Will outlining the monetary and environmental costs of lawns change behavior?

Americans may like their green lawns around their single-family homes but they come at a cost:

These days, front lawns cost Americans $40 billion a year to maintain, and are spread over about 50,000 square miles—the land area equivalent of the entire state of Alabama.

This vast swath of ornamentally maintained land is generally bad for the environment. A lawnmower generates more greenhouse gas emissions per hour than 11 cars, according to the Environmental Protection Agency; nitrous oxide emitted by fertilizer has 300 times the warming potential of carbon dioxide, and lingers in the atmosphere for as long as 120 years. Swept into waterways, those fertilizers strip the water of oxygen, causing algal blooms and “dead zones” that kill freshwater and marine life.

Then, of course, there’s water use. Americans consume around 9 billion gallons of water a day on average on outdoor use—most of it watering their lawns. That’s more water than families use for showering and laundry combined. As populations rise, water needs will only get more taxing in many states.

The writer concludes by suggesting that California’s drought and trend-setting may just help limit lawns in the future. However, there are at least two major hurdles to overcome:

1. The cultural importance of a lawn should not be undervalued. The minor connection to nature (or “nature” modified appropriately by humans) is important.

2. Simply citing large numbers or figures like above may not go very far. In the abstract, $40 billion sounds like a lot until you consider what kind of money is spent on other things. Or, what might people do instead with that $40 billion? Even the environmental concerns – and the effects sound quite harmful – are more abstract since the consequences are pushed down the road either in time or place.

Perhaps the best way to combat the American lawn would be to change the American view of nature and what is appropriate around single-family homes. We have seen some of the shaming efforts in California, from overhead photos of celebrity compounds to neighbors reporting each other over water violations. This could be done more positively with incentives (such as being paid to remove turf in Western state) or new trends. What suburban resident would want to be the only one on the block with the green costly lawn if all the neighbors had moved on?

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