Crib Sheet: Green Parents and Earth Mothers

Glosswitch reads parenting manuals so you don't have to.

 

If you’re out to destroy the world but haven’t yet stockpiled the weaponry, the next best thing you can do is reproduce. This is particularly effective if you live in a country such as the UK – even if these days we manufacture little else, we’re still good at producing CO2. And yes, you may be thinking “I’d blame it all on rich people with their multiple cars and jet planes and whatnot”. Or “people in the US and China are worse”. Or “I do my recycling, I bet George ‘disabled bay’ Osborne doesn’t”. If so, I’m reluctant to contradict you because I have a habit of thinking that, too.

Being urged to worry more about the environment tends to make me think “stuff it, we’ve all got to die sometime and perhaps then poor old Earth’ll get something cool like the dinosaurs again”. It’s not just me who does that, right? But that, as we all know, isn’t good enough. What about the next generation of consumers? The next generation with its mountains of disposable nappies and plastic junk from ToysRUs? Shouldn’t they at least be left with a bit of world to destroy all by themselves? Frankly, it seems mean to deny them one last trample over the non-consumers, those who happened to be born in the wrong place at the wrong time because hey, life’s just like that. 

I bought a copy of The Green Parent magazine for two reasons: One, I quite fancied making the patchwork pouffe on page 47 and two, I am the kind of idiot who parts with £3.95 in order to be lectured on harmony, sustainability and what to buy next. To be fair, it’s not a thing I’d usually do. I’ve never been particularly drawn to green parenting, not just because it’s a contradiction in terms (if you’re so green don’t be a bloody parent), but because it always seems to come back to one thing: reusable nappies. Yes, I’ve dabbled with a bit of terrycloth myself, and yes, it wasn’t all bad (washing cycles break up the endless expanses of time). But still, that’s a hell of a lot of washing for something so supposedly virtuous (I used a machine, although I guess I could have strapped my infant to my back and headed to the nearest lake with a stone and washboard, which is no doubt what the eco-mummies of Islington do). But even if washing is better than throwing away, big sodding deal. So I didn’t succumb to the lure of Pampers (at least until weaning started). I still added a whole new person and all their literal and metaphorical shit to an overcrowded planet, so a bit of perspective, please.  

I realise it’s easy to take potshots at the eco-parenting scene. After all, Viz have done it for years with Modern Parents Malcolm and Cressida, while Private Eye manage to combine it with casual homophobia in their It’s Grim Up North London strip. The fact that my kids know their way around a McDonald’s menu ought to make me more, not less, subject to criticism. And yet I have real issues with the way being a better person – and a better parent – is sold to us. It’s ironic that while being green ought to – and frequently is – to do with giving a toss about humanity as a whole, it’s so often associated with privilege and self-indulgence. It’s Bono and Sting telling us the earth is dying in-between transatlantic flights. It’s Jessica Alba pushing her new range of organic, free-from-vague-but-evil-chemicals baby products.  And yes, it’s a magazine like The Green Parent, with its adverts for “alternative” boarding schools and babywearing conferences and its recommendation that you purchase an old caravan for the massive back garden you obviously have and deck it out in “granny chic”. It’s not that the consumerism alone is worse than anything you’d find in Mother & Baby or Practical Parenting. I just expect it to be better. After all, if it can’t be better, where does that leave us?

I’m sure, if I had the time and money, I’d be able to unleash my inner earth mother. I’m partial to aromatherapy oils. I wouldn’t mind a holiday in a yurt. Hell, I’ve already given birth without pain relief (not that I’m showing off, except obviously I am, just like the woman on page 22 who “casually” drops in that detail while describing her baby’s lotus birth). The trouble is, there’s an uncomfortable slippage between privilege and virtue, between actual generosity of spirit and empathy as fashion statement. It reminds me of volunteering as a breastfeeding peer supporter. I wasn’t a very good one, but others were, yet the act of supporting other women for nothing in return – such a valuable thing – occasionally seemed to be rated no more highly than arriving for a session wearing the right baby sling (mine wasn’t approved of because it had plastic clips. The more rudimentary and Krypton-Factor complex your sling is, the better a mother  and human being you are). It was as though the more “natural” your privileged existence appeared to be, the less wasteful and selfish it was – but that’s not always true.

If they are to mean anything, green parenting and politics have to be tied to the acknowledgement of enormous global inequality and with this the recognition that if you’re the type of person who spends £3.95 on a lifestyle magazine there’s blood on your hands that can’t be washed off with a home-made scrub (even one that doesn’t contain any of the “harsh chemicals and dozens of questionable ingredients” to be found in shop-bought varieties). It’s valuable that The Green Parent donates an (unspecified) percentage of its profits to charities. I have no beef (or quorn) with articles on touchy-feely parenting or recipes for wild mushroom, ginger and minted Brussels pho show. But I worry that an undue focus on “keeping it real” – the same focus which drives IDS to say he’s been “on the breadline” or Sarah Ferguson/Christina Aguilera/January Jones etc. to claim they speak for “single working mothers” –  masks the chasms between us. Fetishizing and/or claiming affinity with other, less planet-wrecking cultures just because you’re using the same style of swaddling is at best patronizing, at worst dehumanizing. Moreover, preaching the virtues of reducing one’s electricity consumption or using terry nappies presumes a) your electricity hasn’t been cut off anyhow and b) you don’t require a payday loan for the initial outlay which then allows you to make that cost- and world-saving choice. We’re not all in this together and that’s one of the challenges of promoting environmentalism without being on dodgy moral ground the minute you start to speak.

As for me, I can’t un-have my children (nor would I wish to), but I should seriously cut down on their Happy Meal consumption. And the rest? I can’t help feeling if you want to save the world, there are better places to start than with an eco-pouffe but sod it, I’ve got the leftover courdroy and I’m making it. But rest assured I’ll sort the recycling first.  

Photograph: Getty Images

Glosswitch is a feminist mother of three who works in publishing.

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Why the Liberal Democrats by-election surge is not all it seems

The Lib Dems chalked up impressive results in Stoke and Copeland. But just how much of a fight back is it?

By the now conventional post-Brexit logic, Stoke and Copeland ought to have been uniquely inhospitable for the Lib Dems. 

The party lost its deposit in both seats in 2015, and has no representation on either council. So too were the referendum odds stacked against it: in Stoke, the so-called Brexit capital of Britain, 70 per cent of voters backed Leave last June, as did 62 per cent in Copeland. And, as Stephen has written before, the Lib Dems’ mini-revival has so far been most pronounced in affluent, Conservative-leaning areas which swung for remain. 

So what explains the modest – but impressive – surges in their vote share in yesterday’s contests? In Stoke, where they finished fifth in 2015, the party won 9.8 per cent of the vote, up 5.7 percentage points. They also more than doubled their vote share in Copeland, where they beat Ukip for third with 7.3 per cent share of the vote.

The Brexit explanation is a tempting and not entirely invalid one. Each seat’s not insignificant pro-EU minority was more or less ignored by most of the national media, for whom the existence of remainers in what we’re now obliged to call “left-behind Britain” is often a nuance too far. With the Prime Minister Theresa May pushing for a hard Brexit and Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn waving it through, Lib Dem leader Tim Farron has made the pro-EU narrative his own. As was the case for Charles Kennedy in the Iraq War years, this confers upon the Lib Dems a status and platform they were denied as the junior partners in coalition. 

While their stance on Europe is slowly but surely helping the Lib Dems rebuild their pre-2015 demographic core - students, graduates and middle-class professionals employed in the public sector – last night’s results, particularly in Stoke, also give them reason for mild disappointment. 

In Stoke, campaign staffers privately predicted they might manage to beat Ukip for second or third place. The party ran a full campaign for the first time in several years, and canvassing returns suggested significant numbers of Labour voters, mainly public sector workers disenchanted with Corbyn’s stance on Europe, were set to vote Lib Dem. Nor were they intimidated by the Brexit factor: recent council by-elections in Sunderland and Rotheram, which both voted decisively to leave, saw the Lib Dems win seats for the first time on massive swings. 

So it could well be argued that their candidate, local cardiologist Zulfiqar Ali, ought to have done better. Staffordshire University’s campus, which Tim Farron visited as part of a voter registration drive, falls within the seat’s boundaries. Ali, unlike his Labour competitor Gareth Snell and Ukip leader Paul Nuttall, didn’t have his campaign derailed or disrupted by negative media attention. Unlike the Tory candidate Jack Brereton, he had the benefit of being older than 25. And, like 15 per cent of the electorate, he is of Kashmiri origin.  

In public and in private, Lib Dems say the fact that Stoke was a two-horse race between Labour and Ukip ultimately worked to their disadvantage. The prospect of Nuttall as their MP may well have been enough to convince a good number of the Labour waverers mentioned earlier to back Snell. 

With his party hovering at around 10 per cent in national polls, last night’s results give Farron cause for optimism – especially after their near-wipeout in 2015. But it’s easy to forget the bigger picture in all of this. The party have chalked up a string of impressive parliamentary by-election results – second in Witney, a spectacular win in Richmond Park, third in Sleaford and Copeland, and a strong fourth in Stoke. 

However, most of these results represent a reversion to, or indeed an underperformance compared to, the party’s pre-2015 norm. With the notable exception of Richmond’s Sarah Olney, who only joined the Lib Dems after the last general election, these candidates haven’t - or the Lib Dem vote - come from nowhere. Zulfiqar Ali previously sat on the council in Stoke and had fought the seat before, and Witney’s Liz Leffman and Sleaford’s Ross Pepper are both popular local councillors. And for all the excited commentary about Richmond, it was, of course, held by the Lib Dems for 13 years before Zac Goldsmith won it for the Tories in 2010. 

The EU referendum may have given the Lib Dems a new lease of life, but, as their #LibDemFightback trope suggests, they’re best understood as a revanchist, and not insurgent, force. Much has been said about Brexit realigning our politics, but, for now at least, the party’s new normal is looking quite a lot like the old one.