I gave birth in a fluorescent-lit white OR at midnight. A blue surgical drape rose like a tidal wave over my head, swallowing behind it my son’s emergence from my body. At my head sat my wife, dressed like a crime-scene cleaner in a white disposable jumpsuit, cap, and surgical mask. The spinal block made my body non-existent below the chest. I could see reflected in the bright light over the table that things were happening, but they seemed to be happening to another body, elsewhere. “Every birth is natural,” many say, but that’s hard to believe when yours happens in a jarringly bright and sterile environment with no effort by you. A c-section didn’t even figure in my birth preferences list, but we came to it because of a pre-eclampsia diagnosis threatening his life and mine.
Pre-eclampsia led to multiple labor and delivery visits for monitoring before the day even came. With my blood pressure often topping 150/100, I nearly got induced at 35.5 weeks; my OB finally revoked my bedrest just shy of 37. I’d never spent time in a hospital as a patient before, and I noticed right away the extreme cleanliness of the place. Reassuring from a medical standpoint, sure, but from an ecological standpoint, far more worrisome. The art of sterility demands not only thorough disinfecting of spaces, but also the disposability of items and packaging. One encounter with a nurse might involve a fresh IV bag (plastic), discarding the old one (also plastic), a fresh syringe for a blood draw (plastic and metal with a paper/plastic wrapping), a cup for a urine sample (plastic), and a dose of meds (in a paper cup). At all times, I lay on a disposable (synthetic) pad to catch any blood or other fluids that might soak through the bleached cotton sheets and endanger the hygiene of the bed below.
Staying overnight with the possibility of induction meant liquid sustenance rather than food: IVs, plastic individual cups of juice, popsicles in wrappers. It meant sensor bands velcroed around my belly to measure my son’s heart rate and movements. It meant a blood pressure cuff, a pulse oximeter, and their wires. When I got up to stagger to the bathroom, I had to unplug myself, draping lengths of cord around my neck, while I wheeled the IV pole along and tried not to disrupt the hardware. My wife joked that she was married to a cyborg—and in a way, she was. My life depended on all these external, artificial materials.
I’ve cared about the environment for a long time, but having a child made me think about conservation and sustainability in entirely new ways. How do I use resources? How much of an impact can a seven-pound infant have on the environment? How do I ensure he has a healthy world to grow up in? These are not new questions, but they take on special urgency to a new parent in a time when the powerful are stripping the natural world of its tenuous protections. Being the arbiter of my son’s carbon footprint became a more daunting task than I’d expected. Having a child feels like a deep connection to the fates and struggles of the Earth and leaves me looking to its protection.
We wanted to breastfeed for a number of reasons, most having to do with it being natural and affordable. If my body could produce what my baby needed and I ate consciously (avoiding products with unsustainably-sourced palm oil, for instance, which threatens orangutans), we’d be cutting demand for things in our own small way.
Of course it couldn’t be that simple. Within 24 hours, my baby’s diapers reddened with “brick dust”—uric acid—in quantities indicating dehydration, and he spiked a fever. While the first flow of colostrum should be sufficient as it is limited but nutrient-dense, mine hardly existed. It didn’t help that my son, born three weeks early, often failed to recognize his own hunger until it grew too urgent to communicate except with screaming. This precludes latching or nursing effectively. His weight dropped within 1% of the loss margin requiring medical intervention. Were we open, our nurse asked, to supplementing with formula?
For his sake, yes, but the impact became immediately apparent. Our nurse brought us cans of prepared formula, but we were only to use tiny amounts between breastfeeding attempts so he wouldn’t get too used to it. The cans were only good for an hour once opened. Multiple times, we discarded 2/3 of a can, or 1.5 ounces of usable formula. Even when a can was on the cusp of an hour, she told us “I’d feel more comfortable with a fresh one.” We would’ve felt more comfortable not watching food and container fill the trash bag in the corner. The prevention of bacteria and infection makes medical sense, but what’s the trade-off? Disease for the environment.
We planned on formula just as a supplement until my milk came in—and then it didn’t. At least, not in the amount needed to satiate my hungry son and keep him growing. I didn’t want to rely on formula that required use of resources and energy in its production, but nature and I became opponents, and I had to choose against it.
Of course, I’m far from alone in formula-feeding my baby. Women who lack the time or interest or ability to breastfeed, countless women, make use of it. What is the environmental impact of formula, though, and what level of worry should we have about it? Writer Erik Assadourian provoked wrath several years back by suggesting that formula had “no place in a sustainable future” and suggested a global treaty essentially requiring women to breastfeed (and that society build in accommodations to facilitate it). Formula would be a “last resort” and prescription-only by demonstrated need. Setting aside the question of bodily autonomy (compulsory nursing is NOT the solution), he has a point worth considering about the impact of production. A study of six Asian nations’ use of formula found “in 2012 was found to be 2.89 million tonnes, which is roughly equivalent to driving 6,888 million miles in your car, or burning 3,107 million pounds of coal.” Production likewise consumes water and necessitates dairy farming (a source of methane gas) and soybean farming (using acres of land). My family’s individual contribution to this demand weighed on my conscience.
A compromise emerged in discussion: pumping as much breast milk as possible to cut our use, even by a bit. For that and for my son’s health, I’ve done so, but unlike feeding my son directly from my breast, the pump uses electricity to extract the milk: another environmental cost. Does the 12 ounces (one third of his daily intake) produced merit the power used? Does it really reduce the pressure my son’s existence puts on his environment?
Blood pressure: the hallmark and threat of pre-eclampsia. How much force does your blood exert on the walls of the vessels through which it travels? I never understood what it meant or why it mattered so much as long as blood got where it needed to go in time to deliver oxygen to the body. As it turns out, higher pressure works the blood vessels harder—ultimately overworking them. The vessels enlarge and stray cells accumulate in pockets. The channels fill in until, like an iceberg calving off a glacier, a clot breaks loose. When the floating clot lodges itself in such a way as to block the movement of blood, it throws the body into crisis.
Blood makes the body a watershed. Veins and arteries branch like river systems on the earth. Clots and blood cells flow “downstream” to their destinations. I picture the cells like a current-swept accumulation of bottles and Styrofoam clumped in the Lafayette River that flows beside my home. I think further of the “trash island” in the Pacific, a thick raft of unified floating debris.
The great danger of drastically elevated blood pressure: seizures. Each of us has a “seizure threshold” based on a balance of brain chemistry that can, if lowered by risk factors, disrupt the brain’s activity. This disruption stops the body functioning as it should, forcing unnatural involuntary movements.
Our planet, too, has balances and thresholds. We have fixed amounts of resources, such as space, oxygen, water, forests. Eight billion people now share these resources and their one Earth, and even renewable resources may find their limits. While trash clogs our waterways and impedes river movements, how long until we force our world into unnatural, involuntary movements?
In the town of Tortuguero, Costa Rica, which we visited on our honeymoon, growing problems with waste buildup led to construction of a recycling plant to support an intricate system of reusing and reselling discarded materials. Tortuguero as a tourist area faces the dual pressures of maintaining attractiveness and managing the impact of high volumes of waste-producing outsiders. Nearly everyone visiting Tortuguero National Park stays in the town or at one of the neighboring resorts; sea turtles nesting on area beaches draw crowds at both nesting and hatching seasons. Without a clear infrastructure, much of the waste from locals and tourists ended up on the beach or the town soccer field. Business owners, realizing that unsightly messes would deter eco-tourists, contributed money to build the center and process the refuse filling the town’s beautiful spaces.
The plant’s work demands sorting of the trash to find any recyclable or reusable element: cans, bottles, porcelain, even leftover oil. What can be sold will be—the oil, for instance, becomes biofuel. Plastic from ground bottles is turned into building material for chairs and desks in area schools. Remnants of ground porcelain get mixed into concrete building bricks. Any true garbage that remains gets shipped to a landfill.
Sustainability fuels development in other ways as well. Many of the area resorts are “eco-lodges” designed to attract visitors conscious of the carbon footprint travel creates. Our lodge had a frog pond, butterfly garden, and “botanic garden” featuring native plants. Iguanas roamed the pathways. Environmental education gives us the chance to gain similar acquaintance with our own home spaces, but we seldom take the time to gain it.
Babies eat, and babies digest—we rely on diapers to make the end result of the process manageable. Most inexpensive diapers are plastic on the outside, perfumed, and produced with a great deal of chemical waste. For working parents or those with limited income, what choice exists? And yet, any disposable ends up in a landfill, taking up cubic feet of earth that we can never reclaim. Americans throw out 18 billion of these diapers yearly.
Some disposables are working to be more eco-friendly. Pampers Pure, for instance, limits plastic to the tabs only. They claim to use no chlorine, latex, or parabens; the diapers contain “plant-based materials” such as cotton. Brands like Babyganics and Earth’s Best make similar claims. At the end of the day, they still go in a trash bag and to a landfill, which compounds the problem as landfills aren’t designed for effective biodegradation. The trash is sealed in clay or similar material; lacking exposure to the elements, a diaper will take 550 years to breakdown. Plastics take anywhere from 10 to 1000 years. Forgotten, but not gone.
Cloth diapers seem the natural solution: endlessly reusable, which offers a definite advantage. They cost a great deal up front, though, and parts are synthetic to prevent leaks. They’re also labor-intensive, which surely puts people off, and can get messy for anything beyond a moderate wetting. To properly clean them, we would also have to wash them in detergent with surfactants, which can harm amphibians. My wife and I decided early on that we would be flexible in parenting and try things to see what worked for us. In the early post-c-section days, the cloth diapers we’d bought drowned our tiny baby, so we went with disposables for the time being. When we finally tried the cloth on him again, we found our highly sensitive baby felt wetness earlier, which didn’t work for anyone getting sleep at night. They also wouldn’t offer a full solution if we didn’t buy tons and run laundry around the clock. But by six weeks, the volume of trash from using disposables alarmed us, so we revisited our options. A Facebook ad showed my wife a diaper brand that used snap-in diapers and inserts made of a hemp/cotton blend. To aid with the incredible mess of infant poo, the company had invented flushable biodegradable hemp liners to cover the diaper within its cover. We could save landfill space, though we’d still consume more water—when an essential clothing item is needed daily, it must be washed constantly. Still, cloth seemed the smaller sin.
I gave birth at DePaul Medical Center in Norfolk, Virginia, a Catholic hospital that sits on a peninsula less than a mile from the Lafayette River in three directions. Much of the city is at or barely above sea level; when we went house-hunting, multiple people advised us to ask about a neighborhood’s flooding before signing a lease. Even areas not directly on the water, like the popular Ghent neighborhood in the middle of the city, turn into puddled mazes during heavy rainfall.
Norfolk depends on the sea that threatens it. The Navy gives the city a huge portion of its reason to be, and we see reminders everywhere: banners on lampposts, blue camo fatigues in every grocery store, silhouettes of battleships visible from any elevated point. Naval Station Norfolk occupies a chunk of land on the Chesapeake Bay north of the city. Already, tidal waters saturate its soil and spaces—sometimes without a raincloud in sight. Flooded roads keep essential personnel from their duty stations and threatens utility functioning. The seas rise; the land sinks. The base will vanish.
Given the real possibility of oblivion, Norfolk is one of the few American cities taking climate change seriously and planning for it. In addition to stopgap measures like floodwalls, the city wants to raise streets and shift development to “safer” areas of less flooding. The Machiavellian twist to this story: some areas will prove too costly or too hopelessly at risk to save. The city must choose neighborhoods to offer as sacrificial lambs to the sea.
Our first apartment in the city sat in one such area, on the Lafayette River, on the edge of the Colonial Place neighborhood. Oyster restoration projects, marsh grass, and so many birds—great egrets, ducks, yellow-crowned night herons—lined the shore. Beautiful but evanescent, this habitat is likely to be underwater by 2050. It shows many of the same signs as other threatened areas, particularly sunny-day flooding. Traces of seaweed linger on the asphalt even after weeks of dry weather. The future may find street after street of beautiful waterfront homes, from brick mansions to Cape Cods, abandoned and slowly overtaken by the tides.
Necessity, rather than concern, seems to drive sustainable development and action. To sustain my pregnancy and keep my son out of the NICU, I had to be stiller than I wanted—resting, feet up, and ultimately unable to work except for grading essays on my couch.
Prospective parents consider what they can give their children and whether it will be enough. Food, clothes, education, time, love—but have we reached a point where we have to put “a livable planet” on that list? In 2019, Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez posed the question of whether it was still ok to have children when facing the threat of climate change. Her reasoning: as the effects of climate change worsen, the hardships and disastrous weather patterns will increase. Do we create new life knowing it may be condemned to live in a wasteland? Do we bring kids into a world we expect them to fix? It’s easy to decide the next generation will be the Great Hope and thereby absolve themselves of the hard work. Likewise, imagining doom and gloom prevents any real effort to reconcile our existence with climate change.
Perhaps the most frighteningly real of all manmade end-of-the-world scenarios appears in Cormac McCarthy’s The Road. A decade or so post-calamity, the world exists in a nuclear winter. Civilization long gone. Plants and animals dead and not reborn. A father and son scour the landscape for food and energy; theirs is a world down to its last dregs. Only traces of nature remain: leafless trees, dead bushes, dry half-rotted apples in an old orchard. They can’t be sure when or if they’ll find their next bit of sustenance. Is this the world Ocasio-Cortez and others fear would face our children and theirs?
What’s remarkable in the novel and life: hope. The Man will not give up providing for his son and working to support his moral compass despite the amoral world. One of our most prominent climate activists is Greta Thunberg, a 16-year-old Swedish girl leading school strikes and protests for environmental protection. Will one child be enough to fight the corporate machine that holds most of the power for substantive change? Maybe not, but if she can rally support, she can help build demand for sustainability and the pressure will help compel a new approach to living in harmony with our environment. In protecting our hypothetical children, we may only gain complacency.
On the black sand beach of Tortuguero, an indigo sky cradled rising gibbous moon. As we watched, dozens of green turtle hatchlings no bigger than my hand shuffled through sand, fractured coconut shells, and footprint craters until foam caught and swept them into the waves. They moved fast as a matter of survival; vultures swooped above us. I alternated between watching the mass movement of the grayish creatures down the shore and tracking individual turtles’ paths, filming the 2.5 minute journey of one from nest to waves. On a wide view, the turtle tracks look like tire tracks of vehicles driven in to the surf. But there are no vehicles on Tortugero except for boats.
We were about to leave the beach when someone spotted a final turtle struggling through the sand. When we got closer, it was clear that she had deformed back flippers—not unlike Nemo’s “lucky fin.” Without much discussion, the group became determined to see her safely to her destiny in the ocean. We walked in a cluster around her, speaking encouragement she couldn’t possibly understand. Overhead, the black winged silhouettes: the vultures still waited to snack on the slow and weak. Our presence thwarted natural selection, my wife pointed out; without us, fewer would have made it to the sea. And who knows whether our little charge ultimately made it past the shallows—we felt our job was done by what we set in motion.
When I think back to this evening, two things strike me: even as observers, we are interfering. Human existence is interference; the trick is to interfere as carefully as possible, to be wise in our disruptions of natural order. Second, plenty of people in this world can and do rally around the underdog. The determination to spirit a vulnerable marine animal past all dangers to freedom, if applied to our climate at large, could surely set our planet right again. We, for and through our children, make that demand in our small choices and the pressure we can put on the powerful entities in our world. I have to believe for my son’s sake that it’s worth the fight.
Jocelyn Heath is an Assistant Professor in English at Norfolk State University. Her poem “Orbital” won the 2014 Alison Joseph Poetry Award from Crab Orchard Review. Her writing has appeared in The Atlantic, Poet Lore, Sinister Wisdom, Fourth River, and elsewhere. She is an Assistant Editor for Smartish Pace.