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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The surprising truth about ingrowing toenails (and other medical myths)

Medicine is littered with myths. For years we doled out antibiotics for minor infections, thinking we were speeding recovery.

From time to time, I remove patients’ ingrowing toenails. This is done to help – the condition can be intractably painful – but it would be barbaric were it not for anaesthesia. A toe or finger can be rendered completely numb by a ring block – local anaesthetic injected either side of the base of the digit, knocking out the nerves that supply sensation.

The local anaesthetic I use for most surgical procedures is ready-mixed with adrenalin, which constricts the arteries and thereby reduces bleeding in the surgical field, but ever since medical school I’ve had it drummed into me that using adrenalin is a complete no-no when it comes to ring blocks. The adrenalin cuts off the blood supply to the end of the digit (so the story goes), resulting in tissue death and gangrene.

So, before performing any ring block, my practice nurse and I go through an elaborate double-check procedure to ensure that the injection I’m about to use is “plain” local anaesthetic with no adrenalin. This same ritual is observed in hospitals and doctors’ surgeries around the world.

So, imagine my surprise to learn recently that this is a myth. The idea dates back at least a century, to when doctors frequently found digits turning gangrenous after ring blocks. The obvious conclusion – that artery-constricting adrenalin was responsible – dictates practice to this day. In recent years, however, the dogma has been questioned. The effect of adrenalin is partial and short-lived; could it really be causing such catastrophic outcomes?

Retrospective studies of digital gangrene after ring block identified that adrenalin was actually used in less than half of the cases. Rather, other factors, including the drastic measures employed to try to prevent infection in the pre-antibiotic era, seem likely to have been the culprits. Emboldened by these findings, surgeons in America undertook cautious trials to investigate using adrenalin in ring blocks. They found that it caused no tissue damage, and made surgery technically easier.

Those trials date back 15 years yet they’ve only just filtered through, which illustrates how long it takes for new thinking to become disseminated. So far, a few doctors, mainly those in the field of plastic surgery, have changed their practice, but most of us continue to eschew adrenalin.

Medicine is littered with such myths. For years we doled out antibiotics for minor infections, thinking we were speeding recovery. Until the mid-1970s, breast cancer was routinely treated with radical mastectomy, a disfiguring operation that removed huge quantities of tissue, in the belief that this produced the greatest chance of cure. These days, we know that conservative surgery is at least as effective, and causes far less psychological trauma. Seizures can happen in young children with feverish illnesses, so for decades we placed great emphasis on keeping the patient’s temperature down. We now know that controlling fever makes no difference: the fits are caused by other chemicals released during an infection.

Myths arise when something appears to make sense according to the best understanding we have at the time. In all cases, practice has run far ahead of objective, repeatable science. It is only years after a myth has taken hold that scientific evaluation shows us to have charged off down a blind alley.

Myths are powerful and hard to uproot, even once the science is established. I operated on a toenail just the other week and still baulked at using adrenalin – partly my own superstition, and partly to save my practice nurse from a heart attack. What would it have been like as a pioneering surgeon in the 1970s, treating breast cancer with a simple lumpectomy while most of your colleagues believed you were being reckless with your patients’ future health? Decades of dire warnings create a hefty weight to overturn.

Only once a good proportion of the medical herd has changed course do most of us feel confident to follow suit. 

This article first appeared in the 20 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, May's gamble

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