Large Families & “Sustainability”
In the comments section of a recent post, titled, “Why Have More Kids?” I received this comment:
While I can appreciate your thoughts, my big issue with extra large families, is that ultimately, it is unsustainable. Can you imagine what the world would be like if everyone decided to have 6+ children!? We are already outgrowing our planet. People used to have 5+ kids in a lifetime, mostly because they needed free labor, and because child mortality rates were so high. But nowadays, with vaccinations and healthcare, and food availability, it just doesn’t make sense. Think about minimizing your footprint, and yes, that means procreating less and using birth control. It is your choice, but it is a choice that ALL of us will have to live with eventually, and I’m sure God would agree with me on that one.
I have a number of thoughts, including:
- Not everyone wants to, or will, have 6+ children, so that criticism is a bit ethereal and surreal.
- We are not outgrowing our planet. The entire world’s population could fit in the state of Texas with the same density as New York City. There are vast regions of land in the world that are unsettled and unused, and with modern equipment and research, farming/ranching practices continue to increase in efficiency.
- People historically had 5+ kids because people are fertile, and had marital relations that stretched over decades. Because fertility is generally the way our bodies were designed to work, people had a lot of children, not merely “because they needed free labor,” or because kids died more easily. That’s putting a modern-day spin on the historical reality of life lived as generally-fertile human beings.
But rather than trying to convince this commenter of something that is clearly the opposite of what he/she believes, I’m just going to share, as best I’m able, our personal experience with living life as a large family and the eco-footprint we leave. I write this not as an exercise in self-justification, or as a litany of reasons why others should live life as we do, or even to put forth that this is the case for every large family, but just to counter some of these thoughts about sustainability with my own personal experience.
- We consistently buy in bulk, thus reducing the amount of paper/plastic waste per ounce of food consumed.
- I conscientiously plan our meals, and we cook in bulk, using less energy per food serving.
- Because we are on a tighter budget (supporting ourselves + 6 children on one person’s salary), we rarely eat out. Less paper/plastic waste, and less gas spent acquiring food.
- We eat left-overs often and rarely throw out food, which reduces our average per-person food waste.
- We shop at discount grocery stores to make our grocery money stretch farther (think: cereal boxes with crushed/ripped boxes, though still possessing perfectly intact bags; or organic butter that’s a few days/weeks from “expiring”), thus using up products that would otherwise be thrown away and/or go unused.
- I want to be clear and honest about this part: we do, or will particularly once our children get older, use more food in total than the average family. But when you average out for food costs, and food usage, per person, because of how we buy and cook it in larger batches, I believe we still come out more eco-friendly than the average bear.
- I estimate that more than 85% of the clothes and shoes we buy are purchased at thrift stores, and some of what we wear is given to us by other families who have outgrown their belongings, or purchased at garage sales. Reusing clothes cast-off by others is by nature eco-conscious.
- I almost never throw out clothes. Ripped/stained t-shirts get turned into t-shirt yarn. Usable parts of old jeans and men’s shirts get washed and turned into adorable baby bibs that I give to friends at baby showers. Clothes in good condition that we can’t/don’t wear get passed on to others, either for free, or via garage sales/online groups. Beaten-up tennis shoes from one child get passed down to the next child to become mud/play shoes. We creatively use and re-use clothing, even when it’s beyond normal use as clothing.
- I’m fairly certain that my maternity clothes have gotten more play than most maternity garments will ever get. 😀
- All of our boy clothing is worn by multiple children. I keep all clothes in usable condition in bins, organized by size. Without using gasoline or landfills, these clothes go on to be worn by 2, 3, 4, or more boys (in fact, occasionally, I’ll put an outfit on Theo, our 5th son, and realize that it was first worn by our 1st son, Ethan, 10+ years ago). It is rare for clothes to last through 5 boys, but it does occasionally happen, especially in the 2T-and-under sizes. When our younger sons reach a new stage, I simply pull out the appropriate-sized bin, and — voila! — they have an instant eco-friendly wardrobe, without a gallon of gas consumed, and without a dollar spent!
- As we only have 1 daughter, so far, her clothes have only been worn by her (except for the occasional loaning out of clothes to friends with little girls), but we have stored them in bins so they can be reused if ever we have another daughter.
- Because we are conscientious about reducing the size/scale of laundry duty, we all wear pants and pajamas 2 times, before putting them in the dirties hamper.
SHELTER & ENERGY COSTS
- When we had 4 children, we had 6 people in our 1400-square-foot apartment, using the same amount of space, and heat as elderly couples and 1- or 2- child families around us. (At that time, we lived overseas in a complex where the building, rather than the individual, regulated the heat-usage for the entire building.) So the same amount of space, rent, and heating bill housed and heated our 6-person family as others did with families 1/2 or 1/3 the size of ours.
- We now have 8-going-on-9 people in a 2600-square-foot house. This may be bigger or smaller than other families’ homes, but by assessing the families on our street, we pack about twice the amount of people into roughly the same amount of square footage. And it takes the same amount of money to pay the mortgage, and same amount of energy to heat a house, whether there are 2, 4, 8, or 10 people living in it. Our mortgage and heating bill won’t cost any more than our neighbors’ will, but it will go to house and warm (on average) double or even triple the amount of human beings.
- Our grass grows just as slow/fast as our neighbors’ yards. Gas for lawn mowing & water-usage to keep the plants growing require roughly the same amount for us, as for them, but considering how many people live here, for yard maintenance, our gas- and water-usage-per-person is dramatically less.
- We bathe in bulk. LOL. By that I mean, one tub of bathwater typically goes to clean 3 little boys at a time.
- Because we are bill-conscious, our older kiddos have learned to take quick, efficient showers. (Though perhaps not yet with Frank-Gilbreth-quality efficiency!) We may use more water, in total, than a smaller family, but our water-usage-per-person is likely much lower.
- As homeschoolers, we run the dishwasher twice/day on average, which may seem like a lot to the 4-person family who eats most of their meals out, but considering that this is the sum-total of our dish usage (i.e.,no take-out/fast food trash, no school-lunch trays to wash, no working lunch trash, etc.), it’s actually likely to be far less energy usage and eco-footprint than a much smaller family.
- We have 2 used vehicles for 8 people. Both are rarely driven, compared to families among our similar-aged/similar stage peers.
- We purposefully bought a home near my husband’s work so that he could walk to work, and we walk to church, to the library, and to the park.
- We get in the van, on average, 3-5 days a week, and while our van is a 15-passenger large vehicle, we get roughly the same gas mileage as a minivan, (12-15 mpg) but instead of hauling 3-5 people, we haul 8 people in it.
- Because we homeschool, value keeping our schedule as simple as possible, and don’t participate in skads of outside activities, we are rarely in our vehicle.
- Almost all of our school materials are reusable, rather than consumable.
- Novels get read dozens of times.
- Because we are home throughout the day, math manipulatives, games, puzzles, and building blocks get used day-in, day-out, all day, by our children. The cost-per-use of these educational items is far less than if these items were sitting on a shelf all day while the children were away from home.
- Our textbooks (which we bought used) get passed down and used with multiple children.
- As homeschoolers, we don’t contribute to the gas-usage and exhaust-fumes of driving to/from school each day. While buses and drop-off/pick-up lines are in full swing “out there,” we’re getting our day started at home.
- Because we have begun having our babies at home, our medical “waste” — paper printouts, blood tests, gown washing, etc.– is reduced, per visit & per birth, from what happens in a doctor’s office & hospital. (And trust me, I know about hospital births: I’ve given birth in 5 different hospitals around the world, before beginning to have our babies at home.)
- By not using chemical birth control, I’m not contributing to water pollution (not flushing hormones and harmful chemicals into the rivers and water supply).
- All of our children’s “gear”— baby equipment (pack & play, bouncy seat, floor gym, burp cloths), toys, trampoline, bunk beds, etc.– gets used for many more years, and through many more children, than it would in the “average” American home. The cost per use– cost to manufacture, ship, sell, and ultimately dispose of the item– is dramatically less in our family for virtually every item, simply due to the number of people who use any given item before it is thrown out/given away.
If you know me, you’ll realize this: I’m not saying A WORD of this to “slam” smaller families. I am not someone who believes that others need to look at my life as a prescriptive tutorial for how they should live theirs, or who believes that more children = godlier or better.
Rather, I share these things to offer our experiences, and to answer an oft-asked question/criticism about large families. I think there is often a gross misunderstanding about the ecological impact of life lived as a large family, and hope that this post will further the discussion and serve to shed some light on the subject.
IN THE COMMENTS:
- Did I accomplish my goal of shedding some light on the way our large family lives in an eco-friendly way?
- Did I miss listing an important way that large families are surprisingly “green”?
- Anything else you’d add to this discussion?
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