It is time for America to rethink its position on grass.
While one notorious weed commands attention from the media, the government, and the public, another less assuming grass is quietly exacerbating some of America’s most pressing issues — without any partisan baggage.Since the advent of the suburbs, American homes have featured green, manicured lawns -- as much a staple in the imagery of the American Dream as white picket fences, mailboxes, and smiling children. But with
drought, air pollution, inflated real estate prices, and insurmountable national (and private) debt all coming to a head, it may be time to retire the turf.
The idea of replacing lawns with native plants or vegetable gardens is nothing new. But for all the talk about freedom, safety, a strong economy, and taking care of America’s natural resources, grass has somehow managed to regularly escape scrutiny.
The culture of the lawn in America reflects the contradictions common to both parties: their supposed platform priorities and what they are willing to do to actually achieve them. It demonstrates perfectly how advancing the public good is less interesting to partisan interests than painting their opponents as wrong. Righteous indignation trumps pragmatism every time.
Silver Spoons and Green Lawns
Originally brought over with British and European immigrants in the earlier stages of America’s development, the first seeds of grass were a holdover from the old world used to distinguish the classes. A well-kept lawn was usually only a priority of the aristocracy, along with a house and garden staff who saw to its maintenance.
In the earlier days of the American colonies, lawns remained more associated with wealthier families who owned fancier homes, rather than with any and all land not being used for agriculture.
While the climate and soil of New England has at least some features in common with England and Northern Europe, it was likely the association with class and wealth that drove American homeowners to cultivate grass as they settled further west, eventually making it the standard ground cover for the entire country.
So what is wrong with grass, other than its archaic role as a status symbol for a now extinct aristocracy?
Grass: America’s Staple Crop
Sucking up as much as 60 percent of all urban fresh water every year, grass is a far better example of waste than American shower habits or private swimming pools. Grass doesn’t actually have to appear green to be perfectly healthy--it is remarkably resilient in this respect--but lawn care in America is less a matter of botany and more of keeping up with the Joneses. Green is what counts.California’s ever-worsening drought, which threatens the entire state
and national economy, has spawned a lawn-painting industry for people more willing to shell out cash for green yards than tackle the single-largest source of water waste within individual control. So while restrictions on landscape irrigation limit when residents can water their lawns, people are not asking whether or not they should be maintaining such thirsty gardens in the first place.
Efforts to reduce urban water use could target concentrated waste. Cut-backs have spread across all dimensions, leaving residents to snipe at each other over perceived waste while continuing to nurture their yards, blissfully ignorant of any contradiction. Private pools have come under fire as perceived water-wasters subject to further regulation, despite requiring nearly a third less water to maintain than a standard residential lawn.
The conflict of priorities pits vanity gardens against productive, economically consequential agriculture, and the farms are losing the fight. Clearly, putting modest lifestyle restrictions on citizens for the greater good is politically viable (along with uncomfortable). Doing it in an effective manner? Not so much.
Urban residents keep their lawns, while farmers (and consequentially, everyone relying on their products) end up suffering.
Of Grasses and Gasses
A green lawn may be a status symbol, but so is clinging onto an old reliable mower, regardless of fuel economy or emissions.
While auto companies crawl toward greater gas efficiency in their vehicles and the EPA keeps a tight lid on vehicle emissions, lawnmowers escape both metrics, burning roughly one gallon for every hour of use while emitting as much pollution as a car traveling over a hundred miles.
Because trimming lawns stimulates growth, mowers just encourage water-hungry weeds to grow faster and guarantee a steady stream of emissions and gasoline use.
Without mowers, Americans would save $5.25 billion on fuel each year -- even more than they spend on commuting to work. The savings offered by public transit pale compared to reducing the acreage committed to growing grass.
The EPA has only recently begun to raise standards on the manufacturers of such small engine equipment, leaving it up to them to find a way to cut emissions from their products by nearly 60 percent over the coming decade -- which would be great, if Americans replaced their mowers about every six years as they do with cars.
Unfortunately, the typical lawnmower lasts a solid decade — longer with proper maintenance — and changes in technology just don’t come as rapidly for mowers as they do for cars.
Again, partisan battlegrounds over government subsidies for private sector endeavors like electric cars and mass transit systems distract from more pragmatic opportunities to address the same problems. The net benefits of eliminating grass are powerful, but without an artificially constructed set of partisan viewpoints driving debate, it just isn’t catching.
Exotic Chemicals in Your Weed
Opponents to marijuana decriminalization or legalization will cite the health risks, direct and indirect, of imbibing chemicals we just don’t know enough about.
Well, scientists have made a pretty firm case on the health risks of using pesticides, weed killers, and fertilizers, yet the average American doesn’t even flinch while annually dumping billions of pounds of these chemicals on their lawns.
Sure, people generally don’t smoke Kentucky Blue Grass, but they do let their pets and children play on it, allow sprinklers to wash the chemical bath into their streets and watersheds, and then repeat the process until the grass takes on that lovely glowing green hue.
While organic gardening is growing in popularity as an alternative to the artificial cocktail gaining a bad reputation today, lawn treatment efforts still amount to reprogramming the earth to support grass in places it doesn’t naturally belong -- and without any accompanying benefit, aside from aesthetics.
Contrast this with the complex issue of fracking, which Republicans laud for its impact on the price of gas, and Democrats often decry for polluting and damaging natural resources, if not human lives.
A Nonpartisan Controversy
The political machinery in America has kept itself running by encouraging the public to cherry-pick controversies without regard to consequence or impact. In regards to grass, there is enough evidence to convince leaders of any political stripe to rally for new policy.It doesn’t require an endorsement of climate change or global warming to recognize that there is a very real drought in some of America’s most productive farmland. There is nothing ambiguous about the logistics of bringing water to thirsty southwestern states with limited native reserves. There is nothing partisan about recognizing that a quaint old U.S. tradition has a net negative impact across the country, economically, environmentally, and empirically.
In Las Vegas, where the damage and expense of lawn care became impossible to ignore, the Southern Nevada Water Authority piloted a program to pay homeowners to remove preexisting lawns by the square foot. From 1999 to 2011, authorities credit the program with saving more than 40 billion gallons of water -- even golf courses participated and saw their water bills drop by 10 percent.
Grass is far from the only (or easiest) option for providing low maintenance groundcover. In fact, xeriscaping, which utilizes native shrubs, flowers, and other foliage, has the joint benefit of being more water-efficient, requires no weekly mowing, and still provides curb appeal (lest the Home Owner Associations cry foul that the loss of lawns will hurt property values).
The bottom line on the issue of grass is really the bottom line: directly and indirectly, perpetuating America’s grass cult is unaffordable.
If you have to manufacture a biosphere for the benefit of your lawn, your priorities need rethinking. Likewise, America’s attention on grass is woefully misplaced.