The Flawed Economics of Manicured Suburban Lawns
Suburban lawns are a big deal. In wealthy suburbs, manicured lawns and horse ranches signal high property values and high-income owners. But I see multiple problems with sprayed manicured lawns:
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A Metabolic Folly
Financially speaking, those who cut their own lawn each spend about $2500 on a riding lawn tractor, which will be then utilized for about 15 hours a year (a capacity utilization of 0.001), and another $2500 for a tool shed to park the tractor for the remaining 8745 hours of the year. Older or busier lawn enthusiasts (with or without tractors) end up paying a few thousand dollars a year to professional landscapers. Separately, to keep not only their lawns but their own physiques in tip-top shape, many of the lawn perfectionists spend a few thousand dollars a year on health clubs and gym memberships, plus hours inside the gyms or commuting to them in vehicles that depreciate and burn costly gasoline.
You are probably starting to see my pet peeve about perfect lawns and my grievance with their manicurists.
From an evolutionary perspective, the problem of manicured lawns is inefficient utilization — read wasting — of resources and surpluses, which is maladaptive in nature but allowed, and even encouraged, in modern human economies. To understand how metabolically-inefficient our decisions are, we need to translate the economics of manicured suburban lawns into nature’s metabolic currency, which is surplus “labor and energy.” For example, saving $5000 to pay for a tractor and a shed will cost an average suburban family hundreds of hours in (after-tax) labor in addition to what is needed to survive. To stay in shape, the same family has to spend hundreds of additional (surplus) hours in the gym, in transit to the gym, and working to pay for the gym, the car and gasoline expenses.
If our brains were metabolically-driven, our lawn enthusiasts would save all this time and money by mowing their lawn using a push mower the old-fashioned way. After all, a person weighing 185 pounds would burn around 500 kCal an hour pushing an inexpensive mower, roughly the same amount of calories s/he would burn during an hour of aerobic activity in the gym. But even that may not be the most efficient solution to the suburban lawn problem.
In nature, it’s not the money but the energy (calories) which is the main currency of exchange and conservation. Metabolically-speaking, an even better alternative to mowing the lawn and spraying it with chemicals, is planting naturally biodiverse cover crops, meadow-like vegetation and wild flowers, which nourish the soil and natural ecosystem without requiring the additional energy from humans or fossil fuels.
In my book, I draw from simple principles of thermodynamics, neuroscience and evolutionary psychology to demonstrate how modern humans are mainly driven not by metabolic bodies but by economic brains that are extremely effective quantitative optimizers of productivity and income. We have turned into computing monsters with a brain which only uses 10 watts of computational power to conduct up to 20 quadrillion calculations (synaptic firings), more than a modern computer does. Yet, a calculative economic brain, driven by unfettered quantitative growth targets, makes us prone to making metabolically wasteful decisions like being obsessed with manicured lawns and expensive tractors. In fact, a large number of modern diseases and disorders are rooted in the dissociation of our economic brains from our metabolic bodies.
A Non-metabolic Blunder
Besides being metabolically (energy-wise) wasteful, the quest for the perfect suburban lawn has other downsides. Chemical weed killers and pesticides may not only be costly and harmful to humans, wildlife and pets, but they are often lethal to soil organisms like bacteria and worms whose main job is to provide oxygen, nitrogen and nutrients to the soil. So perfect lawns which use genetically-modified seeds and weed killers often end up killing the soil underneath by starving it. In a good article on Permaculture News, Jonathon Engels writes:
The lawn has so hypnotized the masses that we insist on growing them in any climate, including arid, to such a degree that often, in neighborhoods, it is illegal to grow productive plants in lieu of shortly shorn grass…
But, the existence of the lawn is not inherent to suburbia. We invented it. Across the world, we adopted the practice, emulating the wealthy while starving ourselves and our small lots in lieu of more productive uses of space. We ditched simple gardens of food and instead devoted a couple of hours each weekend to the supermarket and Saturday mornings to weed eating instead of eating our own crops. Whatever spells the media and “the man” have cast on us, it was all our choice and one that the vast majority continue to make by adhering to neighborhood regulations and the prescribed normalcy of growing and cutting grass.
In another well-reasoned article, Zach Freeman writes:
Imagine lush and diverse yards full of bluebonnets, wildflowers and native grasses. Now contrast that image with the copied-and-pasted squares of turf that plague American suburbs. Turfgrass is the largest irrigated crop in the United States, taking up two percent of our country’s total landmass. Not only are manicured lawns wasteful, they are also a threat to local biodiversity and accelerate species’ extinction rates…
In states like Texas or California, where seasonal droughts are commonplace, the idea of wasting so much water on decorative foliage should be laughable. Also, proud Texans should never be content with having the same cookie-cutter lawns as Californians. Lawns aren’t just bad for the environment; they’re bad for the humans who create them. Many of the pesticides and fertilizers used on grass make their way into our water sources. Nitrate and many pesticides are known to increase the likelihood of illnesses, including cancer. Why should we even risk the chance of poisoning ourselves and our communities over something so pointless?
Note: I submitted this blog to several journals but none decided to publish it, understandably so because many of these journals promote lawn services and chemicals in their advertising sections.