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.

Photo: Getty Images
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The twelve tricks in George Osborne's spending review

All Chancellors use chicanery, and George Osborne is no exception.

There is no great shame to a wheeze: George Osborne is no more or less partial to them than other Chancellors before him. Politicians have been wheezing away since history began. Wheezes aren’t even necessarily bad policy: sometimes they’re sensible as well as slightly sneaky. And we shouldn’t overstate their significance: the biggest changes announced yesterday were described in a clear, honest and non-wheezy way.

But it’s fun to try to spot the wheezes. Here are some we’ve found so far.


  1. Give people less time to pay their tax bills. Yesterday the Chancellor announced tax rises that will raise, in total, a net £5.5bn in 2019-20. A sixth of that total – £900m – results from the announcement that, from April 2019, anyone paying Capital Gains Tax (CGT) on the sale of a house will have to cough up within 30 days. Has the Chancellor made a strategic decision to increase taxes to pay for public services? Not really – he’s just moved some tax forward from the subsequent year to help his numbers stack up, at the price of bigger hassle for people who are selling houses. Not necessarily a bad thing – but a classic wheeze.


  1. Dress up a spending cut as a minor bureaucratic change. The Treasury yesterday announced what sounds like a sensible administrative change to the Government’s scheme for automatically enrolling people into pensions: “to simplify the administration of automatic enrolment for the smallest employers in particular, the next two phases of minimum contribution rate increases will be aligned to the tax years”. Nice of them to reduce bureaucratic hassle for the smallest employers. This also happens to save the Government £450m in 2018-19, because instead of paying an increased subsidy into people’s pensions from January 2018, it will do it from April 2018.


  1. “Tuck under”.  The phrase “tucking under” is a Whitehall term of art, best illustrated with an example. We learnt yesterday that “DfID [the Department for International Development] will remain the UK’s primary channel for aid, but to respond to the changing world, more aid will be administered by other government departments, drawing on their complementary skills.” That sounds like great joined-up government. It also, conveniently, means that the Government can continue to meet its target of keeping overseas aid at 0.7% of Gross National Income, without having to increase DfID’s budget at the same rate as GNI: instead, other departments pick up the slack. Those bits of other departments’ budgets have thus been “tucked under” the ODA protection. See also: the Government is “protecting” the schools budget in real terms, while slashing around £600m from the funding it gives to local authorities to support schools, so that schools will now have to buy those services from their “protected” funding – thus “tucking” the £600m “under” the protected schools budget. (See also: in the last Parliament, the Government asked the NHS to contribute to social care funding, thus “tucking” some social care “under” the protected health budget.)


  1. Cumulative numbers. Most of the figures used in the Spending Review are “in-year” figures: when the Government says it is giving £10bn more to the NHS, it means that the NHS will get £10bn more in 2019-20 than it got in 2015-16. Then you read something like: “The Spending Review and Autumn Statement provides investment of over £1.3 billion up to 2019-20 to attract new teachers into the profession.” That’s not £1.3bn per year – it’s the cumulative figure over four years.


  1. Deploy weasel words. The government is protecting “the national base rate per student for 16-19 year olds”. Sounds great – and it will be written up in many places as “Government protects 16-19 education”. But the word “base” is doing a lot of work here. Schools and colleges that educate 16-19 year olds currently get a lot of funding on top of the “base rate” – such as extra funding for disadvantaged students. Plans for that funding have not yet been revealed.


  1. Pretend to hypothecate a tax. The Chancellor announced yesterday that – because the EU won’t allow him to reduce the ‘tampon tax’ – he’ll instead use the proceeds of that tax to pay for grants to women’s charities. This sounds great – but all he’s really saying is that, among all the many other millions of pounds of grants issued by the government to various causes, £15m will be given to some women’s charities, which might have got that funding anyway. It’s not real hypothecation: it’s not as if women’s charities will get more if there’s a spike in tampon sales. See also: announcing that local authorities can raise council tax so long as they use it to pay for social care – LAs would probably have spent just as much on social care anyway (and other services would have suffered).


  1. Shave away a small fraction of a big commitment. The Conservative party made great play in the election campaign of its commitment to provide 30 hours of free childcare to 3 and 4 year olds in working families. In the July Budget, it made more great play of re-committing to this. Yesterday, it announced that “working families” excluded any parent working less than the equivalent of 16 hours at the minimum wage, or more than £100,000. That sounds like a fairly small change – but it saves the Government £125m in 2020.


  1. Turn a grant into a loan. If government gives someone a grant, that is counted as spending and increases the public sector deficit. If instead the government gives someone a loan, that doesn’t count against the deficit, because it’s assumed that the loan will be paid back (so the loan is like an asset which the Government is holding). Recently we’ve seen a lot of government grants turning into loans – in the July Budget it was student maintenance grants; yesterday it was bursaries for trainee nurses.


  1. “Reverse” a decision that hasn’t happened yet. In 2012 the Government announced that, from April 2016, it would remove the 3% “diesel supplement” that puts a higher tax on company cars that use diesel than on others. Yesterday, it cancelled this, saving over £265m per year for the rest of the Parliament. People complain less about you cancelling a tax cut when you haven’t done the tax cut yet. (Perhaps this doesn’t qualify as a full wheeze, but there’s something wheezy about it.)


  1. “Protect” things in cash terms. If you really want to protect an area of spending, you should at least increase it in line with inflation, so that it can still buy the same amount of stuff. This government – like the Coalition before it – enjoys protecting things only in cash terms. Examples yesterday included the basic rate of funding per 16-19 year old in education, and the entire children’s services budget.


  1. Freeze things in cash terms. Yesterday the government announced that the repayment threshold on student loans – the level above which ex-students must start paying back their loans – will remain frozen in cash terms for 5 years, instead of increasing with earnings (which is what has happened to date). This saves the Government £200m in 2019-20. In a particularly bold move, the Government has even applied this rule to loans that have already been issued – changing the terms on which students took out the loans in the first place.


  1. Hide all these wheezes in sweeping statements. The first chapter of the Spending Review tells us that “£3 billion [of reduction in the deficit] is being delivered through reforms such as Making Tax Digital and further measures to tackle tax avoidance.” The innocuous phrase “reforms such as” covers the bringing forward of £900m in Capital Gains Tax (see number 1 above) and the £450m saved by delaying automatic enrolment into pensions (see number 2 above).

Catherine Colebrook is chief economist at the Institute for Public Policy Research