Title: "Green Barbarians: Live Bravely on Your Home Planet"
Author: Ellen Sandbeck
Publisher: Scribner, 2009; 288 pages; $14.95
I come from a family of more or less unwitting feminists. My grandmother consciously taught me from early childhood that women should always own their own homes and are responsible to have education and career enough to support their children on their own — whether they think they need to or not.
My mother’s philosophy is somewhat less altruistic: Children must go to daycare as soon as you can send them.
While I suspect this was a credo born out of her personal preference for adult company and work-world accomplishment over the daily ups and downs of full-time, at-home parenting, she couched it in terms of health advice for kids: being surrounded by their snot-nosed compatriots in preschools and daycare builds the immune system, she’d say, citing my own pediatrician’s assertion that an overclean, pet-free house was probably the source of my laundry list of childhood allergies.
It seems that Ellen Sandbeck, author of "Green Barbarians: Live Bravely on Your Home Planet," would agree with my mom and my doctor on this point, given her book’s premise that our 21st-century, super-sanitized, compulsively consumerized and convenient-at-all-costs social and domestic standards are actually making us sicker and driving us nuts, in one fell swoop.
(Even my grandmother, a cleanliness nut and public health nurse who washed her steering wheel at the end of every workday and never wore her work shoes in the house, might be persuaded by Sandbeck’s throwback, commonsense, enough-already! approach.)
Though the term "barbarians" might seem extreme, Sandbeck explains upfront that she means it in only the kindest, gentlest, sense of the term, as it was used by the ancient Greeks and Latins to indicate one "who was not of the dominant culture, and who was therefore considered strange or bizarre."
Accordingly, she defines the "Green Barbarian" lifestyle as referring to "those who define themselves by what they do and what they create, what they save and what they preserve, rather than by what they buy and what they consume." It’s an eco-friendly lifestyle, with a frugal slant and a little bit — OK, a lot! — of a renegade/anti-"Big Business" edge.
Sandbeck urges readers not to be afraid of dirt and used things, but to be very afraid of corporate-driven cultural messages to buy, buy, clean and then buy some more. Become a "Green Barbarian," she urges, by "(using) your mind, hands, and heart to make a better life for yourself and for those you love."
Then, Sandbeck proceeds to show you how.
She gets started by detailing the results of her own self-education campaign, with which she empowers readers to cut through the advertising hype and distinguish between things they really shouldn’t fear (like spiders, SARS and sharks) and the things they should (handgun violence, drivers who are drinking or texting, and environmental degradation).
Then, Sandbeck breaks down her definition of bravery, which she considers an essential element of Green Barbarianism, as a mental state that has released the fear of dirt, runny noses, intestinal worms and stinky odors and even, dare-she-say, embraced these ostensible evils in light of overwhelming data showing that these things are good for us — and that the fear of them is bad for us.
Sandbeck cites data that shows synthetically scented air fresheners may actually cause illness while dust, dog hair and other items, which we once thought were bad for us (think: chocolate and eggs), are actually health-enhancing.
Sandbeck surfaces similar data-backed, surprising, green barbaric living principles for kitchen, bathroom, body (including dirt — yes actual dirt! — as a soap alternative, in a pinch), health, children and even pets. Along the way, she addresses common, real-life problems and offers "Green Barbarian"-style solutions.
Stinky house? Don’t spray a freshener — bake a pie! Upset that your teenaged son takes less-than-thorough showers before wiping off on your white towels? Don’t be — the friction of the towels accounts for most of the germ removing power of showers anyway. So chill out and get him some brown towels.
And Sandbeck’s not afraid to let you know what common cleanliness concerns are well-founded — especially when it comes to pediatric health. Circumcision does turn out to have some serious health advantages; vaccinations can prevent death and maiming via the mumps, whooping cough and the like; and honey really can cause fatal botulism in infants, despite its multiple holistic health advantages for older kids and adults, Sandbeck allows.
Long story short, if you’re that type of person who believes strongly in the five-second rule for dropped food, you’ll love this book and the numerous, money- and sanity-saving suggestions it provides for managing your home, your health and your life in a brave, green way. But if you’re the germophobic sort, like my grandma, who actually threw her back out just before her 80th birthday cleaning the top of her fridge (the top?!), then you probably will benefit from this book even more! It’s highly actionable, and so earns its keep.
But more importantly, it can free you from the tyranny of oversanitization and hypochondria that can cost you thousands of dollars and previous moments of your life. And it does so in Sandbeck’s funny, sane, super-well-researched voice full of life lessons from her father, whose hypochondria crippled him from fully living the last 50 years of his life, her own release of sani-stress from her family’s life, and the freedom and fun of their embrace of the "Green Barbarian" lifestyle.