Saturday, July 30, 2016

Mowing Up with the Joneses Part I

Yesterday was like many days: the grass in the yard was getting a bit high but not yet too high, and my husband Chris had to face an ongoing existential crisis: to mow or not to mow.

One day last fall, I remember, he had decided not to mow, that it could wait a couple of days. He saw our neighbor Charlie mowing his yard, thought about it some more, and still decided not to mow. Then Brian across the street was seen riding his lawn mower around his yard. In the midst of still more indecision, we heard a lawn mower starting down the street, and suddenly Chris just couldn’t stand it anymore. He had to mow the yard.

Is this the result of some good old-fashioned masculine competition? I’m sure it is, but that’s an analysis for another day. What interests me most is the mowing itself as an American cultural phenomenon. I drive down a country road and see acres upon acres of mowed yards, especially where there are new housing developments. Why all the mowing? When did it start? Is it peculiarly American? At some point will we realize the benefits of keeping even a little bit of that space wild?

Fortunately, believe it or not, there is a book that covers the social history of lawn mowing in the United States: Ted Steinberg’s An American Green: The Obsessive Quest for the Perfect Lawn (New York and London: W.W. Norton, 2006). The history of mowed lawns began as an issue of prestige. Wealthy people in Britain had nice big lawns because they could afford the laborers or slaves to cut the grass with a scythe. Those in the United States who were newly well off thanks to the industrial age wanted to look aristocratic, too, so they aspired to nice, green lawns - considerably more difficult in American than in British climates, requiring lots more equipment and management time. Prestige requirements always trickle down, so in the early 20th century it became a matter of pride for just about every homeowner to have a “neat” yard, an ethic that spread with the development of suburbs and the expansion of the dream of home ownership beginning in the 1940s.

Today keeping a nice lawn is codified by homeowners associations and county and town councils. Steinberg describes lots of contentious processes whereby cities and associations have required increasingly ridiculous grass length maximums, even three inches in some towns! As with many things, a generalized social pressure that once gently guided Americans to keep their lawns neat has now turned into a set of strict regulations, accompanied by fines from the government and lawsuits between neighbors. Americans now grow and maintain lawns - and in many cases are forced to grow and maintain them - in drought-stricken areas where grassy lawns were never intended to be, such as in Arizona and other southwestern states. Yet, because of gas-guzzling lawn maintenance equipment, water requirements, and herbicide and pesticide use, lawns generally cause a great deal of environmental and human destruction that most of us don’t even consider:

  • Around 75,000 people are killed or wounded by lawn mowers each year
  • Much more gasoline is spilled on lawns each year by people trying to refuel their lawn care equipment than was spilled in the Exxon Valdez disaster
  • Approximately seven million birds die each year due to pesticides used on lawns
  • Those who care for lawns use more herbicides per acre than most farmers
  • Using a gas-powered leaf blower for thirty minutes is equivalent in terms of hydrocarbon emissions to driving a car 7,700 miles at 30 miles per hour.

The more I study humans as an anthropologist, the more I seem to run into “prestige” as the answer to many questions that began with “Why do people ...?” Many of these behaviors are ultimately harmful to individuals and societies, including mowing. So what do we get out of it? The chance to look like one of the Joneses to outsiders who drive by our houses? Or maybe even the chance to look a little better than the Joneses? Prestige is an important factor in human behavior, and Steinberg uses this explanation convincingly.

However, according to Steinberg, now the prestige issue has turned on its head. What used to be a way for lower middle and middle class Americans to tap into the prestige of home ownership and lawn maintenance now strangles people financially. Two-income couples, long commutes, and little extra money to spend on lawn equipment mean that more and more people are letting their lawns go a bit - and then suffering from the fines they are forced to pay or the stigma of being “bad neighbors." Lawns comprising non-native grass species, as an alternative to native wildflowers and weeds, may be contributing to the terrible allergy problem in the United States, leading to increased medical expenses. Herbicides are tracked into the home and ground into the carpet, where they can be harmful to children and pets. And, of course, the runoff of herbicides and lawn chemicals into our waterways causes endless destruction, economically and otherwise. It turns out that prestige costs a lot of money, perhaps more money than it is worth.

I think there is another reason as well: the cultural emphasis on taming nature and forcing nature to be “neat”. And that is the topic for my next blog in this series.