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The grass isn't greener

Why do we, both globally and here at Duke, feel the need to grow grass in front of our homes and buildings? Real estate is one of the most valuable commodities and yet we choose to use it on lawns that produce little of value. In most cases, the lawn provides nothing for us, yet grooming and perfecting it consumes significant time, economic and environmental resources. Duke has even gone so far as to rope off grassy areas on West Campus to ensure that human use doesn’t disturb the masterpiece. 

Our culture’s obsession with lawns dates back to displays of class dominance by European royalty. Starting in the Middle Ages and continuing through the 1800s, European royalty used lawns to display economic power and assert their dominance over nature. Many gardens or lawns, especially in Regency England, demonstrated the power that humans wielded over the environment. By devoting large portions of land to a plant that had no economic return, the aristocrats conveyed their vast economic power over the commoners who could never afford estates of their own, and instead had to work on the land of the wealthy. 

European royals’ power complex translated to American middle-class lifestyle with the creation of suburban culture in the 1950s. The cookie-cutter house came complete with a nice green lawn of foreign grass species. The grasses we use today are almost exclusively imported and not meant to grow in this environment. Growing exclusively one crop, like most modern lawns, also does not occur naturally. The cultivation of unnatural grass lawns requires extensive resources to dominate the natural environment–something humans have shown we can do, but probably shouldn’t.

The economic and environmental implications of lawns extend beyond the property line. Lawns cost Americans $40 billion and 3 billion hours per year to maintain, money and time that could be directed toward solving the many humanitarian crises facing the world. The fertilizer put on suburban lawns travels as runoff to nearby streams, causing eutrophication and destruction of the environment. Pesticides and herbicides used to maintain grass also poison human native wildlife. Grass lawns require vast amounts of water, more than any other crop, which in many parts of the country is badly needed by both humans and the environment. Imported grasses from rainy areas are not meant to be grown in North American climates, and the resources needed to grow them often outweigh any benefits of a lawn. 

We spend large sums of money and disrupt our native communities, but for what?

Grass has become a hot topic in Duke Memes for Gothicc Teens and a Duke-specific symbol for frivolous spending. Anyone spending time on campus has seen landscaping workers frequently replacing large tracts of sod, especially before alumni or parents are scheduled to visit. Duke also uses fertilizer, herbicide and sprinklers to maintain the green grass, withdrawing large amounts of water from and poisoning the surrounding ecosystem. On West Campus, the grass is roped off and serves no function other than to impress potential donors.

Duke’s grass has become a symbol of the Duke administration caring more about its image than its students or surrounding community. Duke spends significant effort and money on a nice lawn, yet the total cost to attend has been consistently raised over the last few years up to the current level $68,000, a 3.9 percent increase from last year. Duke forces students to buy their expensive housing and dining for three out of four years. Duke has the money from students and donors to constantly do construction and undertake excess landscaping, yet students get ridiculously priced parking tickets and a box of cereal costs $8 at the Lobby Shop. Many memes have compared the amount spent on grass—symbolic of Duke’s excess spending—to the amount spent on financial aid, something about which students care deeply.

The land currently used for lawns could foster a variety of more practical alternatives, ranging from native plants to gardens. We could just let the trees dominate, with the ground covered by a carpet of fallen leaves like Duke forest. We could use native species or reduce pesticides and irrigation in order to save money and help the environment. We could grow useful plants. These options might not fit donors’ preconceived notions of aesthetic beauty, but they would improve the health of our environment and allow the Duke community to spend money on more important things.

Grass lawns are not inherently bad—they’re just not worth the resources and impact that are so often required to maintain them. Fields used for sports or other activities, especially where climates promote grass growth, are often justifiable. What we should reconsider, however, is whether the aesthetics of a grass lawn justify the impact that one has on the world.

Ethan Ready is a Trinity sophomore. His column runs on alternate Tuesdays.

Ethan Ready

Ethan Ready is a Trinity sophomore. His column runs on alternate Tuesdays.


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