Readings: Lawn People

Lawn people is an interesting and well researched book. I would not have imagined that we could go so deep into exploring how grasses work and the fact that grasses are one of the “most dynamic ecosystems known” really surprised me (36)! The political, economic and social ideology surrounding grasses and lawns that the author explains in detail is fascinating. It essentially reflects how our minds are trained to look at nature in a way, and how we are doing our level best to make it what it is not. The biggest lesson that I would take away from the book is that the ideologies – which are a result of social, economic and political factors – in the human race works in a way that what we think is natural is not natural, and what we think is unnatural can actually be truly natural!

There are some very neat and counter-intuitive ideas that I picked up from this book. An interesting one is the author’s argument that people ideas are often not accurately transformed into their actions. For example, the author explains how educated people are generally more aware of the fact that using chemicals on lands can cause a range of environmental problems such as water pollution. However, it is those very people who tend to use a lot of chemicals to keep their lawn in shape! Also, the author claims that “With better knowledge will come better behavior.” This contradicts his earlier claims, as we see that people do not act “rationally” all the time. This in fact, has been proven in Economics itself (which assumes that people will always act rationally), and that idea in economics is called bounded rationality, or the idea that people’s ideas and choices that they make is limited by their knowledge and awareness about something. The deviation from rationality is often accounted for as culture, explains the author. This made sense to me in that people often do something, just because someone else seems to be doing it. Even though, they might be well aware that, they are in fact not making the best decision.

I always found it interesting to learn that our concept of lawns has evolved from long-gone times where large open spaces were useful to look out for predators and prey. Also, another argument for the evolution of lawns claims that people desired lawns just to keep the fearful landscapes away. This theme has repeatedly come up in this class wherein we have debated if wilderness / nature should be a part of human civilization or if it should be looked at as something separate from us.

This also leads to one of the most interesting take-aways from the book. It is to learn the fact that we don’t actually need to take care of lawns and the author’s explanation of how grasses work and how they are fundamentally different from a lot of plants in that they have growth stimulators in their roots as opposed to their stem tops is very useful in understanding how society, not grasses needs care-taking! I was always under the impression that having a lawn is great trouble as it calls for a lot of work. But reading this book, I realize that to bring a lawn to how society wants it, or how we imagine it to be takes a lot. This involves polyculture, insects and other characteristics discussed in detail in the book. However, grasses in themselves have their own cycle which is more beautiful than we can think. And what makes us work on them a lot, is to learn about their cycle and work to actually make it suit out idea of grasses! But wait, this is the same theme again right? Is nature inclusive of humans or is it separate from us? Do we have the right to control nature to this extent and where does out idea of nature come from? Would you be willing to have a forest as a front lawn?

CLICK HERE to read more about the “Kentucky Bluegrass!”

The Kentucky Blue!

I especially enjoyed reading about DDT, which we had briefly talked about in the previous book. The fact that the person who first made it was awarded a Nobel prize in 1948 is interesting. It was widely used during the war time, and to learn that it was used to eliminate insects, and not control them was hardly surprising considering the fact that we prefer to live away from nature than live with it. It was interesting to note that following the war, DDT was used extensively on lawns due to the huge fall in prices attributable to large supply. The rise and fall of DDT, and its impact on society, science, politics and economy shows how interrelated every aspect of human society is and also presents the irony that we fail to recognize how we need to be related to nature, in spite of all this interdependence!

They are serious!

The idea that the lawn-industry could be as gigantic to get a single firm make net profits of over $2 Billion in a year itself is testimony to why the author chose to write a book on lawns! I was particularly fascinated by the fact that developing a new pesticide could cost anywhere between $20 and $50 million. This is a staggering amount that we spend on pesticides that – some of which – in reality, we may not even need. It was also interesting to learn why the pesticide industry is dominated by a few large companies, making it monopolistic competition in itself. The high costs of making new drugs and short time period between patents, makes this inevitable.

how much more?!

“Push” and “Pull” advertising is another fascinating idea to learn from this book. “Push” interestingly is a form of marketing where the firm manufacturing the product sells its product to retailers who then sell the product to consumers using skilled staff. On the other hand, “Pull” is an idea in marketing which eliminates the middle-men and puts the firm directly in touch with their consumers. The most notable characteristics of “Pull” are that it is a very new method, starting around the 1980’s but has become popular in no time and changed the market in unimaginable ways. Firms have had to restructure their entire financial planning and budgets resulting in a larger consumer pool and increasing profits. To our generation, marketing is only “Pull” ideology, but for the previous generation, having seen both, it would be interesting to see what they would have to say about this revolutionary change.

Push and pull to get p-pull !

It is also interesting to me that lawns come under direct jurisdiction of many states and counties in the United States. I would never imagine such a law in India and this as the author points out, makes alternatives to lawns “elusive.” I feel that moving away from lawns is not only elusive from a legal standpoint, but also from a political and economic standpoint, where industries will drive demand, instead of demand driving supply. This makes me think about dependency theory to some extent, where consumers are moved into buying products that they may not need at all.

It was delightful to read this book and the fact that a topic like “lawns” – which I considered frivolous before reading this book – could lead to such insightful research makes me realize how interconnected every aspect of the environment is!

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