This article was originally published at The Kind Little Blog, titled “The Absurdity of Lawn”.
Lawn. It’s wretched stuff. To maintain a lawn, to the standards expected of most suburbanites, requires so much water, fertiliser and pesticide, that you wonder why people even bother. Do most people get use out of their lawn? Or is it something that sits there and looks nice? It doesn’t seem justified.
Lawn is “boastful and bourgeois” says my friend Erina. She is right and it is meant to be. In her 2008 New Yorker piece, “Turf Wars”, Elizabeth Kolbert writes that lawn is about communitarianism: it’s about “fitting in”. Lawn is an indicator of a moral citizen. He whose lawn is overgrown and unkept should be treated with caution, therefore. Edward Scissorhands and Pleasantville present many of the gender, racial and societal norms that the lawn gives rise to. Who would have thought a patch of green out the front of your house could be such a study in sociology? Lawn says more about society than it does the individual. Hence, he who has no lawn is considered an oddball by society.
Green field developments are all about keeping up appearances. I’ve lived in a few in my time–Seaford Rise and Golden Grove in South Australia–and they were Meccas for that green stuff. The developers of these estates impose stringent landscaping guidelines. Actually, the guidelines aren’t all that stringent–provided that you do landscape your yard within the timeframe specified. Lawn is cheap, so is the obvious option for many people. I can understand why, when they have just built the cookie-cutter home of their dreams, with its formal and informal living areas, chef’s kitchen and double garage. There isn’t much budget left for a fancy landscaping job. Lawn will have to do.
But what does lawn mean in a broader context? Well for a start, we are constantly being told that there are food shortages and security issues across the globe. There isn’t enough land to grow sustenance crops. This is especially the case when much fertile land is being used to grow biofuel crops instead. The GM companies assure us that they have a solution in the bag, as they steam ahead trying to control a greater percentage of the world’s food supply. All this is happening whilst people starve, both in the Global South and North. It’s a pretty dire scenario isn’t it?
In a 2005 article entitled, “Food Crisis Feared as Fertile Land Runs Out”, the authors show that “40% of Earth’s land is used for agriculture” and that this growing “footprint” will be of consequence to the environment . Meanwhile, in the USA at least, over 2 million acres of land are taken up by golf courses and around 40 million by other–domestic and commercial–lawns. That’s a fair chunk of land. Imagine how much food could be grown on it?
I’m intrigued by the Dervaes family of Pasadena, Los Angeles. They grow over 6000lbs of food each year on their 1/10 acre block. They keep 60% of it for themselves, sell 30%–and derive a decent income from it–and use the remainder to feed their animals . An adult human eats around 800lb of food per year. So they grow enough to feed over 7 people.
My interest in this topic came about through a YouTube video I saw of a chap in Western Australia who established a market garden in his backyard. He was the first person I heard to say that a lack of land to grow food is nonsense. There is plenty of land, it’s just that we don’t use it effectively.
So, the morality of digging up our lawn and planting food. Well if people are starving, and by growing our own food, we free up land to grow crops to feed the starving, then it seems like the right thing to do, right?
Before I broach into the moral argument against lawn and for the solution, I wish to set a few things straight. The argument rests on the assumption that the science that claims that there isn’t enough land to feed people is sound. There seems to be compelling evidence that suggests that this is the case, hence my decision to expand upon it. Also, the argument I use is basic. I didn’t want this post to turn into some purely academic, fuddy-duddy philosophical piece. Instead, I wanted to outline a problem and propose a practical if interesting solution. I also think that the moral argument posited by Singer is strong and compelling. Some may disagree with me on this and I ask those people to come forward and share their argument. Without further ado…
In his book, “The Life You Can Save” , philosopher Peter Singer argues that we, as individuals, ought to save a child from drowning, even if it is of some expense to us. For the expenses that we may consider are arbitrary and incomparable to the value of a human life. And it’s true: we would. If you were walking through the park on your lunch break and a child had fallen into a pond, and by jumping in after her you ruined your new shoes and would be soaking wet, would you jump in after the child? Of course you would. You would consider this your moral responsibility. To look on and do nothing would be wrong.
Therefore, we have a responsibility to feed those that are starving. This is especially true if the cost to us, as individuals, is nil or very low. Singer presents his argument by first postulating two premises:
1. “Suffering and death from lack of food, shelter and medical care are bad”.
2. “If it is in our power to prevent something bad from happening, without thereby sacrificing anything of comparable moral importance, then we ought, morally, to do it”.
Do you agree with these premises? I am sure many people do. I do. And I am willing to make, what would seem to some, great sacrifices to alleviate the suffering. If you agree with the premises you must accept the conclusion:
… One has a responsibility to help feed those in need even if it means sacrificing something of less moral importance.
Hence, lawn. By taking matters into our own hands, crops can be grown to feed the starving rather than us. Of course this rests on the fact that the crops would be used to feed the starving. Maybe they would, maybe they wouldn’t. But what we are being told is that a lack of fertile land is impacting on the ability to supply those in need. I am making this argument on the basis that this is the case. That by freeing up land we would be able to produce food to feed the poor–without resorting to GMOs etc. Another thing, I think it’s just commonsense to use land for worthwhile things rather than as arbitrary symbols of moral superiority or cultural cliches. To do otherwise fosters inequalities; unfair and unfounded ones. I feel for the man with the uncontrolled front lawn; being looked at by his neighbours as some sort of perverse fiend.
We lose our lawn but instead gain a yard full of fresh fruit and vegetables, food that is fresher than what we buy in the supermarket and, if grown organically, is free of many of the pesticides and other nasties common in commercial production. Not only is it a moral thing to do, it is good for our well-being. Research by Loughborough University shows that gardening offers opportunities for self-reflection and relaxation, and has a positive effect on physical and mental health .
Produce gardening is also better for the environment. As I said earlier in this piece, lawn requires large quantities of water, fertiliser and pesticides–the latter two have a “detrimental effect on groundwater, rivers, lakes, and harbours”. Lawn is also a mono crop meaning it zaps nutrients from the soil–hence the need for fertilisers–and leads to pests and diseases–hence the need for pesticides, to keep these at bay. Whereas, fruit and vegetables, using reputable organic gardening practices, require little watering, no pesticides, natural fertilising techniques–mulching, manure, etc–and put nutrients back into the soil. Not to mention, cutting down on transport miles.
I yearn for a day when lawns are outnumbered by vegetable gardens. And we’re experiencing a zeitgeist where this may just catch on. More and more people I know are trying their hand at growing some herbs or a few tomatoes at least. After their first crop, they’re transformed. Growing produce may just be better for the mind than gardening in general.
So what do you think? Do you think lawns are a waste? Do you think people should switch to growing their own produce to alleviate their reliance on the industrialised food?
When this article was first published it elicited a fair amount of debate. Following, I shall summarise the common criticisms it received along with my responses:
“We have a lawn and don’t apply any fertiliser or pesticides or herbicides at all.”
In Australia the use of pesticide for domestic lawns applications isn’t practiced as commonly as it is in the USA. One of the reasons given is that we’re not as finicky about the aesthetic of a lawn. Even so, Australian’s buy thousands of tonnes of pesticides to keep their lawns looking pretty. One only has to take a walk down the relevant aisle at Bunnings to see that the products are in demand. Then there are the golf courses, sports fields, parklands and reserves maintained by councils and governments who, habitually, do use chemicals as part of their maintenance regime.
Things are different in the USA where a man’s lawn is his pride and joy and, as I argue in the blog, a measure of his moral character. According to the NWF  and Steinberg , suburban lawns require over 32 tonne of active pesticide ingredients each year. With a higher per acre usage than in the industrial farming system.
“Kids need lawn to play on.”
Lawn and kids. I partially agree. Whilst it may be useful for them, they don’t need it. If you have a good reason for lawn, you should have one. I love sitting on the lawn with a book and glass of wine. Or going for picnics and spreading out a rug over some lush greenery. However, most lawn goes to waste. It isn’t used for anything worthwhile. Especially in frontyards. Most play tends to happen in backyards in Australia.
“You’re just jealous.”
I don’t know why I would ever be jealous of a lawn when instead I can have fresh home-grown produce for my investment in time and water. Water is in short supply in this country. I have trouble reconciling its use to produce something of mere aesthetically value. That said, I don’t enjoy the appearance of lawn.
 Kolbert, E. (2008). “Turf War”. New Yorker. See: http://www.newyorker.com/arts/critics/books/2008/07/21/080721crbo_books_kolbert
 Ravilious, K. (2005). “Food Crisis Feared as Fertile Land Runs Out”. The Guardian. See: http://www.theguardian.com/science/2005/dec/06/agriculture.food
 Path To Freedom. “The Urban Homestead at a Glance”. See: http://urbanhomestead.org/urban-homestead
 Singer, P. (2009). “The Life You Can Save: Acting Now to End World Poverty”. Random House.
 Aldridge, J., Baldwin, H., Sempik, J. & Spurgeon, T. (2011). “Research Shows Gardening is Good for Health and Well-Being”. Loughborough University: News. See: http://www.lboro.ac.uk/service/publicity/news-releases/2005/38_thrive.html
 National Wildlife Federation (n.d.). “Cut Your Lawn in Half”. See: http://www.nwf.org/Get-Outside/Outdoor-Activities/Garden-for-Wildlife/Gardening-Tips/Cut-Your-Lawn-In-Half.aspx
 Steinberg, T. (2006). “American Green, The Obsessive Quest for the Perfect Lawn”. W.W. Norton & Co.