As a heatwave drags across the United States, local and state governments are scrambling to find solutions to the threats brought by record high temperatures. Washington DC and Philadelphia have declared heat emergencies, activating public cooling centers and other safety measures across their cities, while Phoenix and Los Angeles continue to push programs to plant new trees in working-class neighborhoods with little canopy coverage. Many of these short-term solutions rely on water, a dangerous reality given that nearly 50% of the country is experiencing some form of drought, with the amount of Americans affected by drought increasing 26.8% since last month. This looming threat has pushed one state, Nevada, to seek a more long-term solution: the banning of non-functional lawns.
Lawn grass takes up 2% of all land in the United States. If it were a crop, it would be by far the single largest irrigated crop in the country. Nevada has, due to necessity, taken an obvious but large step in alleviating some of the more immediate symptoms of the climate crisis and bought themselves more time for other measures. It is time for the federal government to push all states to do the same and create incentives to ensure that it happens quickly and in a manner that doesn’t force working-class Americans to foot the bill.
The US is experiencing the beginning of a water shortage. A 2021 study found that the drought in the western US is the worst the region has seen in 1,200 years, and that much of it is the result of the current climate crisis. While lawns are not the largest contributor to climate change, they take up space from plants that could be offsetting carbon or slowing down wildfires, while still doing a heft of damage on their own.
According to the EPA, outdoor water usage for lawns and gardens accounts for 60% of household usage in arid areas of the country. And unlike indoor water usage, much of that water is lost to evaporation and runoff. All in all, American lawns use 3tn gallons of water each year – enough drinking water for billions of people annually – on top of 59m pounds of pesticides and 1.2bn gallons of gasoline for lawn mowers. These are all relative drops in the bucket given the full scale of the climate crisis, but given the absolute pointlessness of lawns, it’s a few too many drops too much.
The history of lawns in the US is deeply rooted in racism and the aristocratic ambitions of America’s ruling and middle classes. In the 18th century, something akin to modern lawns gained popularity among the wealthy elite of France and England, and was imported by founding fathers like Thomas Jefferson and George Washington. Lawns’ difficulty to maintain made them the exclusive domain of the wealthiest Americans until they became widespread in the 1950s after federal aid and a friendly lending market made it easier for Americans to purchase homes and move to the nation’s growing suburbs.
A confluence of federal housing policies, discriminatory lending practices, and newly created homeowners associations allowed white families to almost exclusively reap the full benefits of this growth. White people fled the cities and claimed their own private white fenced fiefs. Lawns became a symbol of the American Dream – a dream deferred, for some. The American lawn represents the worst of the United States, wasteful, vain and full of shit. After all, lawns need fertilizer – which in America comes mixed with herbicides that kill off local plants and pollinators.
This mess of negative features is why Nevada moved to ban non-functional turf lawns in southern Nevada. A committee was tasked with determining what fit that definition and created a list that included everything from condominium lawns to strip mall dividers – and excluded individual homeowners and places like cemeteries and football fields.
According to the New York Times, the state had spent decades pushing half measures like setting water use limits and creating financial incentives for residents to essentially sell their grass to the state. But Lake Mead, which supplies 90% of the drinking water for southern Nevada, has gotten so empty that the agency responsible had to construct a new pumping station to extract what remains. With this new legislation, southern Nevada is predicted to reduce the amount of water it extracts from Lake Mead and another reservoir by 10% this year.
The rest of the country should follow suit. While it will not by itself avert the global disaster we are already in the midst of, it is the kind of commonsense reform that can generate support on both sides of the dimly lit aisle – as evidenced by the bipartisan nature of the Nevada bill. The federal government should step in and provide incentives to states to encourage citizens to abandon lawns willingly, with firmer dates for mandatory removal for locations that fit criteria similar to those set out by Nevada’s committee. Congress could also help by subsidizing some of the often costly replacement of grass lawns with local flora, or by passing legislation like the Green Jobs Programs that could offset potential job losses in the lawn care industry – though the latter is obviously unlikely.
There are a number of beautiful proposals to replace the modern lawn, from old school victory gardens – which allowed communities to pool together produce and help the government drive down the cost of goods in the midst of the second world war – to simply sticking with local plants and trees that can provide shade on hot days and absorb some carbon in the meantime.
This may sound like the bare minimum, and that’s because it is. And it is about time we at least did that.
Akin Olla is a contributing opinion writer at the Guardian