Why on Earth Do We Plant Lawns?

tags: interview, Ted Steinberg

Erik Moshe is a freelance writer based in Northern Virginia.

Ted Steinberg is Adeline Barry Davee Distinguished Professor of History and Professor of Law at Case Western Reserve University. He writes about the relationship between capitalism and the natural world. He is the author of American Green: The Obsessive Quest for the Perfect Lawn (W. W. Norton, 2006) and, more recently, Gotham Unbound: The Ecological History of Greater New York (Simon & Schuster, 2014).

What’s the history behind lawns and front yards in the United States and around the world?

I can’t speak about the entire world, but in the United States the main shift in the twentieth century involved the transformation of the yard from a working environment for growing food and raising crops into a turfgrass monoculture that helped increase property values. People went from producing food in their yards to consuming food grown in distant locations and having it delivered to them by virtue of an economy organized around fossil fuel, especially oil. Only then were the conditions right for the emergence of a landscape aesthetic founded on exotic turf species that required large inputs of chemicals, petroleum, and water.

When did you first become curious or interested in the subject of lawns?

I began thinking about lawns when I moved to Shaker Heights, Ohio, in 1996. I had never seen anything quite like the perfect lawns that unfolded around the homes of my neighbors. Some of them were planting creeping bentgrass, the same species you find on putting greens. So the thought occurred: What’s up with this perfect-lawn business? As historians we are taught never to take anything for granted—bland and quotidian though the lawn may seem.

Did you grow up with a lawn and do you have one now?

I grew up in the sixties on Long Island, a place which seemed to have plenty of fancy lawns. My father had me out there mowing and “weed whacking” with a manual edger, a medieval-looking device for hacking at wayward grass. And, yes, I do have a lawn today, a low-maintenance one. I never water it. Brown doesn’t bother me the way it does most of my neighbors.

Lawns are the most grown crop in the U.S. Is there a problem with that, economically speaking?

The answer depends on your point of view. There is nothing wrong with lawns per se. It is the perfect lawn—a supergreen, closely cropped, grass monoculture—that is the problem. The pursuit of lawn perfection is of course big business in the United States and chemical lawn-care companies go out of their way in their advertising to seduce consumers with images of neat, green carpets of grass. But since it is hard in much of the continental United States to grow exotic plants like bluegrass and bentgrass, consumers are waging an unending battle for perfection that requires continued chemical inputs, as well as water.

The perfect lawn, in other words, is the on-the-ground equivalent of that well-known twentieth-century phenomenon called planned obsolescence, which keeps consumers on a purchasing treadmill. This is all music to the ears of those at Scotts and Trugreen. Is it good for people to be fooling around with products with potentially significant health and ecological impacts? You tell me.

We use 70 million pounds of pesticides every year on lawn care. Does the history of the pesticide industry coincide with lawn history?

I tell people that weed and feed was the single worst thing to ever happen to the ecology of the suburban yard. The herbicide 2,4–D, which is still used in weed and feed today, had been discovered during World War II and by the late 1940s the Scotts Company combined it with fertilizer so that people could get rid of dandelions and other broad-leaf plants without harming the grass itself. Scotts then began selling consumers on the need for multiple applications of the product in the quest for lawn perfection and production of the herbicide boomed after 1950. There is of course no need to apply a toxin when you fertilize. Indeed, because 2,4-D has been persuasively linked to cancer, reproductive harm, and neurological problems it’s a very bad idea to be spreading it around as a matter of course, especially if you have children. I myself don’t see a big problem with dandelions.

Why should we consider taking a step back and thinking twice about the landscape that defines the American Dream?

Anything we take for granted, whether it’s the lawn or capitalism or the idea that the United States somehow owns the world, is somethingwe should think twice about. As for the perfect lawn, given the potential ecological and health risks, especially if the lawn is overtreated, as so many perfect lawns are, most people would do well to question a backyard monoculture.

How can we better understand the ecology of our lawns?

To ask this question is to underscore my point in American Green. The perfect lawn is in a sense the product of global capitalism in that it has tended to alienate people from the environments in which they live. The antidote to this estrangement from the land—short of the transition to a new socioecological mode of production—is to better understand the environmental history of your region, to learn something about the plant and animal life that dominated the landscape in the past. I also recommend getting a soil test.

Historian Kenneth Jackson wrote in Crabgrass Frontier: The Suburbanization of the United States, “Suburbia…is a manifestation of such fundamental characteristics of American society as conspicuous consumption, a reliance upon the private automobile, upward mobility, the separation of the family nuclear units, the widening division between work and leisure, and the tendency toward racial and economic exclusiveness.” Where does the idea of suburbia stand in the American historical imagination? Is today’s notion of suburbia different from in the past? 

You will have to ask Kenneth Jackson this one. How someone can write such a great book about suburbia in the United States, title it the way he did, and never say a word about crabgrass itself, I will never know. Which is to say that suburbanization also involved a new relationship with the land.

What was your favorite part of the book to write?

The chapter that torpedoes the idea that the perfect lawn is somehow good for the environment. This idea that the lawn produced enough oxygen for a family of four, which was the basis for a 1970s Scotts advertising campaign, is such utter nonsense. When has there ever been evidence that the world faced an oxygen shortage. Give me a break.

Scenario: You’re invited over to an esteemed colleague’s country home for lunch, and as you’re walking up the driveway, you can’t help but notice his impeccably manicured, checker-boarded lawn. Do you give him a lecture on the development of the lawn-care industry and its environmental impact or do you compliment him on his landscaping skills?

I keep my mouth shut, enjoy the food, and try not to walk on the grass. Then when I get home I take off my shoes before coming in the house, just in case I perchance picked up some of the pesticides he put down.

If the Founding Fathers were alive today, what do you think they’d make of American lawn culture?

I don’t know if a radical like Tom Paine is still considered a Founding Father these days, but I suspect that Paine, who regarded the earth as a form of common property, would not be particularly impressed with the idea of allowing powerful corporate entities, with the support of the state and especially the Environmental Protection Agency, to profit from selling people things they don't need and which have an impact on the only planet we have, not to mention the people who inhabit it.

comments powered by Disqus