Andrew J Green, writer
My first brush with 'alternatives' – natural healing
My interest in nutrition and natural healing started early in the 1980s. I was working for an investment bank in London, developing computer systems for bond dealers, and had developed a medical condition for which the conventional treatment was surgery. I didn't really want to go down that road and happened to come across a small booklet in City Wholefoods, a wholefood shop in London's financial district which has long since gone.
I was able to cure myself of the condition, simply by using water therapy and substantially changing my diet – I had not been eating well for some years and the suggested diet involved eating a lot more fruit and vegetables. It was this that, over a fairly short period, moved me towards a vegetarian (in fact, pretty much vegan) diet, which I followed for about the next 20 years or so.
A libertarian (or fundamentally 'anarchist') perspective opens up
Looking around on the daily commuter train up to London from the suburbs, I remember thinking to myself that I certainly wasn't going to be doing this until I was 65! Around that time, I came upon the work of Doris Lessing. Not long before, she had started a series of books, using the medium of science fiction to express fundamental ideas about society and the power of politics and big business. The first book in the series, Shikasta, left me with a feeling of revelatory excitement. I realised now that, the world could be different and that I wanted to play my part in helping to change the world, with the real agents for change not Governments or any other large organisations, but people - individuals and small groups - concerned people, confident in their own power to effect changes that are needed and move us, slowly, imperceptibly even, but inexorably, towards a future fit for generations to come.
I then became heavily involved in environmental campaigning, becoming the co-ordinator of one of the biggest Friends of the Earth groups in London. Our main campaigns were on pesticides (particularly in food), nuclear power and tropical rainforest destruction. At that time, it was very difficult to buy organic food, so I set up (with a friend) a local organic food delivery round. I have been eating a substantially organic diet since that time – around 30 years!
Small is Beautiful
Another incredibly formative influence at this time, was reading Small is Beautiful by E F Schumacher. His fundamental thesis that we need to move towards a society built on economic & political systems which favour solutions and ideas which are small, simple, low-tech and inherently non-destructive ('non-violent', as he put it) was very much in tune with the ideas which I had found so exciting when I read Shikasta. To those 4 principles, I would add that ALL such solutions should also incorporate the concept of self empowerment. In the face of the seemingly inexorable march of global capitalism, people increasingly feel that they have no power to make changes themselves and, indeed, no real power over their own lives. These 5 principles (Schumacher's and my own) feed into absolutely all the solutions which I am putting forward.
The need for personal action
I finally left my job in 1988, having accepted that working in the international banking system was not something which could sit alongside my beliefs about how the world could change.
I was still in the Friends of the Earth group, but had taken a back seat, increasingly feeling that the only permanent solution to these environmental and other problems has to lie with people making changes themselves, rather than constantly campaigning for governments and multinational corporations to make these changes for us. I know that there is still great value in campaigning against Monsanto (and the like) and their calculated and steady progression towards the widespread use of GM crops. But, fundamentally, if nobody bought GM food, they'd have no market and would stop, simply because there was no profit in it!
You may say I'm a dreamer, in my vision of a future where people don't want to eat toxic non-food which harms them and don't want to harm our planet, because they feel part of it. But (thankfully) I'm not the only one!
Nutrition and natural healing
Now with time on my hands and a strong interest in gardening, I decided to try WWOOFing – volunteering on organic farms and smallholdings - and chose, for my first WWOOF assignment, working at Suryodaya, a holistic natural healing centre in eastern England. This was to become a crucial formative experience for me – I learned a massive amount about cooking, nutrition and natural healing on my many visits there.
This led to me training in reflexology, massage, aromatherapy, Reiki and herbal medicine and subsequently practising at home in London.
Also, as a result of spending time at Suryodaya, I became involved in what is normally called 'personal growth' (or, sometimes, the 'human potential' movement). I know that a lot of people are quite (or very!) dismissive of this as a load of New Age mumbo jumbo but, for me, I felt that I had various unresolved emotional issues (as do all of us) and thought 'better out than in'!
I attended various week-long and weekend retreats and courses and came to know myself, and how I operated emotionally, a little better. For me personally, I couldn't see benefit in spending years of my life on this or making it my focus. But it led me to thinking that a lot of campaigning against 'them' and what 'they' are doing to the world can all toot easily be a smokescreen covering up our own inadequacies and also that, perhaps, we would do well to look inside as well as outside, when we are trying to identify what we what we think is wrong with the world.
So, I would maintain that all of us would do well to take time to lay bare at least some of what makes us behave in particular ways – it serves to make all our relationships (not just close relationships) a little cleaner and clearer, in that there is less emotional mud concealing what is really going on inside us. After a while, a degree of self-analysis becomes almost second nature and our fears, angers, intolerances, neuroses, etc just that little bit less mystifying!
Parenting – the key to a better world?
At one of those retreats, I met someone who recommended that I should read four books which turned out to be completely life-changing for me – The Continuum Concept, by Jean Liedloff; Deschooling Society, by Ivan Illich; Birth Without Violence, by Frederick LeBoyer and Primal Health, by Michel Odent. I do wonder why she should have recommended these books to someone without a girlfriend, let alone children, but I remain eternally grateful to her that she discerned that I was fertile ground for these ideas!
At last, I now saw how those ideas which I'd read several years earlier in Shikasta could become reality – if we can bring up our children in a completely different way, we really can change the world!
It is difficult enough to even make small changes in our behaviour, particularly when those changes might start to make us feel different from those around us.
So, if we want to see real change in our world, the best way to start to effect this must be to bring up our children such that they are confident enough to not have to express the same opinions as those around them, able to question received opinion and accustomed to thinking differently.
Of course, thinking 'outside the box' is always vastly easier if the person was never in a school, where that type of boxed-in thinking is encouraged, in some sort of mistaken idea that imprisonment in a box is valuable training for your future adult life.
It was at a Friends of the Earth conference in 1990, that I met my future wife, Mary-Clare. We had obviously both been involved in environmental campaigning, but the ideas I had been digesting about pregnancy, childbirth and parenting were new to her. But I had met a kindred spirit!
We spent a lot of time in that first year or so just enjoying ourselves, but started to move inexorably into a new type of campaigning – a couple without children promoting these ideas might have seemed a little odd to some people!
We got married in 1992, writing the wedding ceremony ourselves; it was a non-legally recognised wedding, since we felt that marriage should be a 'contract' between the couple, without the State being involved.
We decided to have children not long afterwards and came across Foresight, the UK organisation which promotes optimum pre-conceptual health. We weren't having any difficulty conceiving, but thought that (given the ideas we had read about the vital importance of both parents' health in producing a healthy baby) we should follow their advice – largely an organic diet and a good intake of vital minerals and vitamins (especially Zinc).
Foresight have a 90+% success rate with couples who had previously been unable to conceive, or who had suffered stillbirths or miscarriages. Contrast that with the 20% success rate for IVF!
Good health before conception for both parents (the quality of the father's sperm is vitally important) forms the most sound basis for good health in the developing foetus and then the new born baby. I would go on to say that ignoring this sets up an extremely bad situation for the baby's health, which can have a severe – and permanent - impact on his or her health. We have a responsibility – indeed, a duty - to do our utmost to ensure that our babies are as healthy as possible and disregard this at our peril.
I also did very regular reflexology on Mary-Clare … and we had twin boys – a double blessing indeed!
Natural birth and breastfeeding (nursing)
In my reflexology practice, it had started to become apparent (and having read Primal Health [see above]) that many recurring problems with people's health may well be due to insensitive and harmful childbirth and early parenting practices.
We came to hold the opinion that, if a child is allowed, through natural childbirth and breastfeeding, to bond successfully to his/her mother and to become secure in that 'matrix' (the Latin word for mother), and that if all his early dependence needs are satisfied, then he/she can go on to 'bond', and therefore feel a part of, the earth such that he is much less likely to want to harm it. Why would you want to harm something of which you feel an integral part?
It therefore seems to me that natural mothering through breastfeeding (following as natural a birth as possible) is one of the most important (it could be argued the most important) 'environmental' issues. Until we get that right, we cannot hope to create a better world and a more positive future for our children.
Not being able to afford to use an independent midwife, we had to trust that the NHS (the UK National Health Service) midwives would be able to cope with delivering twins at home. We found a supportive midwife, but things didn't go to plan, which I found very depressing at the time. I suppose, however, that we would have been unbearably self-satisfied if our twins had entered the world with a gentle and natural home birth!
Breastfeeding, however, went just as well as we could have hoped – women are, after all, well-designed for nursing twins! With various herbal formulae and reflexology (both during pregnancy and during breastfeeding, which was until our boys were age 3) I did as much as I could to make sure that Mary-Clare was kept healthy. It was our responsibility and duty – as parents - to give our children the best start in life, after their less than satisfactory entrance into the world.
Obviously, we avoided vaccinations, since we believe that these have an extremely bad effect on a child's immune system (and also contain toxic substances).
I was happy to be a supportive partner and feel that this prolonged period is one when gender roles have a simple biological basis – men cannot breastfeed babies, but they can support their partner who is undertaking her crucial biological role.
Continuum ('attachment') parenting
After reading The Continuum Concept (see above), it became very apparent to me that we absolutely must radically change our parenting practices, if we are to have any hope of producing a new generation of people who can start to turn our mad consumer-and-junk-food society around.
It also meant that there was an exciting period to come for us, when we could put these ideas into practice for ourselves. With our twins now 22 and recently graduated from University, we can look back on those early years with unalloyed pleasure – I just wish sometimes that someone had reminded me to savour every single moment, because the years would fly by so quickly.
Babies are born in a very immature developmental state. Their needs are essentially the same as they were in the hunting and gathering stage of our existence. It is almost as if we became civilised and they have not! They need very little other than responsive parents who are there to answer their needs day and night.
By carrying your baby from birth – as we did with our twins - parenting can actually be made simpler and can essentially be a 'non-activity'. There is no need to set aside special time, except for nappy changing. The baby is there with you whatever you are doing.
A baby needs its mother even more during the night than during the day, when its primary sense, sight, is at rest. It was also lovely for me, as a father, to have that prolonged contact at night and, since Mary-Clare was breastfeeding, I was very rarely disturbed and neither was she, since she just went back to sleep while they fed.
In western 'developed' societies, we tend to completely deny our babies' signals and finely tuned self-protective instincts, and to interfere with their inherent capabilities. For example, our twins very quickly learnt how to climb down stairs and were very careful. The conventionally raised child will be continually cautioned with "careful, you'll fall", so it's not surprising that they lose confidence and begin to assume that their parents actually expect them to fall - an expectation with which they may well eventually comply.
Our children were climbing ladders before they could walk and we've also noticed that they are very much more sure of their bodies than their conventionally raised friends, some of who can barely climb over a gate without help.
If we really respect and empathise with our children, if we allow them to explore the world at their own pace, unhindered and unclouded by our adult perceptions of what is suitable or not, if we acknowledge their feelings no matter how difficult, they will in turn respect themselves and others. As a result of following this type of parenting philosophy, we found parenting to be an easy and richly rewarding experience.
Children can grow up to become capable, healthy, independent adults with a permanent and indomitable sense of their own worth. Later on, we found ourselves living with two young adults who feel confident, worthy and welcome in the world and who we can treat as friends.
Children learn to walk, because they want to be able to explore their world; they learn to talk, in order to communicate with the world. It seems reasonable to assume, therefore, that if children perceive a compelling reason to learn any other skill or subject, they will work on their own self-directed learning, just as adults do (like when I decided to learn Mandarin, because we were planning a trip to China). The idea that one can only learn by being taught by a teacher is, as the educationalist John Holt said, "100% false".
Our experience with home education was that we had to do very little formal teaching - apart from alphabet and counting etc, when our twins were very young. But we used to do a lot of talking and answering questions at the dinner table.
Another very important part of their education was trips abroad – some long (3 months in India) and some just normal length (a week near Naples, in Italy, during which we visited Pompeii and Herculaneum, amongst other places). These were not 'learning experiences', like the little bands of school kids we see in our village, with their clipboards and questionnaires … why can't they just be left to look and think?? We would just amble around, sit, talk, look and soak up the wonderful experience of being immersed in a foreign culture. They were all low budget trips, so we – very importantly, I think - weren't insulated from real life in the country we were visiting.
The vital principle for me was always that they were not coerced into learning things - they learnt things they wanted to, and when they wanted to, which meant that they were interested in a vast variety of things. Adults who came into contact with our boys always comment on how pleasant, well behaved, articulate and easy to be with they were - and I have to assume that a lot of that is because they've (essentially) never been to school.
But school and education are such sacred cows in our society that other people - even those with a generally 'alternative' viewpoint - were often quite angry that, by choosing to home educate our children, we could even consider depriving them of school and the opportunity to make friends - as if school is just a big social club. I wish it were just this, without its pretensions of education and its undercurrent of social conditioning – a sinister mixture of a childcare facility, a learning establishment … and a prison. The reality is that our twins have lots of friends of various ages in all 3 nearby towns (we live in a village 10 miles from all three) and saw them frequently.
We found a lot of inspiration for our exciting new journey in the work of John Taylor Gatto and John Holt, who were teachers all their lives until they eventually became fierce advocates of home education. John Taylor Gatto reminds us that the compulsory schooling system in the US was based on the Austrian model - they developed it in the early 19th century, because they wanted to train obedient young people for factory work and for the Army.
For me, the fundamental question was always whether we wanted our children to become happy people - deeply happy, in the core of their being - and how best we could achieve that.
After all, what type of World do we want? Yes, it does take courage and independence to care more for our children's happiness than for their 'success'. We took the view that we didn't require our children to fit well into the existing order, to become standardised people whose needs can be anticipated, people who co-operate smoothly and consume more and more, people who do what is expected of them.
It was far more important for us that they should become happy people, whose values are not to have much, but to be much - people who will automatically lean towards a gentler, more sensitive approach to themselves, other people and the world around them. As parents, we felt that it was our duty to try to help our children towards full human development, instead of instilling in them the all too prevalent view that the only thing which really matters in life is full marketplace success.
As I wrote over 20 years ago:
"I'm looking forward to learning, or re-learning, things with my children - helping them with the various projects they choose to pursue. Maybe that will also help me to re-learn wonder at the sight of The Moon, or sheep on a hill, or a bee in a flower, or a flock of starlings making for their night-time roost ... or the countless other small wonders of the World."
With my children now young adults and finished University, I can look back and say that all of that did indeed come to pass.
I've written at length here about education, I know, but the last words on this are from Zoë Readhead, the head of the alternative free school, Summerhill, and daughter of its founder A S Neil. I asked her what type of person she felt she had become, as a result of an almost totally 'self-regulated' childhood and an education at Summerhill:
What more could we want for our children?
Self-sufficiency - growing our own
It wasn't until I moved to the countryside in 1995, that I was able to start growing – this expanded into being pretty much self-sufficient in vegetables for our family of four. Apart from the fact that I had been eating - and campaigning for - organic food for around 30 years, it was obvious to me that a concern for preconceptual health and the health of a breastfeeding mother has to extend to growing healthy, organic food, so that a baby is nourished with pesticide-free breastmilk and a growing child has a highly nutritious, pesticide-free diet, so that he can attain optimum physical and mental health.
Growing healthy, pesticide-free food for yourself and your family is, I believe, an absolutely fundamental way in which we can grasp our own power to create change, at the same time as being in contact with the earth, out in the open air, getting exercise, saving money and providing healthy food for ourselves and a new generation.
Concerned about food which is deficient in nutrients or loaded with chemicals, about the power of supermarkets, about food miles, GMOs, packaging, etc, etc? Grow it yourself!
Self-sufficiency - keeping chickens and bees
We now have 5 chickens, who give us between zero and 5 eggs a day and, from next Spring I will be keeping bees. Concerned about battery egg production? Keep your own chickens! Concerned about the effect of neo-nicotinoid pesticides on bees? Keep bees!
Self-sufficiency extended - grow your own kids!
If maybe you don't want to have children because today's kids seem so unpleasant and have so little real interest in anything valuable, do have children .. but buy The Continuum Concept (see above) and bring them up to be secure, truly content young adults! Don't let our dysfunctional modern society win – your kids can change the world!
And, if you think schools are no good, home educate!
As the late educator John Holt (who was a teacher, but became a staunch advocate of home-based learning) wrote:
Self-sufficiency extended - look after your own health
If you think that multi-national drugs companies and the medical profession have too much power and are making people ill, use herbal medicine, learn reflexology, do yoga, learn to meditate … anything which keeps you healthy and maintains the off-grid autonomy of your own personal health 'system'!
Summing it up – if we want change, it's down to all of us, INDIVIDUALLY, to make it happen!
In other words – for absolutely all of this - if you want it changed – change it yourself, because 'they' are not going to change it for you – they have too much to lose!!