Summer potpourri with carcinogenic green

If it took oil selling at $140 a barrel to give folks pause, no worries. A shift in perspective is a shift in perspective, no matter how it comes about. Suddenly, energy and resource use are being reframed as Americans come to realize that the cost of sustaining a certain lifestyle &

call it the American Dream &

is increasing at an alarming rate. Perhaps it's time to re-calibrate the AD and begin to think of it as the Green Dream instead.

But it isn't just how we view our cars and what's required to transport us from point A to point B that's changing. The unsettling spikes in oil cost may just be the first domino dropping in a complete re-evaluation of sustainability and consumer expectations.

This may be a good time to revisit the ubiquitous All-American lawn. In an article in the July 21, 2008 edition of The New Yorker, written by Elizabeth Kolbert and titled "Turf War," Kolbert points out that a NASA-funded study, which used satellite imaging, "determined that, including golf courses, lawns in the United States cover nearly 50,000 square miles &

an area roughly the size of New York State." Americans spend an estimated $40 billion each year on lawn care and raising turf, none of which is native to America: Kentucky blue grass from Europe; Bermuda grass from Africa and Zoysia grass from East Asia.

To irrigate these lawns requires, according to the same study, Americans use some 200 gallons of potable water per person per day.

And it's not just water we are sprinkling on our evergreen turf, but the chemicals, intended to deepen the color and eliminate unwanted weeds such as dandelions. According to Kolbert, "One of the most popular herbicides was, and continues to be, 2,4-dicholorophenoxyacetic acid, or 2,4-D, a major ingredient in Agent Orange. The insecticide carbaryl, which is marketed under the trade name Sevin, is still broadly applied to lawns. A likely human carcinogen, it has been shown to cause developmental damage in lab animals... ."

Meanwhile, lawn owners (or those to whom lawn care is outsourced) happily spread herbicides on their verdant stretches of grass while children and the family dog play and wrestle on the plush surface. "Ted Steinberg," writes Kolbert, "a professor of history at Case Western Reserve University, compares the lawn to a 'nationwide chemical experiment with homeowners as the guinea pigs.'"

Of course, the chemicals spread liberally across our lawns are being washed away into the streams and lakes and thus making their way back into our drinking water supply. There's a certain irony in observing a homeowner pausing to take a long drink from the hose while watering the lawn unaware that the chemicals used to keep said lawn so deliciously green and weed-free are now brought back full circle in the sluicing, potable water being gulped down.

All of this begs the question: Why lawns to begin with? Kolbert argues that what began as a form of landscaping by the privileged &

who else would devote so much arable land to a grass which does nothing? &

spilled over to more modest homes and housing tracts. And so the lawn became accepted as green eyewash, its conformity and homogeneity reassuring. Property values are now linked to well-kept lawns, and homeowners' associations (not to forget unofficial turf police) have developed lawn standards. Of course, keeping the swatches of grass nicely trimmed and edged requires gear, foremost being a lawnmower. Most are gas powered, most give off abundant noise and CO2, and are the cause of countless accidents each year, some tragic.

There are groups across America that lobby for the demise of the lawn, suggesting that vegetable gardens, drought resistant plants or native grasses be allowed to take over, all in the hopes of reversing more than a century of landscaping tradition. But while making ever so much sense, it will likely take a serious spike in the cost of potable water to do to lawns what high oil prices did to the SUV.

Meanwhile, Kolbert references a recent Ohio State University study which estimates that "the space devoted to turfgrass in the United States is growing at the rate of almost 600 square miles a year." So hang on to that lawn chair. Just avoid walking barefooted across that deep-ply grass mulched with 2,4-D or Sevin.

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