As we look around local parks, around our homes and even around Brandeis’ campus, the majority of the green we see is made up of grass. But the American ideal of a manicured, uniform law is not as environmentally friendly as it appears upon first glance. It’s green, but it’s not “green.”
For decades, a perfectly cut, even and verdant layer of grass has been symbolic of the American Dream. It has served to further the idea that “home ownership and a patch of land could be within reach for every American.” The American Dream is dead (was it ever really alive?), but the need for a flawless lawn has remained deeply embedded in the collective consciousness of millions of Americans. Lawns are ecological horrors, wastes of resources and flat-out ugly most of the time.
Most lawns are made of a Kentucky bluegrass monoculture. A monoculture, or an area with only one species present, provides habitats for very few other species due to a lack of diversity. Few species can survive in the ecological desert that lawns create, leading to a marked decline in suburban biodiversity. Additionally, the chemicals that are used to maintain lawns are extremely harmful to all forms of life. The 70 million pounds of pesticides that Americans use each year are linked to cancer, neurological damage, birth defects and more. The worst part is that, due to EPA regulations, “Warnings about potential long-term or chronic health effects from the active ingredients [in pesticides] are not required.” The chemical-heavy pest control matrix Americans use also accounts for millions of bird deaths yearly and accumulate in “lakes, rivers and streams which are essential food and water sources for so many species.” Is having a lawn really worth all this ecological damage? Many people think so, meaning that they let their children play on lawns that have been treated with pesticides. This can adversely affect children’s nervous, respiratory, reproductive and immune development, as they take in a higher quantity of toxins relative to adults due to their smaller size.
Lawn care takes a lot of water, too. An absurd amount, really, when the services that lawns provide to humans are weighed against their costs. To irrigate the 45.6 million acres of lawn (three times the size of New Jersey, the worst state in the union) the United States has, each American family uses about 48 gallons of water every day. This water doesn’t all go into the lawn, though. Much of it becomes runoff, “wasted due to poor timing and application.”
Lawn care is also a contributor to global warming, with 5% of the America’s air pollution coming from lawnmowers. That’s not all, though: “more than 17 million gallons of fuel are spilled during the refilling of lawn and garden equipment—more than the oil that the Exxon Valdez spilled.” In one year, Americans waste more gasoline than was dumped into the Gulf of Mexico in one of the most notorious oil spills in history. It’s truly sad the environmental destruction Americans cause in our quest to have prettier things.
Although the current lawn paradigm has its problems, there is a surprisingly easy solution: Pollinator Pathways. This is a program dedicated to “Establishing pollinator-friendly habitats and food sources for bees, butterflies and birds.” It’s centered around planting “relevant, beautiful, diverse, important and ecologically responsible” plants in your yard instead of the Kentucky bluegrass you’re used to, and provides “pesticide-free corridors of native plants that provide nutrition and habitat for pollinating insects and birds.” This program mostly exists on the East Coast, but even creating one isolated pesticide-free native-plant-filled territory in a sea of monocultures can make a big difference for local wildlife. The best part is that this program doesn’t have to be a massive expense for land owners: even putting in place just a few plants on otherwise homogeneous lawn can help.
Lawns, as they are, are resource sinks and aesthetic nightmares (unless you like drab homogeneity, for some reason). They kill wildlife, pollute the planet and are just plain ugly. There’s a better way to cultivate plants on residential land, and the myriad benefits to doing so are clear.