Large families and the overpopulation debate

This post was originally written over a year ago but I think now is a good time to re-post it so here it is:


Earlier this week the website Ready for Ten began a series called “I don’t know how she does it”.  The first interview was with a mum of five.


While most of the comments were supportive, kind and relevant to the feature there were a couple of comments which questioned the large family impact on the environment and calls for reasonable limits to the number of children that people have.  I felt it was nothing to do with the interview itself and could have been debated elsewhere, feeling saddened that such comments were made on what should have been a fun interview giving an insight in another mum’s life.


Then, knowing that I have also been interviewed for the series (due to be posted next week some time), I anticipated receiving a similar reaction myself as I have been more than doubly “reckless” with my reproductive organs.  So I decided that now would be a good time to run this post.


The overpopulation debate has been running for at least a couple of hundred years now.  Back in 1798 Thomas Malthus calculated that the world’s food would run out by 1890 in his “Essay on the Principle of Population”.  This didn’t happen and so it was almost a century later that Paul Ehrlich made his claim in 1968 that human reproduction would overwhelm the earth and one fifth of the world’s population would consequently die through famine by the end of the 1970’s.  This didn’t happen either.


Now, to say there are too many people for the world is not true.  The world is big enough for us all and it is big enough to provide
for us all over and over and over again.


According to the U.N Population Division the world population in 2009 was 6,829,360,000.  The landmass of Texas is approximately 267,000 square miles (7,443,532,799,900 sq ft).  This means that if we divide the landmass of Texas by 2009’s population each person would have an area of 1089.93 sq ft – or to put it another way, a room measuring 33 x 33 ft approximately.



We can even go one further.  The landmass of Wales is 8022 square miles (223,640,524,800 sq ft) and if we did the above calculation based on this each person in the world could fit in the country of Wales in a 32.74 sq ft area (or a room measuring 5.72 x 5.72 ft).


So you see, there is plenty of room for all of us and then some.


Now to tackle the resources.  There are plenty of resources in the world to keep us going.  Forests regrow, the water will always be there unless the water cycle comes to an end, there are renewable energy sources available to us and there is plenty of room to grow as much food as we could ever possibly need for the entire world.

Another frequently overlooked point regarding resources is that they are constantly changing.  For example, oil was never a resource until the industrial revolution came along.  Until then all it did was make water undrinkable and unusable.  Once machines had been invented then it had a purpose – in fact such a purpose that wars were (and are) fought over it – wars which create far more of an impact on the world than a handful of larger than average families.  Science changes, resources change.  Within the next hundred years we may be able to heat and light our homes by using sewage.  That’s a never ending resource and who is to say with certainty that it won’t happen?!

The problem is not that there are too many people using the resources.  The problem is that the resources are not distributed evenly within the world.  There is a huge issue with greed.  Our greed.  We want more food, more stuff, more possessions, more money.  We want bigger cars, more holidays, better houses, and lots of things to fill them.  While there are people starving there are more people who are obese.  Where there are people cold and without shelter there are those living in mansions with rooms they’ll never need.  Where there are people naked there are those with whole rooms full of clothes and shoes.  How many of us have bought things we’ve barely, if ever worn or thrown out food that we haven’t eaten by its best before date?  I’m sure we’re all guilty of wasting something at some time.


There are wars, there is corruption, there is over consumption and there is greed.  This is where the issue lies with regards to the world’s resources.  We all need to be better stewards of the world and of each other.  Everyone.  This is not going to happen.  These are the things that need to be tackled first before the cries for limiting children and compulsory population control are made.  It is arrogant to say, “I will demand that you reproduce to my imposed limits so that I don’t have to change my own lifestyle and standard of living”.


The ideology of limiting children is flawed in many ways.  I will try to outline why this won’t work.


Firstly, who would be the ones to decide on the figure deemed to be “reasonable” for all couples to procreate to?  How would these figures be reached?  Calculations need to be made taking into account factors including, but not limited to, the world’s TFR (Total Fertility Rate) along with the worldwide replacement rate, plus the calculations to ascertain the number of people needed to support each person in the world who is over the age of 65.  (Worldwide in 1950 there were 12 working age people for each person aged 65 years and over.  By 2010 this figure had decreased to 9 working age people per person of 65+.  It is projected to drop to 4 by 2050).


Then we would need to bear in mind mortality (not through old age but for those in the child bearing years who are the ones we are relying on to keep the world going as to overpopulationists calculations) through accidents, natural disasters, illness etc, plus those suffering infertility or other medical conditions leaving them unable to reproduce.


Once the magic figure has been calculated, would it be one that everybody in the world would agree on?  Would it matter, though, as it is the new compulsory reproduction rate that everybody has to adhere to.


If the reason for this calculation is in order to control the overpopulation risk surely it cannot be enough to say, “Couples who wantchildren must have “x” amount of children,” but more the case of , “Every couple of child-bearing age must have “x” amount of children”.  After all, as I have mentioned, there are so many factors to take into account when undertaking such an exercise that it would certainly be as irresponsible to risk underpopulation as it would overpopulation.


Which brings us to the question of the “magic number”.  If the current replacement value for the world were 2.5 children per couple, for example, would everybody in the world be happy to have three children?  What about those who only wanted one or two children?  They would be unwilling to reproduce to the mandatory figure 3 (or 4, or 5, or even 10, if that’s what the calculation came up with).  What of those who don’t want children at all?  Under the new compulsory worldwide law it wouldn’t matter.  Each couple would have to reproduce the compulsory of human beings.


This, I hope, illustrates the point I am trying to make that compulsory limitation of a persons right to reproduce or not, as the case may be, is not only unreasonable but also unworkable.


There will be people who want many children and there will be those who want none.  There are poeple who want two kids and others who are happy with one.  The beauty is that we are all different with different ideals and make different choices.  There is no one-size-fits-all answer and introducing a worldwide population control policy is not the solution.


When we begin to believe in our own superiority over others to the point that we award ourselves the authoritative right to to control their freedoms and choices and we believe ourselves to be so arrogant as to give ourselves the arbitrary power to dictate what must be done according to our own ideals and beliefs, then we’re stepping into dangerous territory.  Anyone remember a guy by the name of Hitler?


The argument also fails to take into account the fact that human beings are producers and contributors as well as consumers.  Where would the world as we know it now be if the antinatalists had their way?  Alfred Nobel was the last of three children.  Would he have been allowed to exist?  What about Marie Curie (the last of five) or physicist Max Planck?  How about John F Kennedy or Benjamin Franklin?  How many doctors, nurses, or scientists would never have existed because they were the third or fourth born?  How many farmers, or tea or coffee pickers to provide your morning breakfast would there not be?  How about the refuse collectors or the people working at the recycling plant?  They all make contributions in some way.


Many of the large families I know are resourceful out of necessity.  Finances are stretched more and so passing clothes down from child to child is normal, the logistics and expense of holidays abroad mean that larger families opt to take holidays closer to home within a reasonable distance, or to bypass them completely.  Home cooking is cheaper and more nutritious and is something that helps to stretch the food budget for so many and wasting food is less of an occurrence.  Cloth nappies are often favoured over disposables and can be used for several children, holes in clothes are patched up and reused rather than discarded at the first loose thread and replaced and it takes the same amount of energy from one bulb to light up a room for six people as it does for one.


Five children in a family raised this way will grow up knowing the value of money, of food, of poossessions and of resources because it will have been ingrained as a way of life.  These five children are then likely to become better stewards of the earth themselves, learning to budget well, to make do and mend or do without, to utilise skills and be resourceful and to not be wasteful.  They will collectively be making less of an impact than the professional individual or couple who dines out four out of five days a week, drives a powerful vehicle, takes several holidays abroad and have more clothes, shoes and gadgets than they know what to do with.


So what can be done?  Here are a few suggestions to mull over (written a little tongue in cheek, or were they?!):


  • Build all new homes and refurbish existing homes with solar panels, rainharvesting systems, rooftop turbines etc and take advantage of free energy that nature provides.
  • Limit vehicle emissions from the start with the manufacturers. Cease production completely of sports cars and “status symbol cars”. 
  • Limit the number of cars per household.
  • Limit flights to and from each country to ten a day each way – tops.
  • How much energy is wasted on concerts, conventions, festivals and events? Ban them all.
  • Put a cap on celebrity/sports starts wages.  This in turn will do a lot for consumerism and the culture it breeds with the ordinary folk.
  • Put an end to private helicopters and jets for those that can afford them. Keep them for emergency services only.
  • Reintroduce allotments and the old make do and mend or do without mentality rather than the chuck it when something better comes along mentality.
  • Limit household “must haves”. Each home to have no more than one TV, one console, one radio, one computer, etc.
  • Nobody is to travel abroad more than once every two years.
  • Vehicles must not be used for journeys of less than one mile.
  • If homes are within a school’s catchment area they must also be within walking range. No more cars on school runs.
  • Ban cigarettes completely.
  • Ban all printed media including newspapers, magazines and books. With technology like the internet and Kindles we don’t need them.


Of course none of these things will happen, even though many if not all of them are perfectly do-able because they are all money makers for the governments of the world and that is where the real problems stem.


I could go on but this post is already at risk of turning into a book of its own.  I will elaborate a little more on this as a chapter in my own book some time.  Remember though, that it may only be available in print for a limited time only so buy it fast while you can 😉



4 thoughts on “Large families and the overpopulation debate

  1. I read this article in your book(which was fab by the way) and think its the perfect time to be re-posting this. I have 5 children and already get criticised for having ‘all those children’ *sigh*

  2. Hi,

    Interesting perspective, a few minor issues that I would try to avoid mentioning should you turn this into a book. If you want to use Hitler as an example, I wouldn’t also mention your hit list at the end to help save the world (which I large agree with).

    As for your belief that these things can’t be calculated, as a mathematician, I can tell you that they can – and quite easily. A more logical idea that could be implemented would be, on a year-by-year basis; benefits are assigned for the most recent “year” of babies born based on the need for increasing or deceasing the population. i.e. if the population isn’t large enough, then the benefit allowance increases, if it’s over-populated, then it decreases.

    Finally, can I just say that your idea that a government would *demand* that people have X number of children is ridiculous… limits may occur in time, but demands for children are quite absurd.

    Kind regards,

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