he writer Michael Pollan once observed, "A lawn is nature under totalitarian rule." Lawns cover more than 25 million acres of land in the United States -- that's twice the area taken up by cotton, a crop we grow so much of we've become the world's leading exporter. How and why, asks Ted Steinberg in American Green, did a plant that requires unremitting toil and yields no crop come to so dominate our landscape?
Steinberg is an environmental historian at Case Western Reserve University and the author of four previous books, including Down to Earth: Nature's Role in American History, which was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize in 2003. In American Green he scrutinizes our lawns as a cultural phenomenon, a multibillion-dollar industry, and an overlooked health threat, all along melding muckraking journalism with roguish humor to produce a highly entertaining and mostly compelling call for grassroots reform.
Although manicured lawns first took root among English aristocrats in the eighteenth century, they didn't grow on American homeowners until the first postwar suburb was born in Levittown, New York. Lawns quickly spread from the Northeast to the Sun Belt as an emblem of upward mobility, an exemplar of suburban conformity, and -- argues Steinberg -- a refuge from cold war anxiety. But furnishing a cushy carpet for fun and family has triggered a snowballing cycle of energy, water, and chemical use.
If lawn-care mania germinated in the suburbs, Steinberg says, it rose to epic proportions on the golf course. Georgia's impeccably groomed Augusta National, home of the Masters tournament, uses portable lamps, precision mowers, and even scissors to keep the fairways short and the greens even shorter (an eighth of an inch!). But the accompanying pesticides and fertilizers carry an insidious cost. "If you scraped a golf green and tested it," one biologist tells Steinberg, "you'd have to cart it away to a hazardous waste facility."
Cutting-edge lawn care eventually trickled down to yards. But, as Steinberg explains, aggressive mowing actually damages the health of the grass. The shorter we cut, the more pesticides, herbicides, fungicides, fertilizer, and water are needed to fix the damage.
All that compulsive manicuring runs up a steep environmental tab. Some pesticide residues contain dangerous chemicals, coating our lawns with suspected carcinogens and neurotoxins. Diazinon, from a class of chemical compounds also used as nerve gas, was the second-most popular insecticide in the United States until 2000, when the Environmental Protection Agency finally declared it unsafe after studies linked it to cancer, birth defects, and brain damage. The jury is still out on a half-dozen other lawn pesticides in common use. Potential toxicity isn't the only problem: Fertilizers spark algae blooms in our waterways, and America's 38 million gas-powered mowers and 26 million leaf blowers pump greenhouse gases into our already carbon-saturated atmosphere.
Steinberg's call for grassroots reform is not about banning the lawn. Although his sociopolitical explanation for our obsessive behavior may not leave everyone satisfied, his main conclusion is unassailable: Embracing a scruffy lawn saves time and money, and helps the environment to boot.
-- Jim Rossi