Pawns with Lawns

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.

Mickey Z. is the creator of a podcast called Post-Woke. You can subscribe here. He is also the founder of Helping Homeless Women - NYC, offering direct relief to women on New York City streets. Spread the word. Read other articles by Mickey.

8 comments on this article so far ...

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  1. Tree said on March 1st, 2009 at 11:26am #

    Thanks for this article. This is something I think about quite often as I live in a neighborhood where no one owns the land their homes sit on but are required to maintain it. This bugs the hell out of me, by the way.
    I have zero patience for the homeowners association/suburban fascists but have to temper this with the reality of my situation. I’ve also dealt first hand with just how ugly these d-bags can get.
    One small way I’ve found that helps (and I have a small yard anyway) is to grow vegetables and herbs all around my lot in spaces normally reserved for grass and flowers. I plan to increase these spaces this year, too and am only limited by my small budget.
    I know I won’t find solidarity in my neighborhood on this issue but that’s ok as long as I can continue doing what I’m doing and not end up in jail like that poor guy in Florida.

    Thanks again for this article, Mickey.

  2. Lijandra said on March 1st, 2009 at 11:46am #

    Nice article, thank you.

  3. Michael Dawson said on March 1st, 2009 at 12:41pm #

    Good one, Mickey. Thanks for all the excellent statistics. Very enlightening.

  4. lichen said on March 1st, 2009 at 2:36pm #

    Lawns and grass are hideously ugly and useless; we have no ‘lawn’ here, and the majority of space is used for growing organic fruits and vegetables year-round in a failure garden (because the disgusting imperialist serial-killers should achieve ‘victory’.)

  5. Ron Horn said on March 1st, 2009 at 2:57pm #

    My understanding is that lawns are a legacy of the aristocratic ruling class, especially in England . They loved their lawns and invented all kinds of games to be played on them such as lawn tennis, croquet, badminton, cricket, and golf.

    Today’s favorite sport among the capitalist class and its upwardly mobile wannabes is the grass loving sport of golf. I suspect that golf courses are a major contributor of pesticides, fertilizers, and herbicides that is used in the US and many industrialized capitalist countries. This class has demonstrated very little concern about the future habitability of this planet with their ongoing efforts to oppose any serious attempt to limit their profit making machinery. I doubt that they would go along with any attempts to curb their fun on these environmentally destructive golf courses.

  6. Max Shields said on March 1st, 2009 at 8:01pm #

    James Howard Kunstler in The End of Suburbia, “lawns are a cartoon version of nature”. Suburbia was created to provide a sense of being out of the city and into the country; “reconnecting with nature”. All the trees were/are eliminated, all the natural flora were/are dug up, and in their place is a manicured lawn of green, a “cartoon” of nature.

  7. Don Hawkins said on March 2nd, 2009 at 6:34am #

    When asked what people needed to do in order to become “one hearted,” the Hopi urge people to encourage rather than threaten life. They encourage people to insure that their actions benefit everyone rather than giving advantage to a few. They say, “Concern for all living things will far surpass personal concerns bringing greater happiness than could formerly be realized. Then all things shall enjoy lasting harmony. The basic premise is that humans cannot simply make their own laws and enforce them with weapons without regard to natural order. The very means of enforcement violates that order, causing precisely the suicidal situation now faced today.”

    Now how did the Hopi know this? Well they saw what was happening and said this is not going to work out well. I wonder what Rush would think about this USA USA USA go team go. Now what the Hopi said is that an old way of thinking, no it’s never be tried yet.

  8. Ken said on December 17th, 2009 at 10:02pm #

    Lawns are the least of it! Beacon Woods is run like a Fascist dictatorship. They have over sixteen pages of rules. If you break any one of them, you face a $1000 fine, and they have two law firms at their disposal to do so. If you don’t pay the fine, then they put a lien against your house. The current board, which has had power for over ten years, insures that nobody but their friends get elected. The board, incorporated as a business some years ago. So they profit from the deed restrictions. The more people they fine or take to court enriches their coffers. These people are the most despicable bastards on earth. They prey on the poorer residents, and profit from it. There is no way to fight them, they have ultimate authority. In case you haven’t figured. I am a resident, and they have gone after me for trying to fight them. They do the same to anyone who challenges them. They find anything to write you up over. The last one, was a rear hedge that was too tall. Instead of being the “proper 5 feet” it was six. The neighbor had some weeds in her lawn. It goes on and on. The latest made the news tonight. A mans Christmas decorations were deemed ” a deed restriction” because he included a small white picket fence, as part of his Christmas display. They demanded he take it down immediately. Merry Christmas, from the Beacon Woods Grinch, Tom Pohl President.