Big families and environmentalism

April 23, 2007 | 10 comments

I enjoyed reading this post on Starry Sky Ranch, where Kim recounts what happens when you take your big family (and your pregnant self) to an Earth Day celebration.

The last Earth Day celebration our family attended was in the mid ’90s. I had several young homeschoolers and was expecting another baby…Before attending this event I was not familiar with the term “zero population”. I wandered past the Sierra Club table and saw literature with that phrase displayed. I stopped and read, bewildered. Did it really suggest that the solution to our environmental problems was the elimination of babies? Indeed.

The man behind the table was pacing and silently counting heads. He looked at my children like they were sucking his air. As the message his organization was presenting sank in I said, “My goodness! We must be your worst nightmare then, huh?” He didn’t say no. In fact what he did say, looking at my belly, was, “It’s not to late to stop!” I try not to think of what he was implying.

His solution to our environmental problems reminds me of those who are ‘eliminating’ birth defects by eliminating handicapped babies in utero. That doesn’t solve a problem. We can do better than that…I am guessing our clan of 11 is easily more planet friendly than most families of four. We eat out maybe once a year. We make most of our food or buy it as ingredients rather than as packaged products. I drive an ancient van – twice a week. I buy all our clothing second hand and have furnished our home with about 75% thrifted treasures and refurbished hand me downs. We are raising animals suited to foraging in undesirable conditions. We tread lightly on the Earth. Tiptoes even. 😉

I admittedly have little tolerance for Hollywood figures jetting around the world dispensing environmental directives while they sip designer coffee in styrofoam cups, replacing their wardrobes every season, building oversized heated and cooled homes. My feeling is that environmentalism, like charity, begins at home. It begins small. It begins with self-denial and thriftiness. It begins with phrases like:

“Use it up, ” “Wear it out, ” “Make it do, ” “Do without.”

My best advice for saving the planet? Stay home. : ) You will use less, spend less, and want less.

The Maureen Wittman article she links to is good as well.

This resonates with my experience as well. The big families I know consume about the same amount of resources (maybe less) as most of the small families I know (and I sheepishly have to include my wasteful self in the latter group — but I’m working on that!) They seem to have less of a need to seek entertainment and fulfillment externally, and don’t have the time or the money to run all over town for activities and shopping. They’re not constantly shuttling kids around in the luxury minivan to soccer practice and the movies and the mall and to go out to eat at restaurants. They tend to leave the beat up old van parked in the driveway and stay home to play Scrabble and eat homemade pizza.

Becoming less wasteful is actually one of my big projects for this year. I grew up as a middle-class only child, surrounded by one- or two-child middle-class families, and my unthrifty way of running a household in terms of grocery shopping, reusing products, etc. just doesn’t work after about the fourth kid.


  1. HanseaticEd

    Thanks for this post. Your account of the Sierra Club man’s response to your ‘pregnant belly’ is appalling, yet is something I suspect many mothers of large families face. Instead of being recognized as the heroes they are, mothers seem often to be seen as harbingers of environmental disaster or, at the very least, downtrodden social misfits.

    In this respect, there was a feature on British television the other day about a reporter who tried to go ‘carbon-neutral’ for a year. The conclusion? That his family were big polluters for having a third (or fourth – I can’t remember) child. What no one pointed out is what you have in your own article: that many larger families rather tend to be less materialistic (almost by necessity), and more economic in their use of resources around the house.

    And so we bring our children into the world, trying to raise them to be loving, creative, productive, conscientious and conscious human beings, directing their hearts to God in the Church. But we do this under the negative judgement of those who would have no children, and others among society’s celebrated over-consumers.

    Being brave, smart, and faithful is the only answer. Thanks for the reminder.

  2. HanseaticEd

    I’m sorry. It seems I read too fast, and missed the reference to the original post from which this account was taken.

    I now see it was not *your* pregnant belly, but the original poster’s!

    I hope any of your acquaintances reading this have not got the wrong idea!

  3. Catholic Mom

    I learned a few things about earth day from Kathy Shaidle. We are called to be good stewards of the earth. However, I am sure we make a much bigger impact on both the environment and our culture if we concentrate our efforts on reducing wanton consumerism rather than trying to reduce the population. Living in the Northern Virginia DC suburbs, my children are the anomaly because they didn’t each get a car once they got a driver’s license. We manage to accommodate all the family drivers with carpools and public transportation. I will take a big family’s cooperative spirit over an only child’s demanding consumerism as the best practice for the environment.

  4. melanieb

    I hope you will consider writing about your attempts at becoming less wasteful. This is something I want to aim for as well. I’m not terrible but I could be better. I’d like to see what ideas you come up with.

  5. Father Stephanos, O.S.B.

    I think people from larger families learn better than others not to be the center of the universe (the environment, the earth, etc.), how to share, how to relate well to peers, to the younger and to the older.

  6. beez

    As a child of a large family, I can tell you that we wore hand-me-downs, ate out VERY rarely, didn’t have all of the activities causing our parents to drive us all over the place…

    We always had a roof over our heads and food in our bellies. We always wore clothes, but many where hand-me-down and Mom made others.

    I see my siblings who are obsessed, in many ways, of giving their kids “what I didn’t have.” I don’t say it very often, but sometimes I wonder, how is the life you’re giving your kids better than your own?

  7. lyrl

    Even some orthodox (little ‘o’) Catholic theologians seem to advocate against an abundance of large families. The following is the last few paragraphs from an article in the January/February 2007 issue of the Couple to Couple League’s magazine (although I feel a little odd subscribing as a non-Christian, they really publish some fascinating and inspiring articles):

    Another line of argument I want to pursue involves a discussion of the purpose of procreation in conjunction with God’s original command to Adam and Eve, “Increase and multiply” (Genesis 1:28). One of the chief insights of the Aristotelian/Thomistic philosophic tradition is that every action has an end. Things exist for a purpose. God’s command to Adam and Eve was to bring about the peopling of the earth. While certainly the birth of every human being is a good, the duty of married couples to have children is rationally related to the population needs of the world and the Church. As Pius XII taught, “The individual and society, the people and the State, the Church itself, depend for their existence, in the order established by God, on frutiful marriages.”

    A very interesting discussion of this question took place in the 1950s and early 1960s by moral theologians entirely orthodox and loyal to the Church’s Magisterium. In particular, let us look at a work written by Jesuit Fathers John C. Ford and Gerald Kelly, volume 2, Marriage Questions, of their Contemporary Moral Theology,” published in 1964. Frs. Ford and Kelly opine that, even with absolutely no excusing cause based on health, economics, etc., no married couple is bound by the law of God to have more children than is necessary for the general conservation and gradual increase of the human race. They state, “There may be difficulty in determining the exact limit for various countries; but certainly today in the United States a family of four children would be sufficient to satisfy the duty.”

    Such an approach to the question of use of natural family planning was not limited to these two authors. As they state, “Verbal acceptance of the theory was expressed by a great majority of some 30 moral theologians who discussed it at Notre Dame in June, 1952, on the occasion of the annual meeting of the Catholic Theological Society of America.” I am not insisting on four children as necessarily the correct number. In Europe at least, with its falling population a hogher number would seem to be called for. I only wish to argue that the general approach of these authors and of the pre-conciliar moralists was correct. Agreement on the exact number of children which fulfills one’s duty is less important than acceptance of the principle involved.

    In no way do I intend to disparage large families or those heroic spouses who do not wish to use periodic abstinence to space their children. My only purpose in writing is to show that the Church, always a loving Mother, speaking through her Sovereign Pontiffs, has indicated a generous attitude toward NFP use, an attitude, as Pius XII stated it, of “sympathy and comprehension” for the struggles of married couples. These couples should not have burdens put upon them greater than God requires, and to know what the requirements of God’s law are we simply turn to his Church, the Cahtolic Church, the ark of salvation for all of mankind.

    On the general issue of overpopulation, I think it’s a wash between the potential of smaller families to conserve resources, and the motivation larger families have to actually do so. Most likely if couples are mostly responsible in their decisions to have children, the population will not grow beyond its currently available resources.

    However, in the event of catastrophic resource failure, smaller families will suddenly have motivation to conserve – and the larger, already-conserving families can be pushed over the edge. My husband has been following Peak Oil theory fairly closely over the past year, and the way the numbers on global extraction of non-renewable resources are playing out now does not (IMO) bode well for the next decade or two.

  8. lyrl

    Oh, and forgot to add in my previous post – there seems to be a small movement called “Cruncy Cons”: environmentally responsible conservatives. There’s a book, and a buddy group of women has formed around the subject on Ovusoft, a message board I frequent.

  9. Mike J

    Simple take on the supporters of the “don’t have large families” ideology.

    Encourage them to pursue that ideology with all vigor.

    Meanwhile go on having your kids.

    150 years later, you win hands down.

  10. Anonymous

    Living lightly on the Earth is a screwy thing, tricky to measure accurately because when you pin down one factor and another slips by you.

    For example how much do you throw out? Plastics (all) metal, glass, and paper can be recycle. Vegetable waste can be composted. Really the only thing that needs to be thrown out is meat scraps and things like dirty diapers and pads for health reasons. I’ve seen a large household of over ten adults produce one little half full bag of garbage for an entire week. I’ve done it. Its amazing what you can pick up as part of a household. Do I do it now? HA. It would be nice.

    What about carbon emissions? Bio-diesel is great for carbon but puts out more particulates? What about open space and allowing nature to replenish the soil, clean the water, clean the air and support biodiversity. If you own land and let even a little bit of it grow wild you’re probably doing more than you realize. On the other hand if you fertilize for your farming, or spray pesticides, or have animal waste where it can wash into creeks or leach into ground water your doing a great deal of harm. Some things that look good, like preventing forest fires really aren’t. No, forest fires and the cones of the redwoods in the Sierra Nevada mountains of California never open. Sometimes the science isn’t what you expect.

    I made peace with the big family/environmentalist conflict when I got involved with my fiance’s big family. Population control is important. We have more people on the planet than the planet can support as it is. After all half the worlds population is malnourished. Of course we could do things differently, distribute wealth differently, use better technology, better farming methods, wise housing designs, ect. But if we do not control our population with our own wits mother nature will do it for us, with starvation and disease. If you won’t consider population control for environmental reasons consider it for humanitarian reasons. We should take care of the people we have before we start working on doubling out population every 10 years.

    Broad sweeping social trends will reduce the birth rate, not badgering a couple of odd balls. And raising a large family in Western Civilization IS odd ball. Just look at the average American and Western European family size. Look at who has a high birth rate and who doesn’t. Most of the growth is in the third world. The worst the situation the bigger the families. Reducing infant, and child mortality, reduces the birth rate. Educating girls reduces the birth rate. Improving the economic status of women and girls reduces the birth rate. Having a stable society where people can depend on civil society and individuals outside their family reduces the birth rate. Delaying the marriage of girls reduces the birth rate. Sexual consent reduces the birth rate. Marital consent reduces the birth rate. Allowing women to pick their own husbands reduces the birth rate. Access to contraception, and knowledge of the female reproductive system reduces the birth rate. So if controlling population growth is the goal, we should improve the condition of woman. We should make sure young girls can get an education, so they can earn a living and help so support their families so they will not be forced into marriage. We should make sure girls and women can choose if, when, and who to marry. We should make sure women and girls can refuse to have sex. We should keep the children parents have alive and healthy. We should support stable societies and functional economies. THAT is what will reduce the birth rate.

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