New Times,
New Thinking.

  1. The Staggers
1 May 2023

No, you can’t defend plastic lawns

They represent a right to harm the environment, not a right to bad taste.

By India Bourke

As I write this, a small bird – perhaps a spotted flycatcher or a turtle dove – is somewhere on its long journey from Africa to breed in a British woodland, park or garden near you. Many will not make it through the Sahara desert’s searing heat, or even that of Spain, which, ravaged by drought, is bracing for record-high temperatures. So surely the least we can do is ensure this epic traveller has a green and nourishing place to rest on final arrival – one where the grass has been left to grow long enough to support the fast-disappearing insects on which our birds depend?

That can’t happen, however, if our lawns are made of plastic. Which is why I cannot agree with my colleague Will Dunn, who wrote recently that plastic lawns should not be banned in new housing developments. No one, least of all me, wants to be the taste-police. But neither do I think we should champion individual freedom to the point of compromising other species’ right to flourish and exist.

You may not think it matters much either way how we manage our gardens (those of us who are lucky enough to have one at all). But it has huge implications: the UK’s gardens now add up to more space than all our national nature reserves combined (and 97 per cent of our wildflower meadows have been destroyed since the 1930s).

[See also: Addressing plastic pollution on a global scale]

Dunn – who is winsomely humorous even when sabre-rattling – says he is worried that there is a “whiff of snobbery and meanness” about those condemning plastic lawns, and says he will defend people’s right to bad taste. But he has misdirected his wrath. Plastic lawns may be an affront to the high-maintenance style made aspirational by eighteenth-century aristocrats, but really, their manicured aesthetic still replicates their vision of authoritarian control. To recoil against plastic lawns is in fact to recoil against an imposition of conformity on natural abundance. Among those tagging the @shitlawns Twitter page which retweets images of unbecoming plastic lawns, is the acclaimed author and bumblebee expert, Dave Goulson, who is calling for a plastic lawn ban on account of its impact on wildlife.

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Above all, Dunn’s argument risks playing into the right-wing side of a culture war that argues that self interest mustn’t be compromised by efforts to protect the environment for the greater good. The same logic, by extension, would allow people to keep driving gas-guzzling 4x4s rather than introduce legislation that makes it easier to travel by public transport or electric cars. In resisting pressure to meet social norms, we should not fall into demanding freedom at all costs.

A better approach at being truly radical and unruly would involve letting our grass all hang out and weeds, wildflowers and insects return. As the Royal Horticultural Society told the New Statesman: “A mixed mown lawn, with some clover and daisies for example, makes a good family lawn and is beneficial for wildlife too.” Instead of using the lawn mower and herbicide, we could start by embracing “No Mow May”. Begun by the conservation group Plantlife in 2019, the trend’s advocates now reach from David Attenborough to the town of Appleton, Wisconsin. The cause connects our patch of earth (or window-box) to a wider, wilder movement that hopes to restore nature on a grand scale. Even the 6 Music DJ Lauren Laverne (the apex of cool) is now encouraging us all to “rewiggle” our way through the world.

How we think about lawns is indicative of our hopes and responsibilities towards the natural world at large. Protecting the greater good can begin at home. Or rather, in the back garden.

[See also: How the UK can fight global plastic pollution]

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