Growing Grass

Lawn as Sanctuary (Video 5 minutes)

Growing Grass

A century ago, John Maynard Keynes and other economic notables predicted that mechanical automation would soon let us all have a lot more free time. It hasn’t worked out that way. What happened? Grass is a good illustration.

Centuries ago only the richest of royalty could afford to waste their servants’ time planting and tending grass. Before lawnmowers, watered and manicured grass symbolized enormous wealth and power. In time, grass was planted in parks and sports fields in green, rainy England, by dint of a lot of manual labor.

Then in 1830 the hand-pushed reel lawnmower was invented. Grass sports like golf, invented by royals, increased in popularity. More grass was “needed.” As the quality of lawnmowers improved and prices declined, more people could plant and cut grass.

Lawnmower technology putt-putted along: rotary gasoline lawnmowers, bush hogs, riding mowers, zero-turn radius mowers, and robotic mowers – in many sizes, and all letting us grow more and more grass. Lawn care and landscaping alone grew into a multi-billion dollar industry, with thousands of companies, and a million jobs – not counting the mower makers and other industries that support it. The total amount of land planted in turf grass in the United States is estimated to be between 40 and 65 thousand square miles. The bigger estimates are nearly the size of Oklahoma.

These advances have now matured so that most towns and cities have ordinances that penalize people having unkempt, unmowed lawns. A big, closely cut lawn is a high status symbol; an unkempt lawn is a low status symbol. Why? Money. An unkempt lawn detracts from the market valuation of all other houses in the neighborhood.

So back to why Keynes and his fellow prognosticators were so wrong: They drastically underestimated our ingenuity inventing activities to soak up our spare time. We created demand for things impossible before and that increased our resource consumption. Now that we consider them normal, we are reluctant to give them up, or to admit that there are adverse consequences. The story of grass is a great example.

Grass is by far our largest irrigated “crop.” In warm weather, watering grass is a big drain on municipal water systems supplying drinking quality water, in short supply for many of them. Nationwide about a third of all residential water use is for landscape watering, and about half of that is wasted due to poor watering techniques.

But there’s a lot more. Much of the grass cut is hauled away, so the cuttings do not replenish the soil. When leaves fall from trees, we rake them into piles and haul them away too. Then to make up for the shortfall replenishing soil, we buy fertilizer to make the grass grow. Topping that off, herbicides kill off everything that isn’t grass so that we can make a crop that nature doesn’t really want to be there thrive – artificially. Unfortunately, we have become so efficient eliminating weeds that beekeepers allege that starving bees can’t find enough delicious weeds to pollinate. In addition, chemicals applied to soil seldom improve microbial soil health.

Quite a few people have concluded that nature’s “business model” is better than ours and that we should support it, or complement it. Habitat landscapes and xeriscapes are very popular in some places, but they have not dented the total time and resources devoted to grass lawns – and to roadsides, golf courses, and parks. Doing anything to disrupt that runs against current cultural concepts of acceptability, and it risks destruction of lawn care businesses, a few big ones, plus thousands of pick-up-truck lawn care proprietorships. Social momentum keeps this industry going.

Doing anything radically different is a messy problem. Any change risks damaging something important to somebody. But if we really want to, perhaps we can unravel it.

Suppose, just suppose, that a lawn care company started to promote xeriscape for its aesthetic appeal as well as its natural benefits. It just might launch a whole new direction for its business, one of helping customers understand how to work with nature instead of against it.

If a company can be persuasive, it may convert some landowners into preserving their landscapes at near zero cost because nature does the work. But they have to learn to invest in nature, not just make it look good to them at minimal expense.

For example, if initial soil remediation is necessary, but remedial work is considered an annual expense, the first few years of extra work cannot compete with landscapers doing their usual trims and chemical treatments. However, if owners regard initial remediation as an investment, their cash savings over ten years may yield a good return. The Center for Natural Capital, now a non-profit, aspires to develop a for-profit business model to do this. Its mission is patiently educating its customers to understand this.

One avenue out of messes like this is to turn expansionary business logic into Compression business logic. Eventually we might learn how to enjoy all the spare time that we make for ourselves – if we don’t use a lot of resources for enjoyment. However, a conversion this deep is only possible for most of us if we can do some deep reflecting on what we really do and why, and furthermore learn how to put a different set of values into practice. Vigorous Learning is deep learning, not trivial.

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