For decades, the vibrant green lawn has been a staple of the American Dream and the suburbs. Success and a large swath of manicured grass are one and the same thing. However, with everything associated with the ideals of the United States, the lawn hides ugly truths that are rooted in white supremacy and settler colonialism as they kill the planet.
To understand how lawns became what they are today, we must first go back to their origins. The origins of the lawn – just like most terrible things in the world – have their roots in European aristocracy.
Lawns began in the 16th century in France when landed elites had laborers to create manicured gardens. With enclosures of commons all over the continent, the lawn idea has only grown in popularity.
It has become a status symbol to have acres of land wasted on glamor and maintained with constant work. As colonies were established in North America, the idea of lawns as a symbol of success solidified. Founding fathers, such as George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, enslaved black people who were forced to finely chop, water, and maintain massive properties.
Ironically, the grasses native to this continent did not meet their expectations. European grass seeds were imported into the United States so that the oligarchs could imitate the lawns of Europe. At all levels, the lawn was the manifestation of colonialism.
The invention of the sprinkler and push lawn mower made lawns more accessible to the lower classes, and the popularity of lawns exploded at the end of World War II. The Servicemen’s Readjustment Act of 1944, commonly known as the GI Bill, allowed white veterans to get loans and buy homes in the booming suburban sprawl.
On paper, the bill was for all veterans, but veterans of color were routinely denied loans and barred from taking out mortgages in the new suburbs. The early Norman Rockwell painting style of the American Dream featured the lawn – grown from European seeds on American soil and denied to Black, Indigenous, People of Color (BIPOC) – and served as a symbol of conformity.
Today, lawn is the nation’s largest irrigated crop, occupying 40 million acres, or 50,000 square miles of arable land, three times the land used to grow corn in the United States. All those acres constantly require fertilizers, pesticides, water. and garnishes. Every day, 9 billion gallons of water are dumped on lawns, with up to 50% of the water landing on sidewalks or seeping off the ground due to improper watering techniques.
More than a third of all residential water is used for lawn care, on average, with that number rising to 60% in the Southwest and other arid climates. At a time when fresh water is getting scarcer every year, the blatant waste to keep up appearances is a slap in the face. Unfortunately, watering is just the beginning.
Due to the fickle nature of European grass in American soil, fertilizers and pesticides are heavily used to achieve the American Dream green. Chemicals originally developed for warfare are dumped on the land, killing all native plants in favor of grass. Each year, 78 billion pounds of pesticides and 90 billion pounds of fertilizer are deposited on lawns, much of which ends up in groundwater.
Of course, even then, the lawn care chore is not over. Once the ideal color has been achieved, the grass should be mowed regularly. According to the Consumer Product Safety Commission, 35,000 people are sent to the emergency room each year due to lawn mower-related accidents, 4,800 of which are children.
While the physical damage inflicted is horrific, emissions from lawn mowers contribute to global warming that hurts us all. 10-18% of all non-transportation emissions come from lawn mowers, with 1.2 billion gallons of gasoline consumed each year. The average heavy-duty commercial lawn mower uses 2,000 gallons of gas every year, while a 25 mpg car that’s driven 10,000 miles only uses 400.
To give an overview, the pollution caused by the maintenance of two and a half acres of lawn is the equivalent of the emissions from a flying jet halfway around the world. Our environment and the world as a whole are badly damaged by a 16th century French aristocratic ideal.
In temperate climates like Portland, lawns can be replaced with perennials native to the region that help the ecosystems around them rather than destroy them. Refraining from trimming lawns can also reduce damage. Or, as one ambitious South Los Angeles man did, the average front yard plot could be turned into a micro-farm to help feed the neighborhood.
In dry climates such as the Southwest, xeriscaping – using landscaping that requires little or no irrigation – can be used in order to waste minimal water. Nevada activists are leading the way by encouraging legislation that led to Nevada banning ornamental grass, the first state to do so. It is estimated that 40% of all grass currently maintained in the region targeted by the legislation will be removed to save water and the environment.
All around us are opportunities for better uses of the land that replace an archaic and idyllic lawn, based on outdated ideals and prejudices. In an ever-changing era, it is crucial to reassess what we value as a society. The best place to start is the lawn.