The Disservice of the American Lawn
Americans can get very defensive about things dear to them — and lawns are one of those things. “It’s my house,” they will say, “if I want a fresh grass lawn, then I should be able to have one.”
And while yes, no one will stop you from having a lawn, we must establish just how bad that idea is.
The lawn is seen as a symbol more than anything — it is your front yard’s contribution to the neighborhood. It’s not there for you to walk on, sit on, or even for sheer enjoyment. It’s there to make the area look good.
As a wise article on Life Magazine once said: “Let a man drink or default, cheat on his taxes or cheat on his wife, and the community will find forgiveness in its heart; but let him fail to keep his front lawn mowed and to be seen doing it, and those hearts will turn to stone.”
Let’s start with the sheer area that American lawns take up: 63,000 square miles total, according to NASA. That’s a larger area than the state of Georgia. Altogether, lawns occupy 1.9% of the surface area of the continental United States.
Grass is the most irrigated crop in America, far surpassing corn, wheat, and fruit combined. It is estimated that lawn irrigation makes up 50–75% of a household’s water usage.
Even where it rains often and irrigation isn’t a necessity, pesticides and fertilizers are still required to keep a lawn healthy. In total, 90 million pounds of fertilizer and 78 million pounds of pesticides are used annually on lawns.
Now, everyone knows why pesticides are harmful to the environment, but what about all that fertilizer?
Fertilizers contain phosphorus, something we are running out of, and nitrogen. Those nutrients get washed into drains that lead it to rivers and streams. Once there, the fertilizers can trigger algal blooms that block sunlight and wreak havoc on local ecosystems.
So not only are those 90 million pounds of fertilizer a waste of a vital, scarce resource, they are also a significant threat to freshwater ecosystems.
Sure, grass is a plant, and it works as a carbon sink, but its roots are shallow and not as effective as most other plants. Not to mention all the gas burned up by lawnmowers emits more carbon than grass could ever hope to take in.
What it boils down to is that grass is one of the worst plants to keep if you care about the environment. The one thing worse than grass would be pavement.
Yearly, Americans spend more than $36 billion on lawn care — 32% more than NASA’s budget, and 450% more than the Environmental Protection Agency’s budget.
Lawns look nice because they are green and alive. They remind us of nature. But all the space and resources used to keep lawns is a wasted opportunity to support nature — to give the local environment a place in our cities and suburbs.
There are alternatives to grass that foster more extraordinary biodiversity than grass. The space is already there; the resources are already being used. We just need to apply that to things that are more beneficial to local ecosystems. The opportunity is there to make our cities more biodiverse.
Since the dawn of humanity, nearly half of all forests have been cut down to make way for cities and agriculture. We could at least give the local flora and fauna a little haven in our yards, make nature a part of our homes, but the choice is ultimately ours, and we chose to keep a high-maintenance, useless crop instead.