Friday, November 25, 2005

America's Turf Terror (I)

What was the best "con" of the twentieth century? My vote goes to the worldwide diamond trade. Debeers and friends, who consolidated the markets in the late nineteenth century, secured a monopoly of truly remarkable proportions. Who in the world today doesn't know that a diamond is forever and is also a girl's best friend?

The "grass" trade in the United States may not be in the same league as the diamond monopoly, nor did it deliberately start out in its early days to convince all Americans that a weed-free, dark green lawn, of a certain height and texture was a sign of integrity and character; nevertheless, the industry eventually understood, at least by the late 1940s, there was a lot of money to be made getting people to believe in that one "correct" way. They succeeded beyond anyone's expectations.

This multi-billion dollar business, run by the chemical and lawn equipment manufacturers, and supported by the numerous lawn maintenance companies, garden furniture, etc., had not caught my attention for some time, until I came across a recent magazine article about the annual trade show for the lawn and landscaping industry, held in Orlando, Florida.

Over the past several years the industry has had some financial difficulties, because of the public's increasing awareness of toxic chemicals, pollution, local pesticide bans, the growing natural landscaping movement and finally, cultural changes. It seems, however, that the industry has decided to fight back by attacking its favorite straw man, the "environmentalists," while at the same time trying to revive the old time religion. Some of the same marketing strategies used fifty years ago are being employed once again.

In the 1950s the American lawn arrived. The Garden Club of America, the United States Golf Association, as well as the U.S. Department of Agriculture exerted considerable sway over standards and convinced a lot of Americans they knew what was best. In How to Landscape Your Grounds, published in 1950, wealthier Americans were told, "it is inexplicable why we have so many heterogeneous, unattractive and commonplace properties otherwise refined and cultured." Later in the same book we learn that "those in the lower and medium income groups" want the same refinement as the upper crust.

This was also the period when the U.S. was in the "cold" war with the Soviet Union. We had to be vigilant--toward the communists as well as our grass. Advertisements were full of words like never surrender ... sure to-kill ingredients ... take up arms ... and slaughter by chemical warfare. Famous golfers like Sam Snead helped advertise the new power lawnmowers. Want a lawn that's fairway-smooth? Sammy asked us. Get a Toro.

Now there was the deliberate promotion of an unnatural aesthetic conformity, which over time covered millions of acres requiring billions of dollars in equipment, chemicals and upkeep. A nice lawn was, of course, a sign of substance and gravitas. And we believed every word of this artificial--and ultimately harmful--dreamscape. This illusion definitely needs to be relegated to the ashcan of history once and for all.

Sunday, November 13, 2005


The well-dressed man, probably in his thirties and clutching his bible, stood on the street corner outside of an Irish pub quite literally screaming about Jesus, sin, and impending doom. I'd just come out of the movie theater. Across the street two college boys yelled at him to "go fuck" himself. Not a good thing to say to an aspiring martyr. It began to drizzle.

The Kansas State Board of Education recently mandated that "Intelligent Design" be incorporated into the state science curriculum. A well-known medical establishment in Kansas City has decided to take its multi-million dollar stem-cell research program to Massachusetts, a friendlier science environment. Bob Dylan once sang of the reincarnation of Paul Revere's horse.

After more than 40 years of protection and preservation, the U.S. Senate voted to drill in the Alaska National Wildlife Refuge. Stupidity and corruption are a potent combination. Yet--a week later--the House of Representatives took the oil drilling provision out of the budget bill. A temporary reprieve?

I read recently that with only 5 percent of the world's population the United States generates 30 percent of the world's trash. Who said America's manufacturing base is deteriorating? We've set a high bar for China and India to emulate.

Hurricane Katrina has worsened starvation in Malawi, a country in Africa few people have heard of. When Katrina shut down New Orleans' shipping, the Japanese had to buy their corn in South Africa. The price of South African corn shot up and Malawi couldn't afford it. A picture in a local newspaper a couple of days ago showed 2.7 million bushels of corn piled up outside of a co-op grain silo in Iowa. The silo is full and presumably the excess corn will rot. Could someone actually use this "extra" corn?

There seems to be a shortage of water in the Brazilian Amazon, as hard as that is to believe. In the southwest Brazilian Amazon many lakes are going dry, tons of dead fish are strewn along empty riverbeds, and villages dependent on water travel have become isolated.

No one can say for certain, but rising surface temperatures in the northern Atlantic might have something to do with the drought according to some. But others suggest that the massive deforestation in the Amazon has eliminated forest cover, which has reduced moisture and rainfall. "Negative synergies" as the researchers might say but regardless; the daisy chain is unraveling.

What's to be done? Diane Ackerman said in her book, An Alchemy of Mind, that evolution must have a sense of humor: We have brains that can conceive of states of perfection they can't achieve.

This is the "mysterious" of the moment. Of course a a sixth mass extinction is possible; we've had five over the past 400 million years. Scientists estimate that at least 99.9% of all species of plants and animals that ever lived are now extinct. Yet, new technologies and new ideas are springing up everywhere, everyday, in different places.

Environmental scientists speak of fragmentation, where large units of habitat are broken into smaller units. Thus, a loss of habitat as well as the isolation of the remaining territory occurs. A problem can develop when the interaction between some organisms situated in these different fragmentary locations causes them to be, for all practical purposes, separate populations. How fast can we alter human fragmentation? What are we willing to do--to do it?