Who Framed Roger Rabbit?1 wasn’t just about a world of toons and humans. Beneath that was a plot to change the lifestyle of America for worse. Automakers killed the cable car industry to create a market for their cars.
There’s another story about an American lifestyle change that has been insidiously introduced, making a sizable dent in both our time and our sustainability. Like money, it is also green.
It’s the lawn.
Lawns are everywhere; if you have a house, it’s a given that you’ll have a lawn to go with it. Have you ever wondered why we have lawns?
Lawns began as grassy field cleared of trees around a castle, for visibility. In the 17th century it became a symbol of wealth – not only did it idle the land, rendering it entirely unproductive, but also required a labor force with scythes and shears to maintain it. Only the very rich could afford it. They would pay landscape artists to create grandiose gardens in the style of the Palace of Versailles with manicured and symmetrical arrangements. After the military losses and freezing weather at the turn of the century, the French treasury ran out of money, and the gardens overgrew.
Ironically, this led to the style of “landscape gardens,” where the French and English aristocracy would spend exorbitant amounts of money to create lavish vistas in their backyards styled after Claude Lorrain’s paintings. Namely, they would pay these landscape artists obscene amounts of money to remodel their lawns in such a way that the landscape looked completely untouched.
Lawns have more purposes beyond residential decoration. Many sports are played on grass fields. I don’t usually have an issue with a lawn grown specifically for a sport. Except golf. Most sports grew from some sort of training for hunting or military purposes. I can’t fathom how golf works into such types of training. Perhaps if we played golf with miniature air cannons, at least the players would learn ballistics.
The lawn mower was invented about 1830, at which point the luxury of a manicured garden or a lawn did not belong to the vastly wealthy. Early versions of the mower weren’t very good, and it took until the early 1950’s before gasoline powered rotary mowers rose to displace cylindrical push mowers for personal lawn care.
The big debut of suburbia2 occurred in Levittown, NY in 1947. A critical feature of the suburban home was the lawn, now made possible with the advent of the lawn mower and pesticides. According to the founder Levitt:
No single feature of a suburban residential community contributes as much to the charm and beauty of the individual home and the locality as well-kept lawns.
“Charm and beauty” are not words that come to mind when I think about lawns. 3
A modern lawn is a monoculture, usually consisting of non-native grasses that require extra watering, fertilization, and the application of pesticides.
The real estate, agricultural, and fossil fuel industries all benefited by promoting the adoption of lawns. A sizable lawn is a symbol of wealth, and people have been buying larger plots of land as a result. The agriculture industry benefits by the increased profits from the sale of fertilizer and pesticides and by stealthily reducing the ability of homeowners to grow their own food. The fuel industry gained a new market in providing fuel for lawn mowers. Here’s a trifecta of industries all benefitting substantially from changing the American lifestyle.
Why are we so divorced from Nature? Why is it we rarely (in some areas, if ever) see local native wildlife? We’ve waged war on local wildlife by depriving them of useful habitat, replacing it with lawns. Know one place where wildlife is thriving? Chernobyl – because we aren’t there. Radiation is still a problem, but humans kill off wildlife faster than radiation does.
The environmental costs of lawns are immense. One third of residential water use is for landscaping purposes, sometimes exceeding 60% in dry states. The number one “crop” in the United States is the lawn. The fuel, fertilizer, and pesticide use is staggering.
Golf courses take up almost two Rhode Islands and a Delaware in land area. Just think on that for a moment.
Aside from the waste of the above resources, there’s also the carbon cost to consider. There’s the carbon cost in the manufacture and transport of fertilizer and pesticides, and the fuel for the mowers. That’s not the only carbon cost – displacement of native plants increases the carbon load because native plants are more efficient at carbon sequestration.
The bees are dying off, and we need them to pollenate our crops. Pesticide use is thought to be killing them. Lawns also displace flowering plants, so we’ve probably helped reduce their numbers that way in addition to poisoning them.
Replacing lawns with native plants, gardens, crops, or xeriscaping makes more sense in terms of conserving our resources. Growing your own food is an excellent use of the land, and provides you with better food than you can get from most grocery stores.
It’s time we let our love affair with lawns wither and die.
1 Check the end of the Wikipedia entry, titled “Real World Parallels”.
“Who Framed Roger Rabbit?” was originally a book, titled “Who Censored Roger Rabbit?”.
2 Check the section called “American lawn culture”.
3 When I hear “charm and beauty”, I think of quarks. Yes, I’m a science geek. 🙂