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Lisa Frack's picture

We parents give a lot of orders.

"Put your pajamas away. Clear the table, please. Don't pull the cat's tail!"

But in her new book, Raising Elijah: Protecting Our Children in an Age of Environmental Crisis, it's Sandra Steingraber who gives the orders - to us parents. But she has just one, albeit a big one: Save the planet - for your kids' sake.

Oh, OK, Sandra, I'll cross that one off my "to do" list next week! But seriously, she believes that we parents are the only ones who can and will do what it takes to turn things around for ol' Mother Earth - like fight for clean air, safe drinking water, and non-toxic consumer products - because our kids' health depends on it. Plus, becoming a parent often creates an environmentalist, so there are a lot of us.

But just because she thinks we're the answer doesn't mean she takes her orders lightly. She understands the dilemma of modern-day parents well (she's a working mom with two kids under 10, after all, and travels frequently to boot). She understands that some of us are just plain too overwhelmed with our 5 million other parental duties to, say, reverse climate change (even for our kids), and others of us are so well informed about the sorry state of the environment that we suffer from something she calls "well-informed futility."

Just like it sounds, well-informed futility is basically the feeling that there are so many big, complex issues to solve - over which we feel precious little control - that we run from them all because anything we might do would be futile. Sound familiar? Steingraber herself says it best: "I am a conscientious parent. I am not a HEPA filter." Nor should we be. Nor, sadly, can we be. It's just bigger than any one of us. But not bigger, Steingraber posits, than all of us. And I agree.

If we took all the energy we spend on navigating our world to protect our children (like, say, avoiding BPA, PVC and pesticides, seeking out toys and food that are healthy and safe) and redirected that energy toward overhauling ineffective environmental protections, we could get somewhere. As Sandra sees it, our hyperactive efforts to prevent harm at home are akin to building a fallout shelter instead of pursuing disarmament. And make no mistake: She believes we need disarmament.

That said, Steingraber does offer up some "fallout shelter" steps for us personal action types, not just to appease us and certainly not to distract us. To the contrary, she suggests that some personal greening actions are in fact "symbolic starting points for heroism." Say what? Think gateway drug: you start with one of these little ideas, and before you know it, you're marching on Congress - or at least calling them - preferably in droves. Here are her top three steps to get you started on the path to environmental heroism:

1. Plant a garden.
2. Mow grass without the assistance of fossil fuels.
3. Replace the clothes dryer with a drying rack or clothesline.

Why these, you ask? Either you've "been there, done that" and it's just too hard; or you can't quite fathom why a woman calling on parents to singlehandedly save the Earth settled on these three relatively minor actions (compared to, say, selling the car and walking everywhere - with two kids and your groceries!). Sandra's solid reasoning shows how she thinks; she writes:

The acquisition of new personal habits and new skills can change our thinking. It compels us to ask new questions. They are daily reminders that we urgently need new choices within new systems. They are harbingers. They signal our eagerness to embrace much bigger changes. They bear witness to our children that we are willing to exert energy, that we are not cynical, that we respect the right to inherit a habitable planet.

Her call to action may feel overwhelming and burdensome (aren't we pretty busy raising the next generation, after all?). But Steingraber knows that, and she encourages us to shrug it off, as heroes would - and she has me convinced:

Okay, so you're all laughing anyway - half of you because, given how far down the road of climate change we are already, you find these gestures pathetic and inconsequential, and the other half because, given how far down the road of frantic exhaustion working parents are, you find these gestures unrealistic and excessive. But it's in the nature of heroes to shrug off snickering. Keep reading.

Here are some things you can do with Raising Elijah - soon:

1. Buy the book.
2. Read it.
3. Give it to a fellow parent when you're done.
4. Share it on social media (your "friends" will thank you!).
5. Choose it for your book group.

Feeling empowered to solve the world's big problems doesn't come easily, but one thing is for sure, it tends to happen incrementally. So about that clothes drying rack...

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