Ran Prieur again:

June 23. Zimbabwe bans urban farming (dead link unrecoverable). They make ecological excuses but the real reason is to keep people dependent on the domination system for their food. Police threaten to destroy the crops, and they urge people to plant flowers and lawns! Here in America we have the same rule, but it’s enforced with subtle propaganda associating flowers and nice lawns and clean (dead) supermarket food with higher social status. In a few years when we get desperate, they might have to use the police, or robot aircraft loaded with herbicides.

Lawns take a lot of effort — you have to mow the damned things every week or two, and if you want to get them to be green and free from weeds, you have to put in that effort too — and produce nothing but status. Why do we have lawns?

My father once told me that, one year when he was growing up, his father got it into his head to have the best lawn in the neighborhood, so he set all his children to mowing, watering, and weeding it, which was apparently a lot of work.

Around here, the biggest ‘weeds’ are dandelions — they’re edible (that is, useful) and they don’t look bad, but the status-game says you have to get rid of them.

My mother used to have a cherry tree in her yard. Half of it was dead, but the other half put out some cherries every summer. The thing was ugly, because half of it was dead, but it was useful. She kept it against the protests of her neighbors until her lawn service cut it down — which she couldn’t stop because none of them spoke English.

Lawns are useless, and dandelions and cherry trees are useful. The status-game of the lawn requires burning utility. This is not an uncommon pattern: conspicuous consumption is the same way.

It’s possible to have status-games that protect utility: the old Calvinist status-game of frugality is explicitly oriented against conspicuous consumption. A penny saved is a penny earned, so if you don’t save your pennies, you’re one of the poors. The problem is that there are always forces aligned against this — if you grow your own food, it doesn’t get counted in the GDP, and if you save your pennies, you’re not passing them off to some corporation to let them get the larger profit margins that come from the exchange of money for status* — so it requires a great deal of coordination (and a great deal of coordination-promoting homogeneity) to protect it. The Calvinist virtues are not very popular anymore.

* I’m guessing here; I don’t actually know whether the profit margins are larger. Status is a form of value, so imbuing a product with status means it can be sold for a higher price than otherwise, but maybe it’s made up for by advertising costs or something.

6 responses to “Lawns

  1. Amy October 22, 2014 at 9:30 pm

    Lawns are useful for feeding cows, goats, sheep, or geese. A healthy, well kept lawn is also cool, soft, and plesant for children. But it need not take up the whole yard.

    • Exfernal November 6, 2014 at 3:45 pm

      Direct grazing means animals crapping on your lawn. Patches of less tasty grass are left out. Haymaking is a lot of work too and requires weather without rain and some shed to gather it inside. How much area is necessary to feed a SINGLE cow?

  2. sconzey October 22, 2014 at 10:35 pm

    Strongly disagree. This is perhaps still true of US suburbia, but in both the small UK town where I grew up and the major metropolis where I now live those self-sustaining Calvinist ideals are high-status. I work on a trading desk, but at parties people are a lot more interested in my winemaking and breadmaking.

    My wife is a keen baker, and her home-baked goodies always draw envious looks from my male colleagues: “You’re so lucky to have such a skilled wife! She should start her own catering company!” and slightly snarky comments from my female colleagues: “I let my husband do all the cooking tee hee!”

    Because in today’s society to achieve a middle-class lifestyle you have to have a two-earner household, with both earners having ‘full jobs’ — nothing low-stress or part-time. There’s two effects going on here:
    1. Having the free time and inclination to acquire the necessary skills– there’s definitely a focus on what’s useful. Another white-collar friend of mine expressed a desire to be able to do woodworking and joinery like both of our grandfathers were able and expected to do.
    2. Particularly where my wife is concerned, there’s an element of many modern women resenting the fact that they have to work as hard and in similar jobs to their husbands, aspiring to be homemakers like their grandmothers. My wife knits as well as bakes, and many of her friends have expressed an interest and a desire in taking up this hobby too.

    None of them have lawns. If their house has an outside space, they have plastic grass.

    • nydwracu October 23, 2014 at 12:22 am

      It’s important to distinguish here between skills that are actually useful and skills that one adopts as proof that one has the free time to adopt useless skills.

      If learning woodworking and joinery would save you time and/or money on net, it’s individually Calvinist; if not, it’s sacrificing for status.

      If it’s generally known within your social context that learning woodworking and joinery would save you time and/or money on net, doing so is Calvinist within your social context; if not, it’s sacrificing for status.

      If it’s generally known within your social context that a lot of people, for economic reasons, don’t have the time to take up things that would be useful to them, Calvinism merges with sacrificing for status: being able to put those once-Calvinist virtues into practice is a demonstration of wealth. I don’t know what to make of this case, but I suspect it’s what’s behind most of what may appear as a revival of the Calvinist virtue of frugality in America: hobbies are taken up not to save money, but to signal free time, which signals wealth. (And perhaps to signal other traits: conscientiousness, ability to learn things, and so on.)

      I don’t think I’ve ever seen plastic grass in place of a lawn.

  3. Pingback: Lawns | Reaction Times

  4. Daniel May 13, 2015 at 3:18 am

    Speaking of trees, what’s with people (particularly urbanites) and other peoples’ trees? Either they get upset when you won’t take down a tree on your property, or they get upset when you do take down a tree on your property. People go crazy when it comes to other people’s trees, and not over stuff you’d expect them to, like roots clogging plumbing or maple pods carpetbombing the neighborhood. Heck, being in an area that’s natively a forest/prairie fringe, most of these trees are unnatural and still people get worked up over them.

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