The intriguing history and ethics of having a lawn

From a young age I had resolved to never have a lawn if I owned my own house. This might seem incredibly trivial, but as I’ll show, it isn’t. Lawns are something I have thought about again several times throughout my life, each time becoming increasingly validated in my decision to not have a lawn.

My first (and perhaps partially childish) motivation was a general dislike for gardening. My childhood home had a large garden and I helped out from time to time. I didn’t see the point at the time, though I understand now that there are some benefits to property value and people can derive some enjoyment from having a lawn (though I never really did).

Many years later, I learned an interesting fact from Yuval Noah Harari’s book Sapiens about the history of lawns. Here are some quotes:

A young couple building a new home for themselves may ask the architect for a nice lawn in the front yard. Why a lawn? ‘Because lawns are beautiful,’ the couple might explain. But why do they think so? It has a history behind it.

Well kept lawns demanded land and a lot of work, particularly in the days before lawnmowers and automatic water sprinklers. In exchange, they produce nothing of value. You can’t even graze animals on them, because they would eat and trample the grass. Poor peasants could not afford wasting precious land or time on lawns. The neat turf at the entrance to chateaux was accordingly a status symbol nobody could fake. It boldly proclaimed to every passerby: ‘I am so rich and powerful, and I have so many acres and serfs, that I can afford this green extravaganza.’” [bolded emphasis my own]

The last sentence really stuck with me. It seemed true even today – lawns are almost purely a status symbol. They don’t produce fruit or veggies and barely have a useful carbon storage effect. I felt more justified in my attitude towards lawns.

Around the same time, I had become convinced by arguments about wild-animal suffering. If you are not familiar with this argument, I strongly encourage you to see this introduction, but in short, it is plausible that many wild-animals (including invertebrates such as insects) have lives with more suffering than wellbeing. If you accept this, then at the least you should accept that it would be wrong to bring these lives in to existence (for the same reason it is wrong to bring farmed animals in to existence when they will experience so much suffering).

Creating a lawn can be an effective way of increasing insect suffering, as it increases the available plant biomass for insects to breed and increase their population. Brian Tomasik argues for having gravel instead of lawns to reduce insect suffering. Tomasik’s rough estimate shows that the amount of suffering one can reduce by replacing a lawn with gravel is immense.

Having lawns can even be bad for the environment, especially if you regularly mow them. The carbon that would otherwise be stored in the grass is cut off and released to the atmosphere via decay. Some carbon would be stored in the ground in the grass and humus still, however the emissions from mowing ones’ lawn should outweigh this. As an alternative, white gravel would reflect sunlight, having a net cooling effect compared to grass, which would absorb heat.

Long story short – I don’t ever want a grass lawn and I wish this view was more commonly held – it’s more important than it seems at first glance.

5 thoughts on “The intriguing history and ethics of having a lawn”

  1. Thanks for the post. 🙂

    > The carbon that would otherwise be stored in the grass is cut off and released to the atmosphere via decay.

    To be fair, the grass only releases what it initially took out of the atmosphere, so there’s no net release of carbon. And grass lawns probably do sequester slightly more carbon than gravel lawns, both because of the standing plant biomass and leaving some humus in the soil (though this may max out after a few decades).

    1. Thanks Brian, and good clarification, I’ll edit the post to reflect that. Is it plausible that any net carbon is removed from the ground and eventually released to the atmosphere via mowing?

      1. (Obviously, I’m not an expert.) Mowing short can reduce root growth, so mowing might slightly reduce stored carbon compared with not mowing. However, graveling the lawn would eventually lead to no roots at all, since any old roots would decompose.

        My guess is that the amounts of biomass we’re talking about here are pretty small compared with, say, what a tree could store. I don’t have the numbers in front of me, but it’s plausible that converting 1 hectare of grassland to forest and 9 hectares of grassland to gravel would result in net carbon sequestration.

          1. > seems to suggest that grass stores more CO2 per hectare

            Hm, which part says that? 🙂 My read is the opposite. In fact, it seems to agree with the “10 times” number that I just made up: “forests are typically more than 10 times as effective as grasslands at storing carbon on a hectare per hectare basis.”

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