This is my lawn. I mow it, water it, pull weeds, and occasionally enjoy it. Though it’s not the greatest lawn in the world, it’s pretty typical. Everybody on my block has one. In fact, pretty much every house in this town has a lawn — each one tended to relentlessly by its owner-occupier.
But what insidious force compels me to expend so much energy on this measly plot of grass? Why not let it grow to its full potential? What’s wrong with a few dandelions? Why do I need a nice lawn at all?
Well, like most things in this world, I can pin the blame squarely on medieval aristocracy. But seriously, the invention of the lawn mower, the passage of the 40-hour work week, and the mass production of cheap housing all contributed to my insatiable desire for a nice, big lawn.
First, though, let’s talk about Angiosperms.
Angiosperms rule the Earth. They’ve been around since the dinosaurs. Today, they occupy over 90 percent of the planet’s land surface. Angiosperms are flowering plants. They constitute most of the plant species on the planet, including all flowers, fruiting plants, deciduous trees, and yes, grasses. Grass itself covers over 40 percent of the Earth’s surface. Our ancestors evolved in the vast grasslands of prehistoric Africa. We are grassland animals. It’s our natural habitat. No wonder it is by far the most common plant used in our lawns.
In the United States, lawns take up more acreage than the top eight crops combined.
But it wasn’t always like this. We didn’t really even start having lawns until the 19th century. And they didn’t really take off until after World War II.
Before that, lawns were mostly limited to the wealthy upper classes of medieval Europe. Nobility were the only ones who could afford to set aside and maintain land that didn’t produce food or contribute to their livelihood in any way. See, maintaining a lawn was hard work back then. The grass had to be cut by hand, using a scythe or shears. Of course, the landed elite that owned these lawns weren’t going to be rolling up their ruffled sleeves and getting their cravats dirty scything their own lawns. No way. They paid people to do that for them. So not only was a lawn a ton of work, it was very expensive.
That is, until the invention of the lawn mower in 1830. Through mechanizing lawn care, virtually anyone — not just the extremely rich — could maintain a lawn. As sports and lawn games became more popular, so did lawns. If you could afford the land and the lawn mowing machine, you were set.
Because extreme wealth was no longer necessary for lawn maintenance, an aspiring lawn owner need only the time to tend to it. But before 1938, many in the U.S. had to work more than eight hours a day during the week and half days on Saturdays. That left little time to take care of a lawn. But in 1938, congress passed the Fair Labor Standards Act, mandating the 40-hour work week. Suddenly, workers were free (enough) to conceivably manage a lawn.
But the lawn’s greatest ally was still to come.
Enter, the Suburb
As the cities of the 19th century grew more crowded and industrial, those who could afford it began to move. But they couldn’t move too far away. The jobs were still in the city. So communities sprang up on the outskirts of metropolitan areas, far enough to escape from the density and pollution of the inner city but close enough to commute to work. These were the first suburbs. Many of the houses in these suburban communities were built on enough land to have their own lawns.
Soon, the condition of the lawn became synonymous with the caliber of its homeowner’s character.
While suburbs began to surround most major cities in the US at the turn of the 20th century, they didn’t really take off until after World War II. An influx of war veterans seeking homes increased the demand for cheap, plentiful housing. The GI Bill made it possible for these returning soldiers to buy homes at discounted rates. To keep up with the housing demand, cheap, mass produced housing began to expand throughout the United States.
It was all thanks to William Jaird Levitt.
By circumventing unions, cutting out middlemen, and turning the construction of a home into 27 systematic steps, Levitt created what was essentially the first assembly line for large-scale, low-cost housing. Soon, these Levitt-style housing developments were popping up all over the United States, each one ordained with a pristine plot of well-manicured grass.
Now everybody could have a nice, big lawn.
Well, not really.
Levitt was super racist and restricted the sale of his homes to white Americans. Sales agents were explicitly instructed not to accept any applications from African Americans — even if they were war veterans. So not everybody got a nice, big lawn.
But these suburbs began to represent the American Dream — a place where anyone with a can-do spirit and a hardworking attitude (and the right complexion) could obtain their own piece of land with their very own pre-fabricated home, complete with 2.5 kids and an immaculate lawn. Soon, the condition of the lawn became synonymous with the caliber of its homeowner’s character. A well-maintained lawn meant a well-run, hardworking household, populated by true Americans who work 40 hours during the week but don’t spend their weekends in idleness. No, they have a lawn to take care of. It needs to be mowed and watered. Unwelcome plant varieties need to be removed to make room for a perfectly uniform mat of green grass. An overgrown, neglected lawn reflected laziness on the part of the homeowner, even a decrepitude of moral fiber. Because if you’re not maintaining your lawn to the same standards as your neighbors, you must be some kind of social deviant. Just as Levitt was enforcing a monoculture within his suburbs, his homeowners were cultivating a monoculture of plants in their lawns.
Having a nice, big lawn is more than just a symbolic act. Many communities across the U.S. actively police the upkeep of their neighborhood’s lawns. Homeowners can be subject to a fine if their grass isn’t clipped short enough or if their yard doesn’t adhere to the community’s standards of lawn care.
It’s all pretty insane when you think about it. But humans are weird. Especially Americans.
Lawns, Meet Climate Change
Our national obsession with lawns is putting a real strain on the environment.
We apply more synthetic fertilizers and pesticides to our lawns than an equivalent area of cropland. Not only can this hurt local wildlife, these chemicals can end up in our own drinking water. The manufacture and use of these chemicals require large amounts of fossil fuels and contribute to global warming. Lawnmowers and landscaping equipment account for 10-18 percent of non-transportation related gasoline emissions. Running a single lawn mower for an hour emits just as much pollution as 40 automobiles, according to the EPA (though some dispute this claim, they agree that a single lawn mower produces more pollution than multiple cars). In a year, a hectare of lawn can contribute as many greenhouse gases as a jet flying halfway around the world. Not to mention that an estimated 17 million gallons of gasoline are spilled every summer while refueling those lawn mowers. That’s almost two Exxon Valdez-scale oil spills every year, right in our front yard.
Most critically, lawns require a lot of water: 50–70 percent of all residential water in the United States goes to landscaping. Irrigated lawns take up nearly three times as much space as irrigated corn. To maintain that amount of grass on a daily basis, nine billion gallons of water need to be allocated to our lawns. That’s like every person in the United States dumping 30 gallons of fresh, drinkable water onto the ground, every single day.
Properly maintained, a lawn can actually help fight climate change while still providing space for barbecues and bocce ball.
But our lawns don’t have to be this much of a drain on the environment. First, we can reduce the amount of fertilizers and pesticides we use just by switching up the plants in our lawn. We don’t need uniform mats of grass. Low maintenance shrubs, herbs, or perennials can take the place of grass and increase the biodiversity of your lawn. Some plants can reduce the amount of time needed for mowing, and increase the natural carbon sequestration potential of our lawns. After all, grasslands are the planet’s great carbon sinks. Properly maintained, a lawn can actually help fight climate change while still providing space for barbecues and bocce ball.
We need only change what it means to have a nice, big lawn.
Truly, environmentally sustainable lawns would be better measures of our moral fiber as citizens of planet Earth than any of those old medieval lawns ever were.
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