In an environmental working group a few years ago, as part of a “getting to know you” strategy, we were each asked to share an environmental issue that concerned us. Many of the answers were: climate change, deforestation, poverty, and so on. Mine was lawns. Needless to say, I received a few confused looks from my group, but it is a serious, unglamorous problem.
Grass is the most prolific and successful plant species on the planet. Billions of pounds of animals rely on it as their principal food source, and Western societies have been obsessed on a few distinct varieties for decades. Until I was made aware of the issues, I thought, probably like most people, that carefully manicured lawns were not that big a deal. It gets people outside, kids play on it, it’s fun to lie on a hot summer day, so what’s the big deal?
If aliens were to look down on us today, they would probably get the inclination that we worship lawns. We put so much time and energy into maintaining them, but we don’t get anything out of it. We can’t eat it (we don’t have a well enough developed cecum), we don’t make anything with it, it doesn’t flower (becasue we don’t let it), and many people are allergic to it. It uses up millions of gallons of potable water every year, as well as fertilizer and pesticides that can contaminate our groundwater supply. The result of overcaring has created quite a wimpy plant that becomes heavily reliant on all of these inputs, on top of the environmental consequences listed above.
The way we manicure our lawns creates other problems, such as an overpopulation of white grubs, who love-love-love the short root system that is created with watering and over-fertilization. This attracts crows, skunks, and other urban forms of wildlife to tear up our lawns, which inevitably causes us to pour even more resources into making it look nice. I guess one of the only benefits of lawns that I can see right now, is that it makes dogs and cats purge their systems now and then, which is important to do when they get into scavenger mode and eat questionable foods, or have a hairball to get rid of.
A professor once shared a story with me. She had a friend visiting Montreal from Europe, who was confused with our lofty green carpets. She asked “well, what do you do with it?”, and, my professor was at a loss for words. Her friend found it an incredible waste of resources, and wondered why people don’t just plant useful things, like gardens on their property. This way, people would at least have the benefit of feeding themselves or having something nice, like flowers, to look at.
If this information has been a bummer for you, have no fear, there are lawn alternatives that you can use instead of grass. Increasing plant diversity on your property boosts the health of the ecosystem. Rather than there being just one type of grass on your lawn, a bountiful variety helps combat pests. Each plant tends to have its own defense mechanism, and so, a bunch of defenses provides less opportunity for something like white grubs to chow down and multiply. Using plants that are naturally from your region will help with the amount of inputs that your lawn needs. In contrast, take, for example, golf courses in Arizona. Rediculous. Half the water evaporates before even getting to the root system, while the state, and dozens of other countries are experiencing water stresses. This hardly seems to be a well thought-out practice.
All of this grass would have made sense 150 years ago, when it was a prinicpal fuel source for the most common method of transportation. Cars have long since outphased horses in most of the world, though, yet we persist with this idea of prosperity, good neighborliness. We can only account for our own actions, so please, cut down on the grass.