God, lawn and me

Posted on | May 24, 2012 | 21 Comments

Sitting on the kitchen table is a rebate form from the local water company that I can’t bring myself to sign. Admittedly, a tidy slug of cash would be welcome for having replaced a toilet with an aquarium-sized tank with a low-flow version, and for having smothered and replaced a water-hungry backyard lawn with a mix of food and native plants that require a fraction of the water and provide many times the benefits. But even touching the rebate form feels corrupt. What kind of person expects to be paid for an act that is the opposite of sacrifice?

Using less water costs less in many ways, from the check written to gardeners for weekly mowing and blowing, to a reduced monthly water bill to ultimately what should be cheaper taxes for carting away green waste and composting it in civic heaps. The joys of eating plums over grass clippings seem self evident. The change from lawn to garden costs, this is true. But soon after conversion, the savings start accruing to the tune of thousands of dollars a year, enough over time for a family to send kids to college. So why would anyone expect to be paid to do it? What’s next? Expecting bribes from MasterCard to not overspend? Yet as we in California approach the end of a yet another disappointing water year, it’s inevitable that arguments will renew over whether or not citizens of the dry West should be enticed out of our disastrously wet habits by rebates, or be expected to haul ourselves out of them because it’s the right and thrifty thing to do.

I don’t know the answer to that debate. But even if I did, beyond whatever short-term water savings might be achieved out of rebates, the larger question remains: What ultimately will it take to change our collective way? Staggering price hikes? Scary newspaper articles in one section and helpful hints in another? After many years of writing both kinds of articles, I don’t see anything game-changing happening until, to borrow a line from a progressive official at the Long Beach Water Department, “having a lawn is the moral equivalent of smoking in a neo-natal intensive care unit.”

Which brings us to morality and what kind of world we are bequeathing to coming generations. Once upon a time, I would have sought guidance from my church. I was baptized Episcopalian, confirmed in no less than the National Cathedral, and as an adult find myself yearning for the solace of a temple where God’s translator was William Tyndale. My natural home is All Saints Church, Pasadena. Yet like a gay person denied Change You Can Believe In by Proposition 8, I am a conservationist profoundly alienated from the church I was born into by sprinklers, lawnmowers and the recognition of how these are richly symbolic drivers of an environmental collapse that means my nieces and nephews may never experience even a fraction of the wonder that I did at natural America. Their children may be left to conduct the autopsies of our rivers, deltas and oceans. Anguish at this is so acute that I find myself godless. Until All Saints rips out its lawn, until it’s official that its God, who was once my God, is anything but OK with our wholesale destruction of the West, I have no church other than native plant nurseries and the Long Beach Water Department. And it is in this Godless world that lapsed Episcopalians like me struggle without sorely-needed guidance as how to deal with rebate forms. 



21 Responses to “God, lawn and me”

  1. rhett beavers
    May 24th, 2012 @ 10:21 pm

    Thank you Emily.

  2. David Zetland
    May 25th, 2012 @ 12:31 am

    Surely a perverse church that’s in charge now, that they sell you cheap water and then pay you to not use it.

    I’d prefer a single message: water is precious and we will charge you for it. People can then make their own financial and moral decisions on how to behave.

  3. Matt Heberger
    May 25th, 2012 @ 9:04 am

    Emily, you are what economists call a “free rider,” someone who would have done the right thing even without the incentive. As such, you are a drain on the public purse!

    But seriously… water managers today find themselves in the the position where water demand often exceeds supply, especially during drought years. There are really only two options: increase supply or decrease demand. Both of those cost the utility money.

    Many utilities have find that demand management programs (like rebates and incentives) are a LOT cheaper and better for the environment than drilling new wells or paying to import water from another watershed, even where those options are available.

    How much would it cost LA DWP to purchase an extra acre-foot of water? How many rebate checks do they have to write to secure an acre-foot of savings? Conserved water is equivalent to new supply!

    My advice is to go ahead and cash that check. And then tell your neighbors about it, blog about it, send tweets.. Helping to publicize the program and encourage others should help to assuage your guilt. 🙂

    Agreed with DZ though that a lot of these programs would be unnecessary if water were more expensive. But it seems there is a revolt every time anyone mentions raising rates.

  4. Lex
    May 25th, 2012 @ 9:15 am


    You may want to come and visit Neighborhood Unitarian Church in Pasadena. We have a wonderful water reclamation system and lots of responsible landscaping, with just a small (relative to the size of the campus) patch of lawn used for easter egg hunts and other activities.

  5. Janis Hatlestad
    May 25th, 2012 @ 9:50 am

    Timing is so incredible on so many levels! As I respond here, I am mulling over how to engage with my church, St. Luke Lutheran, as we seek to better present our physical space in worship. Feel God calling me to help this community see a better way of stewarding resources, but I know the way is not going to be easy. Recently, a colleague of ours in the native plant world told me “Janis, I love the muck that you rake!” Afraid my fellow parishioners will feel anything but enamored of this concept. Still, we need to press on. All Saints’ needs you, Emily. God told me so.

  6. EmilyGreen
    May 25th, 2012 @ 10:29 am

    Deep thanks to all the commenters. David, I’m coming around to your stance that until prices reflect the real cost of water, we’ll waste it, with disastrous consequences. Lex, count me in for a visit to the Neighborhood Unitarian Church. I’ve also noticed a water trapping system at a Presbyterian Church on Lake Avenue. I salute both churches. Janis, power to your elbow. Matt, good points. A funny observation. As the City of Los Angeles Department of Rec & Parks publicly ruminated last winter as to how they would pay to replace the City Hall lawn trampled by Occupy LA with something less environmentally backward, they mentioned a big funding source being the city’s own cash-for-grass rebate program, which itself goes in and out of funds like but not necessarily in step with that of its parent agency Metropolitan. The only thing clear about the way those programs come and go is that we move money around as creatively as we do water. I’ve always supported rebates publicly, but privately, well, this free rider is not so sure.

    What drove this post beyond my own desire to join All Saints but inability to cross what amounts to me to a sharply mown, emerald green picket line, was a WaterWired post of a lecture by Oregon-based philosopher Kathleen Dean Moore. Her theme: Do we have a moral obligation to the future? In the lecture, she likened water shortages and climate change to an asteroid that everyone knew was coming.

    “We know that immediate action by us is the thing that can change the direction of this asteroid,” she says, “But that knowledge hasn’t moved us to action … So the question I would ask is: What’s missing?” According to Moore, the ever-louder warnings of scientists aren’t enough. We need to actively decide that it’s wrong to wreck the world. So obvious. It’s wrong to wreck the world.

    It will be a great day when All Saints absorbs this and joins the Unitarians and Presbyterians in wearing this conviction in its front yard. The Moore lecture:


  7. Brent (Breathing Treatment)
    May 25th, 2012 @ 11:34 am

    I love that we’ve come back to the moral question but hate that it’s buried down in the comments. Policies at their heart ought to derive from our answer to moral questions. But too often we lead with the science or the data and use it alone to drive policy. That’s wrong-headed for everyone but scientists and analysts. Morals drive policy goals. Science and data tell us how to achieve those goals.

    For example, the message conservationists often give is something like, “Global warming requires that we conserve”, but that leaves out the whole morals question.

    What they ought to first be saying is, “We have an obligation to give our children and their children the same or better world that we have.” or “Extinction of species is wrong.” Then they can make an argument for the broad objective that, “We need to conserve.” Finally, policy flows from data and we can say things like, “Given trends in climate and water supply issues, given our present understanding of ecology, etc, we ought to reduce water consumption. One step is to eliminate X% of lawns.”

    I love data, but as a country the discussion over climate and policy seems mired in the data instead of the morals.

    Churches seem a likely place to start this discussion because people are used to having discussions about moral action in a church context. How about contacting your church and asking if you can relandscape for them because it’s the morally right thing to do?

    So cash the rebate. Use it to relandscape the Church lawn. Or don’t. Donate the cash to a native plant advocacy group or the Trust for Public Land or any number of worthy institutions.

  8. Jessica Hall
    May 25th, 2012 @ 3:55 pm

    While we’re at it, how about those fields of asphalt for church parking that are only filled up on Sundays, just soaking up the heat six out of seven days? Between that and the lawns (and ivy etc) we’re looking at a very unhealthy footprint. Glad to learn about the church mentioned above that is practicing sustainability.

  9. Steve Bloom
    May 25th, 2012 @ 8:56 pm

    Brent, I would say that’s because conservationists share those values and would like to believe that they’re universal (which they’re not). At the same time, liberals generally don’t like to force their values on others, a hesitancy not shared by conservatives.

  10. Janis Hatlestad
    May 26th, 2012 @ 6:45 pm

    Tagging onto to Jessica’s theme, this county is rife with underutilized church built spaces (not just parking)… and why stop with churches? In this economy, there’s an abundance of empty and/or underemployed built spaces — homes, restaurants, storefronts, even our neighborhood’s former Fire Station — many lacking code compliance. Churches and others are hanging on, hoping for dollars to come in like manna from heaven.

    Upon learning that even trespassers can sue if they trip and fall on a poorly maintained parking lot, the little congregation I belong to finally quit being the neighborhood free parking lot (read: door mat.) Area businesses now pay to rent designated parking spaces. With no small amount of discomfort, after resurfacing our lot, we have now become parking lot managers. It’s neither glamorous nor high on the sustainability scale, but at least it’s a bit of service to the community. For us, I hope, it’s only one step. Meanwhile, our space is used by two different church congregations, meeting on Sunday and other days, five Alcoholics Anonymous groups, Boy Scouts, Girl Scouts, and local Neighborhood Watch group. In addition, we provide the venue for a series of concerts to support our local Food Pantry. This is one church parking lot that is never empty!

    More churches in urban and suburban areas maybe should get creative in partnering with other faith-based groups, secular non-profits, even government agencies, to find complementary uses for facilities so that built environments can be properly maintained, fully utilized, and brought into current code compliance. Not to mention, sustainably managed. Perhaps, by example, then lead the way to a more sustainable future in our communities.

  11. EmilyGreen
    May 26th, 2012 @ 8:17 pm

    Interesting comments everyone. Jessica Hall related in a personal communication that she once found a church parking lot zoned by the city of Los Angeles as “open space.” What’s clear whether parking lots are used every day or several days or one day is that parking lot design has a long way to go. One of the first things Katy Moss Warner said when she assumed directorship of the American Horticultural Society in 2002 or so was that she’d like to see church parking lots unpaved to ameliorate urban heat island effect. I wish she had more executive powers. I remember not long after that when trying to do a piece on church gardens having trouble finding church gardens in Los Angeles because land around churches, where it existed, generally served as parking lots. Or, in the case of some, such as St James in mid-Wilshire, as a (largely paved) playground for a private school. At the time, during the construction of Our Lady of the Angels, the lovely old garden to the original catholic cathedral, St Vibs, was gated and locked and never lovelier than when abandoned and thus protected from mowers and blowers. My longing is that whatever landscaping institutions such as churches and city halls have reflect the highest environmental values. Until we see our moral leaders and policy setters doing as they would have us do, then I reckon we’re stuck in the “do as I say, not as I do” cycle. Or worse, because many churches are not taking stands on this. Interestingly, while the Church of Latter Day Saints has to many minds, including mine, repellent social policy, it is way out in front of more notionally progressive churches on environmental issues; it stood up a generation ago against the MX missile track and has stepped up again against the Vegas pipeline. But it would. It’s based in the second driest state in the country and Vegas wants its water. Which brings me, abruptly and not necessarily logically, to the long neglected shade ordinance for LA parking lots. Was it a tree for every five spaces? Could churches lead on observing that? Anyway, what great comments and, to everyone, thank you.

  12. Bob
    May 29th, 2012 @ 7:55 am

    Great article.
    You could use the rebate to buy more native plants.
    Denver Water offers rebates to commercial customers who install irrigation devices. The idea of putting in landscapes that need no irrigation apparently hasn’t occurred to anyone.
    New homeowners are required to have proof that their soil has been amended with organic matter before a new tap can be installed.
    A front-yard garden like mine, which has not been irrigated since 1987 and survived .7 inch precip the last half of 2011, would not be possible with this policy. It depends on mycorrhizae, not peat moss.

  13. Lin
    June 1st, 2012 @ 12:12 am

    Have you seen the Learning Garden installed over many weeks by NELA Transition at Throop Unitarian Church? It combines food-producing plants, shade trees, native plants, a swale. That seems to me leadership in the use of church land.

  14. Maddie Gavel-Briggs
    June 1st, 2012 @ 8:44 am

    Really, I am a bit slack-jawed that you find the (rather small) patch of lawn at All Saints offensive enough not to attend church there. I don’t know you or your spiritual bend, but to cast out wholesale a church community that does such a great deal of good seems like cutting off your nose to spite your face. In All Saint’s renovation plans, what is the prospect of lawn-free grounds? Have you approached the Sustainable World folks and pitched a plan to replace the lawn?
    I am all for replacing grass and would be thrilled if All Saints did so to the current quad; and yet, I am aware that that patch also serves some good for the many small ministries that serve countless causes and people each week. Parish folk stand or sit on the grass and enjoy the lushness while creating community. In other words, it is more than just an idle water-sucking accessory like all or most of the expansive lawns that define the streets of Pasadena.

  15. Becky Powell
    June 1st, 2012 @ 8:46 am

    “having a lawn is the moral equivalent of smoking in a neo-natal intensive care unit.” YES!

    You could give the money to water.org…

  16. EmilyGreen
    June 1st, 2012 @ 11:31 am

    Again, thanks to all the commenters. Maddie, especially you. I value the dissent. That said, the choice to hold up All Saints was deliberate precisely because it’s such a good place that should be leading by example and isn’t. I have in fact attended services there and it was a difficult choice not to return. I was profoundly moved by Ed Bacon’s sermon on how to really make a difference, we have to move out of our comfort zones. I have donated flowers for the services. I’ve written suggesting the church study “Moral Ground” by Kathleen Dean Moore (I got a note back saying it had been referred to an environment committee.) I’m sorry to leave anyone slack-jawed, but as impertinent as this sounds, “Welcome to my world.” In common with the gay friends who in 2004 told straight progressives like me, “Sorry to be politically inconvenient in an election year but we’re not stepping aside this time,” I’m not stepping aside anymore. Not one more time. For my gay friends, it was a social justice issue, the right to wed and serve openly in the armed forces. For me, it’s environmental justice. Any church that has a lawn in this era of climate change and Western water shortages is endorsing waste and showing indifference to the ultimate toll to be shouldered by future generations. It’s positively Bourbon of them. Arguments about acceptable uses of lawn are not relevant here; people don’t go to church to play soccer and there are nurturing, green landscapes that are far less wasteful to maintain. Of all places, churches should understand symbolism and leading by example. There is no way wider society will change when moral leaders pass the buck. No, I’m exactly where my gay friends were in 2004 with the Democrats. No More Vague Promises About Change. About justice. No more “later,” “next time,” “write the committee.” Now. Now is good.

  17. Mr. Kurtz
    June 3rd, 2012 @ 2:56 pm

    Just do what you would do anyway, and refuse the rebate. Like the tote bags that PBS stations try to give away, if that motivates some folks, let them do it. Just tell the company you don’t want one.
    As far as lawns go, there are a lot more important things in finding a church home than the landscaping. I don’t like some of the modern liturgy, but that does not keep me out of Grace Cathedral, or (even worse) wanting to go to some place that has outward trappings I like, but a mean and narrow heart. I’m actually surprised All Saint’s isn’t more on the ball eco-wise, but perhaps some very generous supporter likes their lawn; that’s an acceptable price to pay for their support, if it is helping vital ministries. Why don’t you ask them?
    Anyway, glad to see you are coming around to the idea of the market delivering the best solution (for water, that is!)

  18. Cindy
    June 3rd, 2012 @ 10:47 pm

    Perhaps the best way to shade any sunny parking lot is with solar panels. One of the parking lots at the Sierra College campus in Rocklin, California has such an installation.

  19. God, Lawn and Me on Ecocentric Blog | Food, Water and Energy Issues
    June 4th, 2012 @ 11:01 am

    […] Read the Article […]

  20. BC
    June 7th, 2012 @ 12:32 pm

    One thing that has confused me in thinking about water conservation, that I hope you won’t find ridiculous: Does conserving water mean that more water is then available for sprawling development? Would appreciate your thoughts.

  21. Laura Camp
    June 21st, 2012 @ 11:37 am

    Emily, fantastic article, and your cry to speak of and not be silenced or convenient anymore really spoke to me.

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