Where did lawns come from anyway and how did they evolve into the high maintenance, toxic turf that cautious folks avoid touching, let alone lying on? Lawns originated in mid-18th century England and were reserved for the country estates of the very wealthy. Aristocrats in America soon followed suit, but the average citizen had to wait for the invention of the suburbs and the lawn mower before they, too, could realize the joys of personal lawns.
Historian Kenneth Jackson writes that by 1870 single houses had become the suburban style and a smart manicured lawn became an object of pride. According to Jackson, the lawn conveyed to “passers-by an impression of wealth and social standing.”
Early promoters of well-groomed lawns were the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the U.S. Golf Association and the Garden Club of America. Realizing a terrific market opportunity, industry was quick to begin selling the “necessary” equipment, fuels and poisons. With plenty of built-in capacity, agri-chemical companies began promoting aging farm chemicals as lawn care products. For years clover was a welcome addition to any lawn. That changed when a certain chemical company discovered a pesticide that killed clover but not grass and launched an ad campaign vilifying clover as “unfashionable.”
The old push reel lawn mower was replaced by self-propelled motorized models and soon the effortless riding mower was standard equipment. Today, Americans maintain over 30 million acres of lawn — an area 30 percent bigger than the entire state of Indiana. Developers are busy adding 2 million additional acres of residential property to this sprawling collective lawn every year.
The EPA estimates there are 89 million pieces of labor-saving lawn and garden equipment with engines of 25-horsepower or less. The average gasoline lawn mower pollutes more in one hour than an auto driven 350 miles. Those dirty little engines also require over a half billion gallons of gasoline and produce 5 percent of the nation’s air pollution, including 7 million tons of climate-warming CO2. Nervous about the demanding job ahead, shaky “manicurists” spill an estimated 17 million gallons of gasoline on the ground trying to top off the tanks of their equipment.
Blissfully unaware that over 97 percent of all pesticides never reach their target and with little knowledge of effects or dangers, homeowners over-poison their lawns, using 3.5 times more pesticide per acre than farmers. In 1987, Americans spent $700 million purchasing 67 million pounds of poisons to sterilize their turf. Since the industry has been growing at 9 percent annually, those numbers are really impressive today. Folks who want to lie in the grass the way I used to should know that of the 34 common lawn chemicals, about one-third cause cancer and birth defects, 38 percent cause liver and kidney damage and 59 percent damage the nervous system.
Ah, but you say typical pesticides can’t be very dangerous since it says right on the package that they are 80 to 99 percent inert ingredients. Ironically, the so-called “inert” ingredients in these pesticides can be even more deadly than the “active” poison. Technically, anything not registered as an active ingredient is considered “inert.” There are over 2,000 chemicals approved as “inert” ingredients in pesticides, including cancer-causing asbestos, benzene, chloroform and even lead compounds. An environmental group has documented cases in which hazardous waste was “recycled” as an “inert ingredient” in a pesticide!
So there you have it — Americans tend a lawn much larger than the state of Indiana, which soaks up rivers of water, tons of toxic chemicals, tankers of oil and billions of dollars. You can’t eat it or wear it, and health-minded folks don’t even want to touch it. All this seems quite a price to “convey to passersby an impression of wealth and social standing.”
There are hopeful signs. As awareness grows of the impact of unsustainable, toxic lawns, many people have begun planting more gardens and less lawn. Quebec is restricting use of cosmetic lawn chemicals and residents of Milford, Conn., are offering prizes for the best looking non-toxic lawns. Lawn care companies are beginning to offer non-toxic lawn products and electric mowers are gaining popularity. It’s a start, but as philosopher John Leslie suggests … we need to stop wrecking our only planet … especially for trivial reasons.
Jack Miller is a writer and activist in Indianapolis. He is coordinator of the Indiana Alliance for Democracy.