As a father of four kids, I am sometimes asked whether my wife and I “intended” to have “so many” children.  They say, “I don’t want to be rude, but…”  Well, the answer is yes; we did intend to have so many children.  While it is very challenging, having a large family has many benefits, both for us and, especially (we hope) for our society.  We strive to raise our kids to be thoughtful, productive Christians, who will impact culture in many positive ways.  And we hope that they, in turn, will have many kids of their own who do the same.  This is the way cultures are renewed, and we aspire to be a link in that causal chain in our own culture, which so badly needs renewal.

However, I occasionally encounter people who take a very different view of the matter.  The Earth is already overpopulated, they tell me, and having children only adds further stress to the planet.  Each kid means one more massive carbon footprint, a net loss to Earth.  Thinking themselves conscientious environmentalists, they suggest that the path my wife and I have chosen is actually irresponsible.  While these conversations rarely turn into debates, I am prepared to show my skeptical friends the flaws in their thinking.

First of all, such thinking assumes that our kids will be environmentally irresponsible, which we are working hard to prevent.  None of our lives need be a “net loss” to the planet.  In fact, if our kids turn out to be as environmentally responsible as we hope they will be, then we can expect net gains because of them.  For one thing, we practice a form of vegetarianism which has tremendous environmental benefits.  In terms of reducing greenhouse gases, abstaining from meat is one of the most significant contributions that one can make.  And we expect that our kids will likely continue this family practice into adulthood, perhaps teaching their own progeny to do the same.  On top of this, there is the potential that one of our kids will become an environmental scientist and make a profound contribution to the field.  The reasoning of my skeptical friends rules this possibility out of hand a priori.

This brings up another point which is rather exasperating.  None of the no-kids-because-of-the-environment folks I know are vegetarians.  They are so concerned about the planet that they refuse to procreate, but they refuse to do this very beneficial thing for the environment: abstain from meat.  For a while this puzzled me, but then it hit me.  The refusal to have kids and indulgence in meat have something in common-both choices are easy and convenient.  Raising kids and maintaining a vegetarian diet, on the other hand, are difficult and inconvenient.

Finally, and most disappointing from the standpoint of moral reasoning, the no-kids environmentalists are (or tend to be) guilty of one-track thinking when it comes to family planning.  By making environmental concerns the single overriding factor in their choice not to have children, they make this a moral trump card.  But even if environmental concerns did support the small family approach, why should we ignore the many other considerations which support the opposite perspective?  What about the countless ways that well-trained children can benefit society when they become adults (or even while they are still young)?  When there are so many other significant factors to take into account when doing family planning, a purely environmental approach seems narrow-minded and, well, irresponsible.  In fact, it makes me suspect that something other than environmental issues are at play here.  But, of course, this is not something I would ever say to the no-kids environmentalists.  I wouldn’t want to be rude.

5 Responses to “Big Families and the Environment”

  1. Fred Johnson


    Jim Spiegel, circa 1996 (paraphrased): “If you have one kid, you should always have a second, so that your kids will have someone they can talk to about what it’s like to have *parents like you*.”

    I’ve always like that, because it’s funny, sure, but also because it gets at the messy lived experience of being in a family. That’s something important that you could add to your list, though it’s hard to define as a bullet point. There’s something good and human about the family experience at its best (and even at its not-so-best). Another friend said to me once that people are wrong to be afraid that marriage will diminish them: It doesn’t make you 1/2 of what you are. It turns your one to two. And you were one, but now you’re six. And so on. We can tell a thousand stories about families to try to understand this, but it won’t track easily or completely in most cost-benefit analyses.

  2. Devon


    You know, I have often thought of your views on this while making the decisions that have shaped my own family along the way. (If you only knew how much the two of you have rubbed off on our daily lives here in NC!) But, even though we have decided to have two of our own, I’m not sure I can get past the idea that–if I wanted to have any more–I should adopt the children that are already out there in order to raise wonderful citizens and Christians, and meanwhile save a precious child.

  3. Lezlie


    I’ve only recently been exposed to the “kids are bad for the environment” argument on PBS. (Head-scratcher: they seem to like kids.) Wish I could remember the program. I haven’t had the time to really think through a good response to it and, while expecting kid #2, I want to make sure I have one. Thanks for the leg-up onto the it’s-good-to-have-more-than-one-kid wagon.

    I am inclined to agree with Devon, though, about the whole adoption thing. Perhaps the out-there environmentalist would couch it in terms of recycling a life. If you’re thinking purely statistically, perhaps adopting would not only add a child to the “raised to be Christ-like” category, but could potentially take one out of the “not raised to be Christ-like” category at the same time. (“Potentially” because of course not all parents to choose to let another adult raise their child are non-Christian or would not become Christians early in the child’s life.) Besides, adoption is a beautiful picture of the family of Christ.

    I also am in line with Devon in that your family continues to influence ours in big ways and small. You may have no idea how your example and persuasion have affected more kids entering the world and less cows having bad lives of full of consumption before they leave it.

  4. Jim Spiegel


    Superb comments, all. Leave it to the impeccable and irrepressible memory of Fred Johnson to quote me verbatim from 12 years ago. Nice work. Devon and Lezlie, you make excellent points about the merits of adoption, particularly children from contexts where their rearing would likely be anything but Christian. As Lezlie suggests, there seems to be an extra measure of redemption in this, both literally and in the theological truth it represents. Very cool. Also, thanks for the kind and encouraging remarks, ya’ll.

  5. Brad Seeman


    Malachi 2 seems appropriate: “Has not the LORD made them one? In flesh and spirit they are his. And why one? Because he was seeking godly offspring.” Marriage is so much bigger than any two people.


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