The American Obsession with Lawns

Gimme Green

Eric Flagg and Isaac Brown (2007)

Film Review

Americans are more obsessed with lawns than any other nationality. Lawns are a comparatively new innovation associated with the boom in home ownership the US experienced in the mid-twentieth century. They were virtually unknown in 1900, when 75% of Americans rented their homes. In 2007 when this film was made, US wilderness was being converted to lawn at a rate of 5,000 acres per day.

In many cases, lawns are a middle class luxury imposed by local authorities determined to preserve neighborhood “property values.” In the film, a homeowner who has created a bird habitat out of trees and shrubs is ordered to cut them down.

Americans spend $40 billion a year maintaining their 41 million acres of lawn. The largest irrigated crop in the US, lawns consume 30,000 tons of pesticide yearly. And contrary to manufacturer claims, 17 of the 30 most commonly used pesticides end up in drinking water. Fifteen of them are possible or probable carcinogens. Children in families that use pesticides on their lawns have a 6.5 times greater risk of leukemia.

The water wasted on lawn maintenance is equally concerning. Forty to sixty percent of household water goes to landscaping, an average of 200 gallons per American per day.

Severe drought conditions are forcing California and the Southwest to rethink their lawn addition. In 1999, Las Vegas instituted a turf-rebate program that paid homeowners up to $1.50 per square foot to rip out their lawns. At present, the city bans grass front yards in new developments. Alternatives explored in the documentary are artificial (plastic turf) or natural desert landscapes.

My personal preference, climate permitting, is to convert lawns to edible landscape. My property was entirely lawn and ornamental shrubs when I first moved in. In eight years, I have replaced nearly all of it with fruit trees, perennial herbs and runner beans and vegetables.

33 thoughts on “The American Obsession with Lawns

  1. Australians too are obsessed with lawns which was evident on our arrival in 1956. Scores of our neighbours who normally were well hidden inside behind the venetians would at week-ends be seen crawling over the lawns scrutinizing any bits that were growing up without permission. They would even at times congregate and compare lawns with each other. An entire industry was based around the holy lawn. My dad thought it was some kind of religion.

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    • My understanding is that drought conditions, especially in the Sydney area, have forced many Aussies to replace their lawns with either food forests or natural landscapes, in addition to installing rainwater tanks and gray water systems that enable them to water their gardens with water from showers, washing machines and dishwashers.

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  2. I’d rather have a big grassy lawn for my children to play (free of sharp rocks, broken glass, and other assorted liter) than a big house. A private lawn is not a bad thing and neither is private prosperity. When you own something you are much more likely to take care of it. When something is designated for public use, it’s often not well taken care of, unsafe, filthy, or left to fall to ruin. That is UNLESS, the community using that public designated space is forced to pay high and often ridiculous fees for maintainance to the city. If left to the community, some people will do what they can to maintain the space, others will no doubt be selfish, lazy, destructive, irresponsible, OR careless and continue to destroy everything in their path.

    The point is… some people not only want something better, but they are willing and able to work for it. Others want something better, but will not put forth the effort to achieve/earn what it is that they want in a legal and/or legitmate way. Certain people believe it’s owed to them or they can take what they want or they expect others to do the work necessary while they do nothing. People are wired differently and how they reach their goals is determined by nurture and nature.

    Yes, we are all born equal, but from the moment a person is able to start making decisions for themselves that determine the actions they will take, changes everything. No one can expect an equal outcome if one person makes bad choices and the other person makes good choices. To even suggest that both deserve an equal outcomes from the different paths (via individual choices) they chose is simply ignorant. We are ALL accountable for our own individual choices and actions. Suggesting everyone is entitled to the same fate, whether privilege or punishment, is the most extreme notion of inequality, unfair and unjust treatment.

    Enabling those who choose to make bad choices, results in everyone else suffering the consequences of those bad choices.

    The grass isn’t always greener on the otherside, but it sure is nice to have your own safe space of grass and whatnot to use and enjoy as one sees fit, without being forced to share it with someone who’d just as soon rob, beat, or kill you so they could take it as their own. This applies to all people of all colors, and all financial situations. The mega-wealthy and powerful are just as apt, if not more, to rob, beat, and murder to get what they want as any other portion of society (they can just use their wealth & power to get away with it). Just my opinion.

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    • Thanks for your long thoughtful comment, gb888. My take on the film isn’t that filmmakers have a problem with lawns per se. What they take issue with is the unintended consequences of lawn maintenance. I have always agreed with my high school civics teacher that the US Constitution guarantees us individual freedom so long as exercising that freedom doesn’t hurt other people.

      Applying toxic pesticides in lawn maintenance can be very dangerous to other people as well as the individuals using them. As the filmmakers point out, these pesticides increase the incidence of leukemia in children. They also get into the water table. Which is concerning because they can increase the incidence of cancer (in a whole community) in very small concentrations.

      I also feel there are human rights concerns during a drought when wealthy individuals and corporations use scarce water to maintain their lawns and golf courses while poor people get their water turned off (in Detroit and Baltimore) because they can’t pay their water bill.

      I think city authorities in Las Vegas made a good decision to pay people to replace their lawns and to ban lawns in new developments. They felt a responsibility to guarantee all residents a basic right to clean healthy water and made a deliberate effort to reduce delivery of water for non- essential uses so they could continue to guarantee this right.

      Sydney and other Australian cities have chosen a slightly different direction to address the water shortage issue. It’s my understanding they partially subsidize residents to install gray water systems that enable them to reuse water from showers, dishwashers etc to water they use for lawns and gardens. This enables them to keep their lawns without wasting water.

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  3. Lawn-a-philia, the religion? It’s a pernicious cult, at least! Maybe we need exorcists? I think it gives folks some illusion of control, of forcing their will on the universe. Even as they meekly conform to neighborhood covenants and local customs. Seriously conspicuous and pointless consumption! I know folks who mow 5 acres every week — on top of the appalling environmental costs, it takes a big chunk of their lives. Astonishing what crazy shit people will do when “everyone else” is doing it.

    I took up all our grass (with a fork and spade), but we were so close to a major city street, and a gas station, that I wasn’t sure about eating too much grown there, though I have done herbs and a few veggies. Thanks for sharing this! – Linda

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    • We have a very strong lawn liberation movement here in New Plymouth. The best part of liberating my lawn is all the birds, bees, and beneficial insects that are attracted to me yard. I’ve also been reading about a soil bacteria that acts as an antidepressant. It sure does on me.

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  4. A criminal (or asshole) is still a criminal (or asshole), regardless of their color or the size of their bank account. The content of their character is what’s most important. Complaining about private property, green lawns, and water usage sounds like Agenda 21. When you see the elite start cutting back and following their own dictates, orders, and laws; ONLY then will I believe their constant cries of chaos, crises, and inevitable collapse. When only the common person is made to suffer, I hope you understand that corruption, deception, and fraud are behind the whole damn thing. “Let them eat cake!”,eh?!

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    • I’m not sure the lawn liberation movement is driven by the corporate elite. It sure isn’t here in New Zealand. Our elite are all tied in with Monsanto and they want us to keep our lawns and to keep buying all their toxic pesticides and herbicides.

      They’re also passing a lot of laws to make it very difficult for us to trade, barter and sell home grown food because it interferes with the ability of Food Inc to make a profit.

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  5. Fascinating topic that has generated some strongly held views 🙂

    Like you, Dr. B., I’ve been digging up my lawn to plant food and flowers. And interestingly, neighbors stop by to comment on how much they appreciate the gardens. Even the mail carriers comment on how much they like coming into my yard. Gardens create healthy spaces in neighborhoods…

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    • I notice the same thing. I’ve been planting extra to give to neighbors and passersby. My neighbor across the street likes to dig my potatoes and an elderly couple who walk by like to harvest my chard in the winter. Owing to the mild winters, chard, broccoli and other greens do better in the winter than the summer – especially if you plant them in tires to keep them warm.

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  6. When the bright green, perfectly manicured, and obviously well watered White House lawn in the U.S.A. is torn out and replaced with herbs, vegetables, and wild flowers; I have a difficult time believing the power brokers aren’t behind the (false ? ) flag of critical water shortage. From Monsanto to NestlĂ© and every corrupt entity in between, is there any doubt the regulations, restrictions, and fines aren’t put into place to manipulate and herd humanity (the governed)? If you are a piece of the worldwide ruling power structure, you can do anything you please, but if you aren’t you are indoctrinated into believing every crisis or dilemma is the result of common societies ignorance, waste, and greed (particularly when it concerns the environment). Only WE, the people, must do with less, make big changes, sacrifice, and pay.

    If a person prefers a natural landscape (which I actually do in the front yard, but can not because I rent) or wants to plant gardens (something I do in a smaller part of my back yard), then the choice should be the individual’s choice. Being forced to comply by government “authority” based on pressures from often radical special interest groups backed by big money and/or false science is WRONG.

    Government (crony capitalism) must lead by example if the governed are to be expected to follow and comply.

    Everyone is different and has different needs and wants. I don’t want my children to play in the dirt among the vegetables. This won’t be an issue once the children are older, but for the time being, please leave the green grass lovers alone. Instead, unite and go after MONSANTO, etc. and those who allow such evil to flourish.

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    • I guess I see a different motivation behind Michelle tearing up the white house lawns and planting herbs and veggies gardens. It strikes me as a typical liberal gesture to normalize banking and trade laws that are systematically destroying the middle class and transferring more wealth to millionaires and billionaires. Rather than repealing bad laws that are systematically impoverishing people, they give supposedly helpful advice how people can adjust to their impoverished state. I’ve seen them do this repeatedly in the past.

      I have friends in California and cousins in Law Vegas and they tell me the drought is very real.

      And like I said before, I don’t mind people having lawns so long as they refrain from loading them up with toxic pesticides, use gray water to irrigate them and leave enough clean water for the rest of us to drink..

      Liked by 2 people

  7. Used to drive by a home with a large yard every day and the man would seem to be mowing it every other day. Another guy had a postage-stamp size lawn with the biggest riding lawnmower ever built, when a regular push mower would do the job in 10-15 minutes. Another man was mowing his lawn when it was brown and the snow hadn’t melted. Saw a woman mowing her lawn lawn in a downpour. If the EPA had identified chemicals which were possibly or probably toxic/cancer-causing, how do those chemicals remain legal. Imagine how much food could be produced if only a fraction of the millions of lawn acres were converted to growing vegetables. Such a waste of perfectly useful land.

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  8. Jerry the Peacemaker- there’s no profit for the rulers if people are allowed to mass plant and grow their own healthy food. No profit and obviously much less control over each part of our lives.

    Even though people would benefit greatly for numerous reasons, the government would never allow such competition. We’ve been told factory farms and GMO’s are the answer, regardless of toxins and serious health risks.

    It’s no wonder why so many people regard the mad rush to make vaccinations mandatory with fear, anger, and horror.

    Big government cares more about money and control than human life. That has been proven repeatedly throughout history.

    The loss of our local farmers, the traditional farming industry overall, is a tremendous assault on life, health, choice, and prosperity.

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  9. Stuart, I worded the opening sentence incorrectly. Instead of when, I meant to say until (the White House lawn). Gardens at the White House are a wonderful thing, though I highly doubt Michelle was the first resident living there to think of such a thing. I also highly doubt Michelle is the person tending to those gardens or worried about toxins/harmful chemicals coming into contact with anything she or her tyrannical, fraud of a spouse come into contact with.

    The green grass of the White House lawn far surpasses any designated gardening plots on the property.

    I believe there is a fresh water shortage in parts of the country and clearly the world, but I think much of it has been manufactured and most of it (droughts aside) is the result of negligence and corruption. Hello Nestlé!

    I get the gist of gray water, but will look into it more. It certainly makes sense and should have been done throughout history. Waste not, want not.

    Again, thank you for your insight and information.

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    • Okay. I see now what you were getting at. I, too, am worried about Nestle and all the fracking companies stealing our water. I also see your point about not demonizing people who make different lifestyle choices. That’s something we all need to remember.

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  10. I’m perfectly happy without a lawn. I spend hours digging ours up and have about 1/3 of it in rose gardens and another 1/3 in wildflowers. Hopefully by this time next year I’ll be able to say 2/3 is in wildflowers. Stepping stones provide walkways, thus no grass to maintain and all watering is by drip irrigation from rain barrels. My neighbors are happy with having a lawn service but I was tired of paying them and I love color!

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  11. The notion that the State can put its seal on favored science, enforce it, and punish its competitors, is anathema to a free society.

    For example: declaring that psychiatrists can appear in court as expert witnesses, when none of the so-called mental disorders listed in the psychiatric literature are diagnosed by laboratory tests.

    For example: stating that vaccination is mandatory, in order to protect the vaccinated (who are supposed to be immune) from the unvaccinated. An absurdity on its face.

    For example: announcing that the science of climate change is “settled,” when there are, in fact, huge numbers of researchers who disagree. —And then, drafting legislation and issuing executive orders based on the decidedly unsettled science.

    For example: officially approving the release and sale of medical drugs (“safe and effective”) which go on to kill, at a conservative estimate, 100,000 Americans every year. And then refusing to investigate or punish the purveyors of these drug approvals (the FDA).

    For example: permitting the widespread use of genetically modified food crops, based on no long-term studies of their impact on human health. And then, arbitrarily announcing that the herbicide, Roundup, for which many of these crops are specifically designed, is non-toxic.

    For example: declaring and promoting the existence of various epidemics, when the viruses purportedly causing them are not proven to exist and/or not proven to cause human illness (SARS, West Nile, Swine Flu, etc.)

    The subject of false science is the most powerful long-term instrument for repression, political control, and destruction of human life.

    As I’ve stated on many occasions, medical science is ideal for mounting and launching covert ops aimed at populations—because it appears to be politically neutral, without any allegiance to State interests.

    Unfortunately, medical science, on many fronts, has been hijacked and taken over. The profit motive is one objective, but beyond that, there is a more embracing goal:

    Totalitarian control.

    It aims to replace your freedom, consciousness, and intelligence with its own synthetic versions.

    Resist.

    From: Jon Rappoport
    Date: April 30, 2015
    Subject: A totalitarian society has totalitarian science

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    • I have serious questions whether there should be a state at all. It seems to me the only purpose of a state is to enforce the interest of a wealthy elite and to oppress working people. I personally favor direct democracy where people get together and run things themselves.

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  12. Interesting. For decades I’ve debated with people about lawns. I’ve always preferred a more natural look, but most people complain that natural looks like an abandoned lot. My compromise was to keep a boring, generic front lawn (that reminds me of an ugly crewcut) and a nice wild backyard with peach trees, an apple tree, an organic garden, bushes, dandelions, mint leaves, weeds and a pile of brush for rabbits. I was always fortunate to be able to sit around and watch rabbits, squirrels and birds eat.

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  13. Pingback: The American Obsession with Lawns | The Most Revolutionary Act | WORLD ORGANIC NEWS

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