AAs a heat wave sweeps across the United States, local and state governments are scrambling to find solutions to the threats posed by record temperatures. Washington DC and Philadelphia have declared heat emergencies, activated public cooling centers and other safety measures in their cities, while Phoenix and Los Angeles continue to advance programs to plant new trees in working-class neighborhoods with little canopy. Many of these short-term solutions rely on water, a dangerous reality given that nearly 50% of the country is suffering from some form of drought and the number of Americans affected by drought has increased by 26.8% since last month. This looming threat has prompted one state, Nevada, to seek a longer-term solution: banning non-functional lawns.
Lawn grass occupies 2% of all land in the United States. If it were a crop, it would be by far the largest irrigated crop in the country. Nevada has taken an obvious but big step out of necessity to alleviate some of the more immediate symptoms of the climate crisis, buying itself more time for other actions. It’s time the federal government urged all states to do the same and create incentives to ensure it happens quickly and in a way 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 western US drought is the region’s worst in 1,200 years and that much of it is a result of the current climate crisis. While lawns aren’t the biggest contributor to climate change, they take the place of plants that could offset carbon or slow wildfires while still doing a ton of damage themselves.
According to the EPA, outdoor water use for lawns and gardens accounts for 60% of household use in arid areas of the country. And unlike indoor water use, much of that water is lost through evaporation and runoff. All in all, American lawns use 3 trillion gallons of water each year – enough drinking water for billions of people annually – in addition to 59 million pounds of pesticides and 1.2 billion gallons of gasoline for lawn mowers. Given the full extent of the climate crisis, these are all relative drops in the ocean, but given the utter futility of turf, it’s a few drops too many.
The history of lawns in the United States is deeply rooted in the racism and aristocratic ambitions of America’s ruling and middle classes. In the 18th century, something resembling modern lawns gained popularity among the wealthy elite of France and England, and were imported by founding fathers such as Thomas Jefferson and George Washington. The difficult-to-maintain lawns made them the exclusive domain of wealthiest Americans until they became widespread in the 1950s, after federal aid and a friendly credit market made it easier for Americans to buy homes and move to the nation’s burgeoning suburbs.
A confluence of federal housing policies, discriminatory lending practices, and newly formed homeowners’ associations allowed white families to reap the full benefits of this growth almost exclusively. White people fled the cities and claimed their own private white fenced fiefdoms. Lawn became a symbol of the American Dream – for some a dream deferred. The American lawn represents the worst of the United States, wasteful, vain and full of shit. Finally, lawns need fertilizer—which in America is mixed with herbicides that kill native plants and pollinators.
This jumble of negative traits is why Nevada moved to ban non-functioning lawns in southern Nevada. A committee was tasked with determining what fit that definition, and produced a list that included everything from condo lawns to mall dividers — and excluded individual homeowners and locations like cemeteries and soccer fields.
According to the New York Times, the state had spent decades pushing half-measures like setting water usage limits and creating financial incentives for residents to essentially sell their weed to the state. But Lake Mead, which provides 90% of southern Nevada’s drinking water, has become so depleted that the agency has had to build a new pumping station to pump out the leftovers. With this new legislation, southern Nevada is expected to reduce the amount of water it withdraws from Lake Mead and another reservoir by 10% this year.
The rest of the country should follow suit. While it alone won’t avert the global catastrophe we’re already in, it’s the kind of common-sense reform that can find support on both sides of the dimly lit aisle — as evidenced by the bipartisan nature of the Nevada law. The federal government should step in and offer states incentives to encourage citizens to voluntarily give up lawns, with firmer dates for mandatory site removals that meet criteria similar to those set by the Nevada committee. Congress could also help by subsidizing some of the often-costly replacement of lawns with local plants, or by passing legislation like the Green Jobs programs that could offset potential job losses in the lawn care industry — although the latter is obviously unlikely.
There are a number of beautiful proposals to replace the modern turf, from old-school victory gardens — which allowed communities to pool their produce and help the government lower the cost of goods in the middle of World War II — to the simple Sticking to the region Plants and trees that provide shade on hot days and can absorb some carbon in the meantime.
That may sound like the bare minimum, and that’s because it is. And it’s about time we at least did that.