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27 June 2018

George Monbiot’s diary: Recovering from cancer surgery, toxic parenting and the folly of artificial lawns

 I have now had enough of being “highly unusual”.

By George Monbiot

My last thought, before I’m out, is whether this is how a lethal injection feels: the chemical passing painfully through my arm from the cannula in my hand, the grey room and fluorescent lights, the sudden fade… gone.

When I wake, I’m in that lovely drugged state in which everything, even a hospital ward, looks beautiful, and everyone is a saint. Mind you, most of the people I’ve met in the NHS must be saints, with or without the filter of anaesthetics. How else do they remain so cheerful and caring, in the face of constant dislocation, tabloid hate campaigns, antisocial hours and rubbish pay?

This procedure was the result, I’m told, of being “highly unusual”. It was “highly unusual” to have an aggressive prostate cancer at my age, “highly unusual” to suffer the weird complications that followed my first operation, and now “highly unusual” for these complications to result in the stricture that made it almost impossible to pee, necessitating the current surgery. I have now had enough of being highly unusual.

First the trickle, now the flood

I’ve also had enough of being careful, looking after myself and taking it easy. So, on the following day, against the advice of everyone who cares about me, I take the train to London for a meeting I really don’t want to miss. It goes surprisingly well. Occasionally it’s as if a sheet of cling film intercedes between me and the people I’m talking to, and I feel a little nauseous, but there’s no pain. I hope my surgeon doesn’t read this magazine.

Passing through Didcot Parkway on the way back, I’m reminded of what happened here a month ago. I had been messing about in a river, fishing and taking ecological samples, until I was caught in a thunderstorm. The train home was delayed for an hour by further storms, and by the time it pulled into Didcot, where I was to change trains, the subway between the platforms was flooded with filthy water.

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The passengers were stuck at the top of the steps. The only way they could get out of the station or on to another platform without ruining their shoes was to wait for the wheelchair that one of the station staff was pushing back and forth through the floodwater.

I remembered that I had my waders in my rucksack. I put them on and found a luggage trolley, then spent the next half-hour giving people lifts. The trolley platform was just high enough, if I pushed it slowly, to keep people’s feet out of the water. It was one of those wonderful occasions on which all social barriers collapse. The moral of the story? Always carry your waders when you travel by train

Polluted playgrounds

The new UN report on air pollution in Britain reminds us that a third of children here are being steadily poisoned by dangerous levels of particulates. Tell me about it. Every day (when I’m not recovering from surgery) I cycle with my youngest daughter to or from school. And every day, it feels as if the world has gone mad. Most of the children live within 500 metres of the school, but most of the parents insist on driving them there.

One woman I know drives 80 metres from one end of the street to the other. There’s nothing wrong with her legs – I’ve seen her running her kid to the classroom when she’s late. She could have walked the distance three or four times by the time she finds a parking space. Some parents arrive 20 or 30 minutes before school ends to find a good parking space, then sit in their cars with the engines running, playing on their phones.

I’ve given up asking them to turn their engines off: it’s too stressful and frustrating. Most people claimed to have no idea why I was asking: that cars cause pollution or that pollution causes ill health appears never to have occurred to them. Yet discovering these recondite facts doesn’t alter their behaviour. As a result, the places in which children should be safest become toxic hotspots: kids are being poisoned by their parents. Despite the brilliant work of organisations such as Living Streets, the necessary shift will not happen through voluntary action.

We need local authorities to set up traffic exclusion zones around schools, and government to, you know, govern. Very unfashionable of course, but apparently it’s what it exists to do.

Green shoots of decay

Another thing that persuades me the world has gone mad is what I see on the way: lawns replaced with artificial grass.

The reason why you should commit this crime against taste and sense, according to one of the companies responsible, is that synthetic turf “does not require the amount of care and maintenance a natural grass lawn must have”.

It then recommends that you rinse down your artificial lawn once a week, give it a more thorough cleaning every month, “groom” it, with a brush, “to encourage each blade of artificial grass to stand up properly”, and use a “turf deodoriser” to remove any unwanted smells. Helpfully, you can now buy synthetic grass cleaning products with a “fresh cut grass scent”.

It advises that no one smokes, uses fireworks or lights a barbecue near your artificial lawn, in case it gets burned, and that you should put awnings, shutters or screens in front of your windows and glass doors, in case the reflected sunlight melts it.

All, I am sure you will agree, much more convenient than mowing your real grass a few times a year, then allowing it to absorb, as if by magic, almost everything that lands on it.

Oh, and don’t forget to replace your lawn when it breaks down into a stream of microplastic running into the nearest river. These things don’t just grow, you know.

George Monbiot’s “Out of the Wreckage: A New Politics for an Age of Crisis” is published by Verso

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This article appears in the 27 Jun 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Germany, alone