I know from experience that writing about parenting can incite a surprising amount of rage among readers. I co-authored a pregnancy book and penned a monthly parenting column for a major news site for four years, and I have plenty of hate emails to prove it. So I suggest approaching Raising Elijah: Protecting Our Children in an Age of Environmental Crisis (Da Capo Press, 2013) by Sandra Steingraber, Ph.D., with an open mind. It’s a cross between a parenting memoir and an intelligent science book about climate change, toxins, food pollutants, fracking and other terribly important and depressing matters that are somewhere on most parents’ list of worries today.
Steingraber — a biologist, cancer survivor and environmental activist — first explored parenting and environmental threats with Having Faith: An Ecologist’s Journey to Motherhood (Berkley Trade, 2003). Keep in mind that she has to be Super Parent when it comes to green living. In essence, try not to hate her just because your (read: my) parenting skills and save-the-world strategies pale in comparison.
Steingraber’s life looks a lot different from that of the families I see around me. At the start of the book, she lives in a log cabin in a place called Ellis Hollow, near Ithaca, NY, with her artist husband and two children, Faith and Elijah. They have no television, her kids don’t use a computer, and she shares a car with her husband, who volunteers a couple of hours a week at the local food co-op in exchange for a discount.
Eventually, they move into a small house in a nearby village and both children attend a Montessori school, where Steingraber’s husband becomes an art teacher. He hangs the laundry; she cooks in the Crock-Pot. They stay up until midnight canning peaches. The family has a purely organic diet and the kids are allowed ice cream only on Thursdays. She recounts how her young son actually had a meltdown in the food co-op once because he wanted some kale from the deli and she’d told him no treats prior.
She probably doesn’t get many invites to MNOs (that means Moms’ Night Out, for all you uninitiated). But consider the message at the heart of Elijah: To make lasting changes, we need to unite to work for national and global policy changes that will help protect children from environmental hazards. The call to action is beyond making a series of wise choices to protect one’s own children. Toxins need to be banned and renewable energy has to be our country’s priority, along with clean food, water and air. What she’s suggesting is an uprising, or a revolution of sorts, calling parents to take action whenever and wherever they can, getting involved in community or school environmental issues. (I recently joined Climate Parents and signed a petition, urging President Obama to do more about the issue of climate change.)
The book does offer a few novel ways families can improve their carbon footprint. Though I’ve long instituted many eco-friendly practices for my family (hybrid car, recycling, nontoxic cleaners, reusable grocery and lunch bags), I’ve taken one of Steingraber’s three recommendations for families: I’m now hanging our laundry instead of using the dryer. At first it seemed eccentric (my husband: “Are you really going all Little House on Prairie?”) but it’s actually a cinch and somehow miraculously makes laundry more tolerable.
As a parenting writer, my general stance on the environment has usually been to tell parents why they shouldn’t be afraid, why the subject at hand is overblown and why the odds are generally tipped in their favor. At first blush, Steingraber’s book — full of reasons we need to be alarmed — may seem incompatible. However, Raising Elijah isn’t based on scare tactics, but thoughtfully researched information that will inspire action. Steingraber is an artful writer, a thorough researcher and a highly conscientious parent. However, I don’t think the revolution is in full swing yet.