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Lawns: An American Relationship Harming the Environment


By MICHAEL M. COHEN   JULY 20, 2021 09:08

‘Americans love to cut their lawns butch” stated historian Charles Schultz years ago during a symposium at the University of Vermont on the culture of the United States. The audience roared in laughter, acknowledging this astute observance of something so quintessentially American.

Pervasive in how Americans approach lawns, this cultural dynamic has detrimental environmental effects due to cutting grass and the use of fertilizers and pesticides. Mowing lawns is the source of some 5% of US air pollution. According to NASA, lawns – home lawns, parks, athletic fields, golf courses, etc. – cover more than 63,000 square miles in the United States, or about 1.8% of the United States landmass.

The use of gasoline-powered lawn mowers releases billions of pounds of CO2 into the atmosphere, contributing directly to the climate crisis. According to the EPA, these lawn mowers produce 11 times as much pollution as a new car. These pollutants increase heart and lung disease and have adverse effects on the central nervous system, particularly for children. It is also estimated that 17 million gallons of gasoline are spilled annually when lawn mowers are refilled. Finally, cut blades of grass release acetone, formaldehyde and methane into the atmosphere.

Additionally, the more than 100 million leaf blowers add to greenhouse gases through their emissions. This mentions nothing about their noise pollution, which is also true for lawn mowers. Writing for the National Wildlife Federation, Laura Tangley makes the related point:

According to the US Environmental Protection Agency, leaves and other yard debris account for more than 13% of the nation’s solid waste – a whopping 33 million tons a year. Without enough oxygen to decompose, which is what happens when leaves are brought to solid-waste landfills, leaves as this organic matter release the greenhouse gas methane, says Joe Lamp’l, author of The Green Gardener’s Guide.

When leaves are left to compost in gardens, at the base of trees, and in piles at the edge of properties they serve as natural fertilizers and mulch, and provide much-needed carbon sequestration.

Not only do Americans like to cut their lawns butch, they also want their yards immaculate, with no weeds or other growth. This leads to the deadly use of some 80 million pounds of pesticides and fertilizers; absorbed into our water systems, they have harmful as well as deadly effects on ecosystems, fish, insects, animals, birds and humans.

Beyond Pesticides warns us:

Of 30 commonly used lawn pesticides, 16 are linked with cancer or carcinogenicity, 12 are linked with birth defects, 21 with reproductive effects, 25 with liver or kidney damage, 14 with neurotoxicity, and 17 with disruption of the endocrine (hormonal) system. Of those same 30 lawn pesticides, 19 are detected in groundwater, 20 have the ability to leach into drinking water sources, 30 are toxic to fish and other aquatic organisms vital to our ecosystem, 29 are toxic to bees, 14 are toxic to mammals and 22 are toxic to birds.

AS WE find ourselves in the heart of summer, we approach Rosh Hashana and the start not only of a new year, but also of a shnat shmita (sabbatical year). The Jewish environmental organization Hazon: The Jewish Lab for Sustainability explains:

Commonly translated as the “sabbatical year,” shmita literally means “release.’ Of biblical origin, this is the final year of a shared calendar cycle, when land is left fallow, debts are forgiven, and a host of other agricultural and economic adjustments are made to ensure the maintenance of an equitable, just and healthy society… The possibilities for social change are thrilling.

As the coming sabbatical year approaches, opportunity is given to pause and ask what more can be done to repair the environment. Switching from gas-powered lawn mowers and leaf blowers to electric-powered lawn mowers and leaf blowers would have huge impacts on the environment and atmosphere to help mitigate the climate crisis. In addition, switching from chemical fertilizers to compost and organic fertilizers would also improve health and the environment, particularly our sources of drinking water.

The most important change would be to reduce or remove grass from lawns and replace them with native, colorful perennial flowers and/or native wild grasses. In Princeton, New Jersey, such change is becoming more common. This approach to lawns can become the new national norm. Where water is an issue, less water-intensive options should be considered, such as rock gardens.

Earlier this year, California Assembly members Marc Berman and Lorena Gonzalez introduced legislation to phase out the sale of new gas-powered small off-road engines that are used mostly in lawn and garden equipment, including leaf blowers, lawn mowers, and other outdoor power equipment. In the State of Vermont, utility companies Green Mountain Power, Washington Electric Coop, and the Burlington Electric Department are offering cash for their customers who switch from gasoline-powered lawn mowers to electric-powered lawn mowers. Mean Green Mowers offers additional discounts for individuals who purchase their electric-powered lawn mowers. Nationally, Congress should be encouraged to scale up nationally all these initiatives.

INSCRIBED ON the Liberty Bell is the phrase “Proclaim liberty throughout all the land unto all inhabitants thereof.” (Leviticus 25:10) Biblically, those words were used every 50 years to announce the beginning of the Jubilee Year, a more intensified Sabbatical year. Environmental activist and scholar Rabbi Ellen Bernstein teaches, “We will be free only when our earth is healthy and able to support our lives for the long term. If the earth’s systems are polluted and overheated, it will begin to break down and will be unable to support the kind of life we have enjoyed. When life is compromised there can be no freedom.”

How Americans treat lawns is about choice – the essence of freedom. As with all choices, there are consequences. The present American cultural approach to lawns has very negative consequences for the environment and our lives. May we be told in the not-too-distant future, “Americans love to have their lawns covered with colorful native perennials and wild grasses.”

The writer is rabbi emeritus of the Israel Congregation, Manchester Center, Vermont, and a faculty member of the Arava Institute for Environmental Studies and Bennington College.