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An Article by Dr. David Jaffee

I was recently the recipient of a letter from my homeowners association. It informed me that, according to an inspection by the management company (more likely the complaint of a fellow neighbor), I had an excessive number of brown spots on my lawn. I was required to submit, post haste, a “plan of action” on how I intended to address the problem. I cannot tell you how great the temptation to respond in a sarcasm-drenched fashion, which I have done in the past. But in this case, I simply wrote that the brown spots had been identified as frost damage and the grass would grow back naturally over time. If there was any part of my response they would find objectionable, I was sure it would be the reference to “naturally”. After all, that did not sound like a plan of action. But my personal run-in with the lawn police is really less important than the larger madness that this incident represents.

The crime for which I was charged – let’s call it “lawn neglect” – may be one of the most serious lodged against a suburban denizen. I would even argue that for the homeowners association it is more significant than other forms of neglect that may occur inside the home because yard neglect can have a direct impact on property values. (Let’s just ignore the role played by overzealous real estate developers, unscrupulous mortgage bankers, and greedy speculators in sending our home values plunging.)  For the typical suburban homeowner, the negative stigma associated with having anything less than a pristine, perfectly manicured, lawn is colossal.  It does not require one to receive a formal notice from your association. The expressions and comments of the passing “neighbors” – the informal sanctions -- are enough to enforce a normative order of faithful turfgrass maintenance. No one wants to be known as “the guy with the bad grass” (this phrase had a different meaning in the seventies).

Unfortunately for Floridians, matters are made worse by the curse of St. Augustine grass. It is hard to imagine a variety that is more demanding of constant and costly attention (my neighbor describes it as a “wimpy” grass). It requires enormous quantities of water, is susceptible to every possible weed and pest, grows too fast, and spreads beyond its borders. This means that in order to conform with the neighborhood turfgrass consensus, one must use water irresponsibly; subject the environment to toxic fertilizers, herbicides, and pesticides; run gas-powered lawn tools that contribute to air and noise pollution; and edge, trim, and whack any stray vine. One can either spend their increasingly scarce time on weekends tending to these endless tasks or, better yet, they can hire some lawn service or pest control company to cut the grass and administer the chemical treatments. In either case, the costs -- in time, money, and environmental degradation, multiplied over millions of public and private swaths of lawn -- are staggering. Why do we landscape with a turfgrass that can only be maintained in a socially acceptable condition through the use of scarce resources (water) and environmentally damaging (fertilizers, chemicals) interventions?

I was curious to know if someone had taken the time to study and analyze such an obviously and utterly unnatural and irrational system. As it turns out, there are quite a few. The best of the bunch is a wonderful book (which I strongly recommend) titled “Lawn People: How Grasses, Weeds, and Chemicals Make Us Who We Are” by Paul Robbins. Among the many gems within this work, there is one research finding that really stands out. While we often assume that an educated public can yield positive social behavior, Robbins reports that those who use chemicals on their lawn are more likely to believe chemicals have a negative impact on the environment than those who do not.  As Robbins notes, this refutes the argument that knowledge and attitudes predict behavior or, for that matter, that people exercise free choice. Social psychologists would describe such a tension between knowledge and behavior as “cognitive dissonance” and argue that individuals would seek to reduce or resolve the tension by either dismissing the evidence of serious environmental damage or stop using fertilizers and chemicals. But it appears that many people are able to accept (or deny) this inconsistency over long periods of time with little or no adjustment to knowledge or behavior. This is compelling testimony to the power of the social external pressures that enforce an ethos of turfgrass maintenance, and turn even the most environmentally conscientious citizens into “lawn people”.

One might think that in this time of green consciousness there would be new opportunities to break out of the turfgrass prison, but there remain enormous constraints working against the obvious alternatives. I have heard many homeowners claim that they would love to rip out all the grass and replace it with something else (like dwarf mondo grass or artfificial turf). However, if they study their neighborhood covenants they may discover that turfgrass is the only acceptable ground cover. Xeriscaping is another option that is often discussed but this requires significant planning, labor, and expense (assuming it is acceptable to the neighborhood association) and there are the whole array of social (stigma) and economic (resale value) pressures working against such risky behaviors.

Then there is what I will call the “turfgrass industrial complex”. Just consider the political economic interests that benefit directly from a nation of lawn people and have a stake in retaining the current system. They include: lawn care businesses; pest control services; irrigation system companies; garden tool manufacturers; fertilizer, pesticide, and herbicide manufacturers; real estate agents; and home builders who cover dirt with sod. Consider the number of businesses in Jacksonville alone that are directly or indirectly related to lawn maintenance. The economic dislocation that would result from abandoning St Augustine grass would require a National Turfgrass Re-adjustment Act.

There is a perverse irony in the desire to individually buck the trend and refuse to play the turfgrass game. While one may think that protecting the environment from the ravages of chemically-dependent green space is an act of community responsibility, it is this very same communal principle that exacts the lockstep conformity of lawn people. That is, most of us believe that we actually have a community obligation to keep our lawns green, weedless, and trimmed since our lawn is part of the larger neighborhood aesthetic. This is a case where the sum of individual decisions to be a responsible member of the neighborhood translates into collective insanity.

Until the time comes when replacing St Augustine grass with something truly natural is socially acceptable, and agreed to and tolerated by one’s neighborhood community and beyond, there is little hope that we will escape from the tyranny of the majority. Until then, most of us have no choice but to join the ranks of the lawn people.

David Jaffee is a Professor of Sociology at the University of North Florida.