go pee in the bushes and she also pooped. Then it got covered in snow. So initially, the goal was to pick up whatever dog poop we had missed during the winter. We ended-up filling 7 garbage bags!! It’s just crazy! Obviously it wasn’t all from our dog. People are just so lazy.

      Thanks again and don’t be afraid to come by and say Hi next time!

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