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.