People of the Lawn

I had never before considered the depth and complexity of the lawn care industry.  Although very fascinating, the logistics of the issue sometimes fly over my head.  Meaning the interconnectivity of the suppliers and the consumers are so complex, it was hard for me to understand exactly who is controlling the market.  I came to realize it is a little bit of both and much more. The book attempts to untangle the economic and political history of the American Lawn, which to me seems like an industry spinning out of control.  Neither the consumers nor the producers seem to be in or out-of-control. The long economic chain of assembly and production seems to muffle any logical thought or communication.  This is something I find inherently scary about our aggressively capitalist economy.  In other words the economic machine behind the lawn care industry seems to be driven by itself, which is a concept I was not able to fully understand through this book.

Overall, Paul Robbins challenges the apolitical ecology approach in analyzing environmental issues.  The approach he challenges takes on the assumption that decisions and behaviors are free from power, coercion, exploitation and suggestion.  The theory focuses on free individual choices, seeing culture as a driving role in understanding group behavior, economic activities as meeting consumer demand, and thinks of human action as independent to the influence of non-human actors, objects, and animals.  In response to this commonly accepted notion that seems so central to Americana and freedom, Robbins offers a political ecologic approach.  This alternative way of thinking accepts that humans’ interactions with the environment are often laden with power, which undermine the notions of choice, freedom, culture and the fragile independence of the world around us.

I found it interesting how the American Lawn became associated with the desirable urban citizen.  It really is amazing how much we judge people based on the appearance of their front lawn.  Not surprisingly this narrowly defined American Lawn aesthetic is impossibly attained without the input of capital and labor.  These chemicals are not inert and are indisputably unsafe on some level to humans, wildlife and ecosystems as a whole.  Oddly, as consciousness surrounding the detriments of lawn care products has increased, so has the use of these products.  The industry that produces these products, in an aggressive industrialized world, has been forced to maintain their level of economic gain by passing more and costs onto consumers.  Through marketing, the lawn was turned into an obligation to community and family oriented collective good.  This sense of responsibility around lawn care was created by an aesthetic designed long ago, as well as social pressures of maintaining property value.  If a solution is ever going to be attained, it will lie not at the level of individual choice (which is popularly ingrained in American ideology) but rather government regulation on the level of the powerful normative institutions, who use their own power to influence public policy and opinion.  It is ironic that a country clinging to the notion of a “free-market” is in reality a servant not of the government but of large-scale business firms, which ultimately have more power that government in creating public policy.

It is interesting how lawns are considered a commodity, yet their upkeep is a necessity.  The lawn is a great example of many other environmental issues taken for granted.  It is intriguing how central a lawn is to our identity, that we see objects around us as visual outcrops of ourselves.  Structuring these objects both show our ability to effectively mold our surroundings, yet the anxiety and care associated with these manipulations indicates our lack of control at the same time.  I like how Robbins phrases the human-nature relationship.  He suggests the “world is both freeing and frightening . . . both profoundly structured but totally malleable . . . no one is driving this train that and it has no track” (p. 138).  These seeming contradictions sum up how we like to cater to binary ideologies and ignore the paradoxes of life.

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