“I don't see myself having more than one child if I have any at all– I think I have a responsibility to the environment– to not bring any more children into an already overcrowded world." It doesn't happen too often, but I have actually heard that sanctimonious remark from people who know full well that my husband and I have 10 kids. Instead of rejoicing in the existence of our unique, individual children, they see them as consumers of resources. G. K. Chesterton demolished this old argument when he wrote in his introduction to Dickens' A Christmas Carol that, "The answer to anyone who talks about the surplus population is to ask him whether he is the surplus population, or if he is not, how he knows he is not."
In any case, I make no apologies for the ecological footprint required to adequately care for our family. The footprint itself is a questionable yardstick. It can be useful as a measure of relative consumption that encourages people to pay attention to the impact they have on the world around them. But the danger lies in seeing individuals solely in terms of their carbon output – in a kind of inverted utilitarianism that Dickens himself might have had some macabre fun with.
Imagine a character always on the lookout for each person's ecological footprint, no matter what their circumstances. What would the master of caricature have named this latter-day Scrooge or Gradgrind? Something more morally incisive, I think, than "Professor Schpinkee", the character who presides over the Australian Broadcasting Corporation’s Planet Slayer website. After reading about the ABC’s bid to save the planet in the Globe and Mail I took Schpinkee’s greenhouse calculator quiz and discovered I'd be using up my share of the earth's resources in 3.2 years. After that I am not sure what I'm supposed to do – just kill myself, I guess. Perhaps the ABC feels that ecological footprint calculators up until now have been too tame, and fail to generate the desired results.
My own children, when they take ecology questionnaires in geography class, typically score very nicely. They come out with very small footprints. Surprising? Not if you think about how tight our budget is. Like other large families we know, we have no problem meeting any city-imposed garbage collection limits. We need to make items last longer and so are not throwing as much away. We need to cook more food from scratch and so are not tossing piles of convenience food packaging into the trash. But don’t just take my word for it: a recent study published by the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives found that the wealthiest 10 per cent of Canadians have an ecological footprint that is 66 per cent bigger than that of the average Canadian household.
Our budget is not the only reason we are careful about the energy we use and the garbage we produce. Like other parents, we try to work a little character building into each day – for both our children and ourselves. We try not to give in to our greediest impulses, try not to be wasteful, and try to teach our family about responsible stewardship. This means endeavouring to use natural resources in a way that is in keeping with our dignity as human beings, preserving the world for future generations, doing our part to minimize any negative impact on others’ health and well-being. That includes wearing shoes either until they are outgrown or worn through; having short showers; and in the summer, putting up with the heat until it becomes detrimental to our family.
We really tried to do all we could afford to do to avoid installing air conditioning: high-tech heat-deflecting window blinds for the south and west-facing windows, a fast growing native tree to eventually shield the screen door in our kitchen, even a pergola with a vine to shade our back porch from the morning sun. All our light bulbs are energy saving compact fluorescent bulbs which generate far less heat than ordinary incandescent ones. Heat producing appliances, including the coffee maker, are not used during the dog days of summer. I could go on, but you get the idea. The trouble is, by the third day of humidex readings passing 40 degrees centigrade, our brick house (built like an oven to withstand Canadian winters) is simply unbearable, even with these precautions. The kids can't sleep, and though I can keep the younger ones home from school during the May and June heat waves to recover, those in high school still have to show up and write their final exams. My husband and I still have to go to work.
Going to work on less than a good night's sleep isn't what pushed us over the edge, though. What got us in the end were the smog days. Last year, in our city, there were 31 days rated "poor" for air quality. Most of them occurred from May to September. There are three mild-chronic asthmatics in the house (my husband and two of the kids) and leaving the windows open on a smog day during a heat wave is, simply, a bad idea. Yet without air conditioning, we had no choice. Lately we found we could afford two window air conditioners. In order to spare our children, we bought them. By doing so, we increased our ecological footprint. I haven't calculated exactly by how much, but it's enough for me that we can shut the windows and shut out the haze.
Because there are five coal-burning power plants in our home province of Ontario, and our air conditioners are of the plug-in variety (unlike, say, the British Columbia rainforest canopy), we will be contributing to the burning of coal and the increase in smog in order to spare ourselves the effects of… smog. Of course, the immediate priority for us is the health of our children. Does that excuse us from doing our best to limit our air conditioner use? Obviously not. We still have to do the best we can to avoid contributing to pollution – for the good of our children and our fellow human beings. So we keep our home as cool as we can with all the practical tricks we've got and reserve air conditioning use for when it is absolutely necessary, while remaining vigilant in order to prevent our threshold of necessity from lowering.
And if the kids have to put up with a little heat on the days when the air quality is fine, so be it. It's this kind of sacrifice that we hope will make them into the kind of people who will grow up to do some good in the world. Indeed, my second-born is studying environmental science at university right now, working for the summer in a research lab — lugging equipment through a local bog and taking samples. It's hot, smelly work, but the challenges of family life have primed her for it. The next time I hear a remark about overpopulation I'll be tempted to answer that if at least one of our children hadn't been born, there would be one less environmental researcher in the world.
Michelle Martin writes from Hamilton, Ontario, where she and her husband have raised their ten children. She is a graduate of the University of Toronto and currently holds down a part-time job caring for intellectually handicapped adults.