The single most irrigated crop in the United States is…(drum roll please) lawn. Yep, 40 million acres of lawn exist across the Land of Denial and Americans collectively spend about $40 billion on seed, sod, and chemicals each year. And then there’s all that water. If you include golf courses, lawns in America cover an area roughly the size of New York State and require 238 gallons of (usually drinking-quality) water per person, per day. According to the EPA, nearly a third of all residential water use in the US goes toward what is euphemistically known as “landscaping.”
We have become a nation of pawns with lawns. Food comes from the drive-thru, entertainment is televised, the concept of play exists on hand-held computers, democracy is a reality show every four years, and that tiny parcel of land we allegedly share with some bailed out bank is inevitably set aside to be a lawn.
As described by Ted Steinberg, author of American Green: The Obsessive Quest for the Perfect Lawn, when it comes to lawns, social and ecological factors often work in coordination. “Perfection became a commodity of post-World War II prefabricated housing such as Levittown, NY, in the late 1940s,” writes Steinberg. “Mowing became a priority of the bylaws of such communities.”
Lawn mowers produce several types of pollutants, including ozone precursors, carbon dioxide, and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (classified as probable carcinogens by the CDC). In fact, operating a typical gasoline mower produces as much polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons as driving a car roughly 95 miles. Since some folks are legally required to maintain a lawn (more about that shortly), here’s a suggestion or two: human-powered mowers or try using your bicycle.
Besides the air and noise pollution of mechanized mowers, there’s another form of toxicity directly related to America’s lawn addiction. “Lawns use ten times as many chemicals per acre as industrial farmland,” writes Heather Coburn Flores, author of Food Not Lawns: How to Turn Your Yard into a Garden And Your Neighborhood into a Community. “These pesticides, fertilizers, and herbicides run off into our groundwater and evaporate into our air, causing widespread pollution and global warming, and greatly increasing our risk of cancer, heart disease, and birth defects.”
“If the Bill of Rights contains no guarantee that a citizen shall be secure against lethal poisons distributed either by private individuals or by public officials,” wrote Rachel Carson almost five decades ago, “it is surely because our forefathers…could conceive of no such problem.”
We now produce pesticides at a rate more than 13,000 times faster than we did when Carson wrote Silent Spring in 1962. The EPA considers 30% of all insecticides, 60% of all herbicides, and 90% of all fungicides to be carcinogenic, yet Americans spend about $7 billion on 21,000 different pesticide products each year. “Prior to World War II, annual worldwide use of pesticides ran right around zero,” says author Derrick Jensen. “By now it’s 500 billion tons, increasing every year.” As a result, about 860 Americans suffer from pesticide poisoning every single day; that’s almost 315,000 cases per year.
As mentioned above, maintaining a noxious and unproductive lawn isn’t just a simple case of one-size-fits-all conformity in the face all logic and evidence; it’s often the law.
In October 2008, for example, Joseph Prudente of Beacon Woods, Florida, was sentenced to jail for failing to sod his lawn as required by the local homeowner covenants. Before you label Mr. Prudente a modern day insurrectionist, take note that the reason he failed to live up to his suburban obligation was predictable: he couldn’t afford to replace his sprinklers when they broke. “It’s a sad situation,” said Bob Ryan, Beacon Woods Homeowners Association board president. “But in the end, I have to say he brought it upon himself.”
I’m guessing Mr. Ryan has never heard of Food Not Lawns.
Imagine, as the folks at Food Not Lawns do, each house not with a lawn but instead with a small organic “Victory” garden from which the family is fed. Imagine those without a lawn joining their local community garden to re-connect and grow their own. Or perhaps you’d like to imagine them engaging in some green graffiti and/or seed bombing.
(For the uninitiated, seed bombs are “compressed balls of soil and compost that have been impregnated with wildflower seeds. Jettisoned onto barren, abandoned, or otherwise inhospitable land, including construction sites and abandoned lots.” Liz Christy-who started the “Green Guerillas” in 1973-coined the alternative term, seed grenades. Smaller versions are commonly called seed balls. No matter what you call them, seed bombs are part of the ever-increasing international trend of guerilla gardening and you can find kindred spirits here.)
“The vast expanse of forever-green American lawn is not only the most resource intensive agricultural crop in the world,” writes Tobias Policha in Green Anarchy, “but also an obscene icon to our arrogant privilege and total alienation from a life in harmony with nature.”
The sterile lawn-complete with its requisite sprinkler, chemical cocktail, bug zapper, and “keep off the grass” sign-is an ideal symbol for America’s cookie cutter culture. Lawns, writes Ted Steinberg, are “an instrument of planned homogeneity.” He asks: “What better way to conform than to make your front yard look precisely like Mr. Smith’s next door?”
To which we must reply: Fuck homogeneity and fuck conformity.
Why don’t more people step away from the coast-to-coast mall mentality? Once reason is the looming Green Scare, a term which refers to “the federal government’s expanding prosecution efforts against animal liberation and ecological activists, drawing parallels to the ‘Red Scares’ of the 1910’s and 1950s.”
The answer to this tactic, as always, is more solidarity. More of us need to embrace ideas like dumpster diving, off the grid living, wwoofing, billboard liberation, monkey wrenching, radical love, bartering, freeganism, veganism, transition towns, and other forms of the DIY ethic. We need organic vegetable gardens, not lawns. We need two wheels, not four. We need food not bombs. We need immediate courageous collective direct action, not “hope and change.” We need comrades, not pawns with lawns. And we need it all now.