Friday, March 10, 2006

Why Do Suburbanites All Have Green Lawns?

Economists are quite interested in social interaction (i.e contagion) models. If your neighbors are unemployed, does this have a causal impact on raising the probability that you are unemployed? During the U.S Civil War, if your fellow soldiers started deserting during combat does this raise the probability that you desert?

Below I report a wackier social interaction model, do suburbanites have green grass lawns because this is the social norm and they want to fit in? I have found that in my Belmont, MA old suburb town that the neighbors treated us better and were more welcoming once we did a better job of cutting our grass and "fitting in". I would call this "shamed by the Joneses".

Returning the Green Cities theme, what are the environmental costs of this lawn craze? The Book Reviewer is unhappy with how the author of this book addresses this.

March 10, 2006
Books of The Times | 'American Green'
Why Grass Really Is Always Greener on the Other Side

A couple of years ago, a homeowner in Seattle decided to take extreme action against the moles that had turned his lawn into a complex network of raised grassy veins. He poured gasoline into the mole holes, tossed a match and incinerated his yard.

Many of the approximately 60 million Americans with lawns can understand the feeling. A well-tended yard is not only personal territory, to be defended unto death, but also a work of art. Like a painting, it has form and color. Like a child, it is alive. No wonder feelings run high, and the lawn, as a canvas for personal expression, engages the suburban American male at the deepest possible level. Americans like Jerry Tucker, who turned his yard into a replica of the 12th hole at Augusta National Golf Club.

The often-crazed love affair between Americans and their lawns is Ted Steinberg's subject in "American Green." Mr. Steinberg, an environmental historian at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, likens this relationship, and the insane pursuit of lawn perfection, to obsessive-compulsive disorder, and he may very well be right. That would at least explain the behavior of a homeowner who clips her entire front yard with a pair of hand shears, or Richard Widmark's reaction on waking up in the hospital after a severe lawn mower accident in 1990. "The question I asked the doctors was not 'Will I ever act again?' " he later recalled, "but 'Will I ever mow again?' "

How did a plant species ill suited to the United States, and the patrician taste for a rolling expanse of green take root from the shores of the Atlantic to the desiccated terrain of Southern California? The short answer is that it didn't, not until after the Civil War. Although Washington and Jefferson had lawns, most citizens did not have the hired labor needed to cut a field of grass with scythes. Average homeowners either raised vegetables in their yards or left them alone. If weeds sprouted, fine. If not, that was fine, too.

Toward the end of the 19th century, suburbs appeared on the American scene, along with the sprinkler, greatly improved lawn mowers, new ideas about landscaping and a shorter work week. A researcher investigating the psychology of suburbanites in 1948 observed shrewdly that the American work ethic coexisted uneasily with free time, and that "intense care of the lawn is an excellent resolution of this tension." At least until the moles arrive.

Mr. Steinberg cannot decide whether he is writing a cultural history, an environmental exposé or a series of Dave Barry columns. As cultural history, "American Green" is relentlessly superficial, a grab bag of airy generalizations and decrepit clichés about the cold war and the conformist 1950's. As environmental exposé, it is confused and poorly explained. It is impossible, reading Mr. Steinberg on lawn-care products, to assess risks. At times, it sounds as if any homeowner spreading the standard lawn fertilizers and herbicides might as well take out a gun and shoot his family. A few pages later, the environmental threat seems trivial.

Sometimes, he simply punts. Building a case against power mowers, which Mr. Steinberg regards as unsafe at any speed, he introduces the story of a "lawn professional" who lost the fingers on both hands while trying to keep a wayward mower from rolling into a lake. This might be a damning piece of evidence if Mr. Steinberg did not then add, sheepishly, that "perhaps this is a suburban legend." Half-serious, intellectually incoherent, "American Green" shambles along like this, scattering bits and pieces of history, sociology and consumer advice as it goes.

There are just enough fascinating bits to keep the pages turning. It is gratifying to learn that grass really is greener on the other side of the fence. An observer looking down at his own lawn sees brown dirt along with green grass blades, but only grass blades next door, because of the angle of vision. It is useful to focus on one of the pet claims of the lawn-care industry, that a lawn 50 feet square produces enough oxygen to satisfy the respiratory needs of a family of four. This is probably true, but, as Mr. Steinberg points out, superfluous, since there is no oxygen shortage on Earth.

Mr. Steinberg does make the case fairly convincingly that the pursuit of the perfect lawn cannot be explained without golf, which has played on the homeowner's weak sense of self-esteem by rubbing his face in fantasy images. Perfection at Augusta requires a team of specialists and a multimillion-dollar investment in infrastructure. The average golf green gets more pampering and primping than Heidi Klum's cheekbones, but that is the lawn that suburbanites want. Companies like Scotts have convinced them that to achieve it, they need to follow a regimen of constant seeding, watering, fertilizing and herbiciding.

The future looks troubled for the American lawn. Some homeowners have given up entirely, paving over their yards to create more parking space. Others are embracing the native-plant movement and turning their lawns into miniature prairies and meadows. Nellie Shriver, of the Fruitarian Network, stopped mowing for moral reasons. "It is impossible to mow the grass without harming it," she said. "We believe grass has some sort of consciousness, that it has feelings."

Even more alarming, for the lawn-care industry, is the kind of post-lawn sensibility exhibited by an Atlanta real estate broker. "When something bores me, I get rid of it," she said. "Lawns bore me."