Jennifer Fulwiler is a writer and speaker who converted to Catholicism after a life of atheism. She’s a contributor to the books The Church and New Media and Atheist to Catholic: 11 Stories of Conversion, and is writing a book based on her personal blog, ConversionDiary.com. She and her husband live in Austin, TX with their five young children, and were featured in the nationally televised reality show Minor Revisions. You can follow her on Twitter at @conversiondiary.
Now that our fifth baby is seven months old, my husband and I are often asked: “So…are you done now?” I usually share my thoughts on how we approach the question of future children, which everyone understands is a long way of saying “No.” This is inevitably brings the conversation to an awkward end, my acquaintance mumbling something about not knowing how we do it and changing the subject to the weather.
But there is often an unspoken question that lingers in the air, one that I only hear articulated by people who are drunk or commenting anonymously on the internet, but that many others wonder silently:
Aren’t you worried about overpopulation?
It’s a fair question. Certainly if I’m doing something to contribute to a future that looks like something out of a zombie apocalypse movie, except with Fulwiler descendants in place of zombies, I should be called out about that. But I don’t think that I am, and here’s why:
1. Our lifestyle is necessarily simple
As Simcha Fisher has pointed out, big families tend to have low carbon footprints per person, usually because we’re broke and don’t travel much. For example, my rough calculations show that the average American family home has about 500 square feet per person; our family has 250 square feet per person, which means that each of us also consumes less in terms of energy used to heat, cool, and light the house. We naturally tend to re-use what we have rather than buying new stuff, simply to make our budgets work. The difficulty of getting everyone out of the house means that we don’t run around in our cars as much as other families, and air travel is also less common (did you know that a flight across the U.S. produces three tons of carbon dioxide per passenger?)
2. It’s unlikely that all of our children would go on to have big families themselves
My husband and I feel like it’s the right path for us to have a relatively large number of kids, but that doesn’t mean that will be the right path for all of our children. Some might get married later in life, or have lower levels of fertility, or simply feel like a smaller family size is best for them. Also, as Catholics, there is the option of celibate religious life. When we talk to our children about their futures, we don’t assume that they’ll get married; we encourage them to remain open to the call to the priesthood or the consecrated life, in which case they would not have children.
3. Self-sacrifice is a fundamental part of our belief system
I’m glad to see that living a green lifestyle has caught on in popular culture. But I think that the pro-environment messages in secular society are fighting a losing battle against a another dominant message, which is that life is about seeking your own personal happiness. And, specifically, we’re bombarded by the idea that the way to find happiness is to consume: Buy this tech gadget, get this car, own this house, take this trip to a foreign country, and then you’ll be happy. Like many families, our openness to a larger-than-average number of children was influenced by our Christian faith—but this is the same faith that also teaches that the very meaning of life is service and self-sacrifice. Of course we may not live that out perfectly all the time, but rejection of a consumerist, wasteful lifestyle is at the very core of our belief system.
4. Population decline has serious downsides too
There’s a lot of discussion in popular culture about the downsides of increasing population levels. Fair enough, but we’re doing ourselves a disservice if we ignore the fact that declining population growth has serious downsides too. For one thing, it cripples economies: The number of children being born at any given time is directly correlated to a nation’s future prosperity. This is concerning, considering that by 2050 Europe’s population will experience a drop similar in magnitude to that which happened during the Black Death, and Japan is on track to lose 90% of its population size within four generations. Also, not having enough young people in the workforce to pay into the tax system has devastating consequences for the elderly. At best this would lead to widespread loneliness and poor standards of care, but at worst it would put pressure on senior citizens to end their lives through euthanasia to ease their “burden” on the already strained system.
5. Populations tend to correct themselves as resources get more scarce
So what if everyone followed our same path and started having big families again? Wouldn’t that lead to mushrooming populations and horrible, Malthusian scenarios of mass starvation and chaos? I doubt it. When demographers began to study population patterns throughout history, they discovered that people are not rabbits. Even in societies that didn’t have access to modern contraception, people didn’t just breed and breed and breed, see people starving to death all around them, then keep breeding uncontrollably. (For example, during the Great Depression, birth rates dropped 26% between 1926 and 1936.) There have been plenty of horrible times in history when there weren’t enough resources to go around, but the cause can usually be traced back to political corruption, natural disasters, wars, etc., and not overpopulation per se. I’m not convinced that worldwide resource shortage due to overpopulation alone would ever come to pass, but even if it did, it would likely be a gradual process. Based on what we’ve seen throughout history, if people all across the globe suddenly had a difficult time affording even the most basic goods and fuels, you could expect to see a dramatic fall in birth rate.
6. Every child has a Hope Footprint
There’s a tendency to judge our fellow human beings by the amount of resources they consume, and not factor in what they can give back to the world. Johann Sebastian Bach was the youngest of eight; Celine Dion was the youngest of 14. Thomas Edison was a seventh child, and Benjamin Franklin was his father’s fifteenth. If the brave bystander who pulled you out of a burning building was an eighteenth child, would you still wish that his parents had stopped at fewer kids? If the scientist who invents an energy source that renders fossil fuels obsolete was baby number 10 in her family, would she still be considered “overpopulation”? Yes, each new human will consume the planet’s resources; but each new person also carries infinite potential to change the world for the better. And I believe that every new baby’s Hope Footprint far outweighs his Carbon Footprint.
So, for those of you who have wondered, “Aren’t you concerned about the environment?” but have been too polite to ask, that’s my answer.
Yes, I share your concern about the future of our planet. And I understand that your heart is in the right place when you shudder at the thought that I’m not “done,” even though I already have five kids. You probably adhere to the worthy and admirable philosophy that people should not take more than they need, and perhaps see parents of large families as needlessly creating more consumers. You think of the earth’s resources as being a static number that only goes down, and worry that every new life that’s added to the world brings that number a little lower.
But the fact is that the amount and type of resources that it takes to support human populations is constantly changing. New, more efficient ways to grow food and create energy are springing up all the time, and it’s all thanks to human innovation. More people means more ideas, more workers, more love, and more hope. And so, I don’t see my children as adding to the problem; I see them as contributors to the solutions of the future. Who knows? One of them might be your future employee, your nurse, your neighbor, or your son- or daughter-in-law. And together, I believe we’ll make the world a better place.