Sow Good Seeds: The Ecological Case for Smaller Families

When my husband and I moved into our neighborhood, a well-meaning neighbor asked me, in probably the second conversation we’d had with her, when we planned on filling our new house with children.

I smiled politely, said something like, “Oh, you know, we’ll see,” and changed the subject.

Although I could have, I didn’t point out to her the vast number of reasons that such a question is rarely appropriate between near-strangers (and even people who know each other), and I won’t go into those now. It wasn’t the first time the question had been posed to me as a woman of childbearing age, and I’m sure it won’t be the last. Maybe I’ll work up the courage to broach the discussion next time.

To pick from the multiplicity of responses I have to her question, I’m struck that her ideal familial state seems to involve having a number of children: one at the very least, and that one would probably want siblings.

I’d like to make the case, on behalf of the planet, that less might be more. I am not a parent, and I don’t know if I can or will be, but I want to be conscious of the impact of my choices on the earth in terms of family size.

Let me acknowledge at this point that parenthood, families, and the decisions around these issues are extremely personal, intimate, and sensitive. Many of my friends and family have started families; I love them deeply, and I wouldn’t dream of passing judgment on them. Others I know yearn for a child, but that desire has not yet been fulfilled. Some have chosen to adopt. Still others live rich and full lives without children.

But for myself and my husband, should we find ourselves in a position to grow our family, I know it will be small.

The simple reason is the more people there are, the less planet there is to go around. Earth is already at capacity. Its energy, food, and material resources are finite, and our consumption has outpaced its supply. Use of fossil fuels, levels of greenhouse gases, and population are intertwined; we’re already seeing the effects of climate change due to the population growth and resource consumption of the past couple centuries.  

If we use the metaphor of a household budget, we as a human race need to rein in our spending.

What does this have to do with families? It means our children and grandchildren will be faced with pressures and environmental issues we haven’t had to deal with yet. It means there will be even more people in their world household, working with even fewer dollars in the metaphorical bank account. It means their lives will have to look very different from ours in order to maintain quality of life. It’s for their sake that I am making this decision now.

Am I saying no one should have any more babies? Of course not. 

Rather, slowing the growth of humanity will set the stage for future generations – whether they’re of our bloodlines or someone else’s, in our neighborhood or across the ocean – to live free and healthy lives. It will mean their air stays cleaner, their food is affordable, their water doesn’t harm them. Their country engages in fewer conflicts over arable land, clean water access, health-related issues, and the last remaining fossil fuels. They can experience wild, remote areas. Their property may not be encroached upon by rising tides. They will not be driven from their homes by drought or famine.

I’m fully aware that smaller family size isn’t the silver bullet to reversing climate change, and neither is it something you can change if you already have children. Reducing individual and household consumption needs to run parallel. The Global Footprint Network estimates we’d need four more planets if every human were to consume resources at the rate of the average American (think rates of car ownership, heating and cooling usage, air travel, meat consumption, etc.).

In my opinion, the takeaway from that statistic is not that it will be impossible to bring the rest of the world up to American standards, but that Americans need to do their part by reducing resource use significantly. I plan to teach our children, should they grace our household, to live within the means that Earth generously offers.

The road ahead will be filled with ecological challenges for those who follow us. How can we best support them? How can we set an example and set them up to thrive within the parameters that our planet has laid out? How can we use our power to empower them?

Deborah Haak-Frost is grateful for every ray of sunshine that reaches her skin. She is the Caretaker for Community Engagement at GilChrist Retreat Center in Three Rivers. 

Any views or opinions expressed in “Sow Good Seeds” are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of the Watershed Voice staff or its board of directors.


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