Breed ’em like Beckhams

I am stung by an accusation of selfishness.…

I am – like the newly expanded Beckham family – a bad role model and
environmentally irresponsible.

There are nearly 7 billion people in the world, and because more than
two of them can be attributed to me, impending global catastrophe can
be laid at my door and my family planning decisions should be open to
public debate. There is, apparently, an ‘absurd taboo’ (says David
Attenborough) about talking about family size.

It’s not a taboo for my neighbours, friends, wider family,
acquaintances and many total strangers who have felt free to comment,
enquire, judge and joke over the years. But I’m willing to believe
that some people somewhere haven’t, perhaps, been having this

So let’s have it.

How many children should a family have? I would respectfully suggest,
as many, or as few as they want. If you disagree, perhaps you could
explain to me the basis on which you would judge, let alone restrict,
anyone’s family size and the purpose such a restriction would serve?

I am not blind to the fact that the climbing human population creates
an insatiable, and ultimately unsustainable, demand on the earth’s
resources and that this is a problem that we must collectively solve.
The Guardian’s article references the ‘disastrous and often inhumane’
one-child policy in China – the fastest-growing, most resource-hungry
nation on earth. This is a clear demonstration that family size itself
is not the issue.

Simon Ross of the ‘Optimum Population Trust’ (OPT) remarks: “there’s
no point in people trying to reduce their carbon emissions and then
increasing them 100% by having another child”. This is a foolish
remark. Clearly he has never seen how most big families live. The
house I share with my brood was previously occupied by a family with
half the number of children. You can tell from the compost bins, fruit
trees, low energy light bulbs and new thermostat (set to 16 degrees)
that arrived with us that we live more sustainably than our
predecessors there. Our one, clapped-out vehicle usually travels with
every seat full; our children hand down toys, bikes, school uniforms;
they share bedrooms; we home-cook more and eat less processed food
than other families I know. Because of economies of scale, large
families are, per person, more resource efficient than small ones.
That said, I expect the Beckhams will expend more resources (because
they can) on any one of their children than I will lavish on all of
mine together.

And of course, I can’t make any strong claim to environmental virtue.
I will almost certainly use more of the earth’s resources raising one
of my children than a mother in sub-Saharan Africa will raising every
member of her average sized family (5-8 children). Big families –
using modest resources – are more environmentally sustainable than
small families (or single people) using high levels of resources.

The “environmental case that one or two children are fine but three or
four are just being selfish” is bogus.

It is not *that* we live that makes us unsustainable, it is *how* we live.

We all need to get better at living in ways that use fewer resources;
we all need stop valuing ‘growth’ (particularly economic growth that
relies on consumption) as an indicator of human success; we all need
to understand that many of the problems attributed to over-population
are in fact problems caused by a rich few annexing the world’s
resources for their personal consumption at the expense of the
impoverished many.

When the OPT calls for cuts to child benefits and tax credits and says
that ‘the government will support sustainable families but after that
you are on your own’, what they mean is that poor people shouldn’t
breed. But poor families are often extraordinarily resourceful,
reducing consumption because they must and using and re-using
materials that other families would waste. The OPT vision of
‘sustainability’ is a financial one, where you can live as
environmentally unsustainably as you like, as long as the taxpayer
doesn’t chip in. Restricting the income of families with children does
much to damage the life chances of those children, but very little to
manage down the birthrate or manage up sustainable living.

Surely, overall, a lower global birthrate would be a good thing?

Well, yes. Absolute numbers of people, not individual family size, is
what puts pressure on the earth’s resources. In this context, Caroline
Lucas’s remarks in the article are more sensible. She is wise to
disparage China’s restrictive policy. It hasn’t created a reduced
population or a sustainable lifestyle.

I would welcome a focus on making contraception and abortion available
freely to all those who want them; this means we need to stop
moralising about sexual habits and get real about sexual behaviour. I
welcome a focus on global inequality; there is starvation once again
in the Horn of Africa, not because there are too many people there,
but because the developed world has disgracefully exploited that
continent and its people and continues to do so, to support our own
consumerist lifestyles. If we focus in this way, rather than
suggesting that larger families are inherently ‘selfish’, we will
bring the global birthrate down without having to restrict any
family’s personal choices. We know that we can do so, because births
are already below the replacement rate in the developed world (under
2.1 per woman) and are falling in the developing world too. And we
know why.

We know that the public health benefits of developed nations lead to
reduced birthrates; that improved access to contraception and female
sexual health services reduces the birthrate; that educating girls and
women and welcoming them as equals in the workforce reduces the
birthrate; secularisation tends to reduce birthrates too. The more
well-cared for, healthy, well-educated, free, equal and rational we
are as nations, the lower our national birthrate falls. Why not then
focus on those things? Let’s get the provision of health, education,
employment and welfare right, across the globe, and the rest will
follow. Within that framework there is a natural variation in family
size which it would be – in my view – unkind and unreasonable not to

We are already on that journey. The crude birth rate (births per 1000
population) has dropped steadily from about 37 in the ’50s down to 20
in the early 2000s.

Population growth is as much a feature of adults not dying as it is of
children being born, but we’re not yet ready to smash the ‘absurd
taboo’ of talking about when a human being ought to think of bowing
out and leaving space and resources for the rest of us. And I hope we
never are. Not least because such an arbitrary cut-off would probably
leave us without the rather lovely David Attenborough.

Come here and talk to me about my family’s carbon footprint, about our
consumer choices, about how sustainably we are living (or not), by all
means. I want us to improve in all those areas. But don’t look at
these children, brought into the world in love and joy and raised here
with a humour and generosity that extends far beyond the walls of our
home and call that decision ‘selfish’.


6 thoughts on “Breed ’em like Beckhams

  1. I feel that the original article was being polemic and deliberately controversial in using the word "selfish".However, there are a couple of points in your argument I wish to take task with.1) The "one-child" policy does not apply to all families in China, only about a third. As such, even minor limitation has not stopped China’s consumption balloning considerably (as you observe).2) Regardless of how old your car is, and how big a meal you cook, research has shown that the economies of scale argument is false: you still consume more food, and produce more waste, so that having two children will ultimately increase your carbon footprint by a factor of 40 (source: ). Western children have a higher impact than Chinese, so the argument that the developing world is where we need to focus is questionable, as the "well-cared for, healthy, [and] well-educated" require more energy, food (more energy) and products/services (more energy) than someone forage-subsisting from a mud hut.That said, 3) I am in total agreement about euthanasia taboo.4) The carbon footprint argument is essentially about statistics, and when we look at humans as statistics rather than people, the horror starts.Besides, as environmental concerns go, we are somewhat shutting the stable door after the horse has bolted. People are hard-wired to want children, by biology and social conditioning. The number of people like myself who reason themselves out of parenting will never match the number who (rightly) naturally want children of their own.You are not selfish, any more than someone who desires to live longer, or eat in the Western world. We are what we are, and the Earth will survive us.

  2. @greg: Not by a factor of 40 – 40 times *the savings* made by the changes they mentioned. how on earth could two children use 40 times one adult’s carbon footprint?

  3. Hi, thanks for commenting. Seems like I didn’t articulate my ‘economies of scale’ argument very well. I’m not trying to claim that my children create no additional resource requirement or carbon impact, only that four children in a single family that operates as ours does will be no more resource-intensive than two children in a family with a more consumerist approach and very likely more carbon efficient than four children spread across four families. I hope my remarks about not claiming environmental virtue compared with – say – an African family with more children but lower consumption levels addresses your point about developed vs developing world consumption.

  4. Surely the point is less about the resources used by individual larger families in this generation, more the cumulative effect of the larger number of children going on form families in the next? Ie. rather than comparing a family of 6 to a family of 4 today, compare 4 families to 2 families in 20-30 years time.

    • Which is why what is most relevant are those things I list in the post that have been proven to bring the general birth rate down, rather than berating (or controlling) individual families in the present.

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