The political economy of urban monoculture

Paul Robbins and Julie Sharp

Suburbanites—advised by nurserymen who in turn have been advised by the chemical manufacturers—continue to apply truly astonishing amounts of crabgrass killers to their lawns each year. Marketed under trade names, which give no hint to their nature, many of these preparations contain such poisons as mercury, arsenic, and chlordane. Application at recommended rates leaves tremendous amounts of these chemicals on the lawn.

(Carson 1962:80)

One of our dogs was very allergic to the [lawn chemical] treatment. In the spring when they would start to fertilize, his paws would just get raw and bleed. We would have to take him to the vet two or three times a week and they would do these whirlpool treatments and finally we realized it was the lawn chemicals. So, for a couple of days after we had the grass done we would put these little booties on the dog. Otherwise it would really hurt him, and he would just bite and chew at his paws and they would bleed all over the place. We felt so badly for him.

(Suzanne, Ohio homeowner)

Nothing more captures such anxieties associated with urban living than the strange case of the American lawn. The momentum of the nascent lawn chemical industry, viewed at its inception by Rachel Carson in the 1950s (above), was fully realized by the late 1990s when the lawn chemical economy at last came of age. At the dawn of the twenty-first century, more people in the United States apply chemicals to their lawn than do not. In an analysis of national water quality, the United States Geological Survey reveals that 99 percent of urban stream samples contain one or more pesticides and that in urban watersheds insecticides were detected more often and at higher concentrations than in non-urban systems (United States Geological Survey 1999). Though these chemicals are coming from a range of urban sources, lawn care is an important contributor. But what does this mean for the people who actually use them with such hesitation?

Mostly, it means contradiction and ambivalence. At the same time that homeowners like Suzanne (above), who told us her story in an interview during the Spring of 2003, live in an internally warring state of anxiety and responsibility over chemical use, their applications continue to increase annually. US households spend $222 each on lawn care equipment and chemicals with consumer lawn care input purchases recently reaching an all-time high of $8.9 billion; 55 percent of households apply insect controls and 74 percent apply fertilizer (National Gardening Association 2000). So even while national pesticide consumption has decreased, and fewer chemicals are being used in industrial and commercial sectors, pesticide use on private lawns remains high and continues to climb (United States Geological Survey 1999). With private turfgrass estimated to exceed 23 percent of urban land cover, and lawn grass coverage increasing by well more than one hundred thousand hectares annually (Robbins and Birkenholtz 2003), such applications cover more ground every year, no matter what unease may pervade the imagination of the average homeowner.

Such conditions reflect the enigma of urban political ecologies, which are complicated, in part because they are so remarkably unspectacular, and yet so dangerously far-reaching. Unlike the great and exotic catastrophes of large-scale tropical deforestation or mass extinction, both worthy topics of critical environmental analysis, urban political ecologies expand and insinuate themselves largely "below the radar", through the daily disaggregated practices of hundreds of millions of people, who consume and produce the world around them in the conversion of land, the puddling of wastewater, and the puffing of emission. That such daily ecologies aggregate to vast effects is, of course, well known. The average automobile, for example, will produce its own weight in carbon over a year's time, making the daily commute of the average Los Angelean a matter of clearly global significance. Similarly, the linkage of such local urban ecologies to large scale economic interests and power is increasingly well understood. The relationship between land developers and speculators has as much to do with urban sprawl as any consumer choice.

Even so, the fragmented character of urban ecology causes the political economy of nature in the city to be experienced by its participants (consumers, workers, managers) with a degree of ambivalence and contradiction. People living in systems that produce unevenly distributed costs, environmentally unsound externalities, and shifting risk ecologies are driven to feel simultaneously distant from ecological process, while acknowledging at some level their intimate relationships to nature all around them. The remarkable success of household recycling in the United States and Canada, despite its mixed record of effectiveness (Ackerman 1997), is a tribute to the unease experienced by normal people living in a dawning "risk society" (following Beck 1992).

The lawn is emblematic in this sense. In the time between Carson's prognosis and Suzanne's dawning concern, the lawnscape itself expanded across North America to become ubiquitous. Estimates of lawn coverage are difficult to make, but turfgrass cover is estimated to be around 16 million hectares nationally. For Franklin County Ohio, a typical urban/suburban region encompassing Columbus Ohio and its satellite communities, roughly a quarter of total urban land is under lawn. With urban land in the United States expanding by 675 thousand hectares per year between 1982 and 1997 (Natural Resources Conservation Service 2000), this means ongoing expansion of turfgrass cover, especially in residential areas. The proportion of private land given over to lawn coverage—as opposed to the footprint of the residence, shrub/tree cover, sidewalks, and driveways—also increases with every housing start, and in increasing proportion of total lot size (Robbins and Birkenholtz 2003).

These monocultural turf landscapes of the United States have their aesthetic roots in the gardens of English manor houses following the landscape fads and Italian landscape paintings of the eighteenth century (Jenkins 1994). The lawn in its modern form, however, no matter how common in contemporary cities, is a relatively recent phenomenon. The key species of the monocultural lawn came to North America in the last century and the high-input chemical management system is even more recent. As late as the 1930s, lawn maintenance practices were largely weed-tolerant and involved handpulling and keeping of chickens for weeds and grubs. The use of chemicals was in fact discouraged, since it retarded the growth of edible greens (Barron 1923; Dickinson 1931). It was only in the post-World War II era that the quantity of lawn coverage and the intensity of its management began to accelerate (Bormann et al. 1993), and with it a broader political economy that produces and is reproduced by a vast community of homeowners, who together maintain and service the lawn monoculture.

Yet the lawn and the lawn owner are rarely addressed when considering municipal health risks, ecosystem degradation, or ecosystem function more generally. The reasons for this are twofold. Firstly, the cultural landscapes associated with daily life (homes, gardens, offices, stores) tend to vanish because of their normalness, ordinariness, and ubiquity. More pointedly, the lawn rarely receives critical scrutiny because it is largely viewed as a cultural artifact, rather than a political or economic one. People have lawns because they like lawns, the intuitive line of thinking suggests, and do what is required to maintain them (Schroeder 1993). Thus the lawn, a significant chemical input and a massive multi-national economy, remains in hiding, if directly in plain sight, an artifact of personal choice, nested in a vast economy, driving an inchoate sense of consumer anxiety.

Launching our investigation from exactly this point, we here summarize research that surveys the political and economic character of the American lawnscape. The research, part of a three-year project utilizing national surveys, interviews, aerial photo assessment, and industry analysis, sets out to answer the simple question: what determines the extent and management of the lawn, and what perpetuates its existence when those who maintain it do so with such profound hesitation?

Examining the linkages of the turfgrass yard to ecosystems, chemical production economies, and community values and priorities to answer these questions, we conclude here that direct and aggressive sales of chemicals to consumers are spurred in part by crises in the chemical formulator industry and by declining margins in the worldwide chemical trade. The evidence supports a broader understanding of the question, however: the lawn is a capitalized system that produces a certain kind of person, one who answers to the needs of landscape, despite an urge to the contrary. We conclude, therefore, that it is not that American communities that produce lawns or that global industry produces individual desires, but instead that the lawn itself, as a socio-technical system implicated in capitalized production, produces turfgrass subjects—that urban/suburban subject whose identity is interpellated (literally "hailed", following Althusser) by the purified lawn, and whose identity and life is disciplined by the material demands of the landscapes they inherit. So too, the urban community, which appears to create normative pressure to produce lawns, is itself formed by the specific material demands of turfgrass, and the cycles of daily life directed by cutting, watering, and tending, this ravenous shared ecology. For urban political ecology, our results suggest a serious and renewed engagement with human ideology, experience, and desire. For lawn owners, including the authors themselves, these results suggest a critical appraisal of the political and ecological economy of our own identities.

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