The Least We Can Do

Summers are short in Vermont. You can feel this one beginning to slip away already with the recent chill in the evening air. It seems, however, that from the minute the snow melts until it falls again, someone is running a gas-powered engine within one hundred yards of my house.

Power mowers, weed whackers, leaf blowers, chain saws and wood chippers – they overlap and blend into an almost-constant symphony of aggravating noise through what would otherwise be the most blissful season of the year.

I’ll give you the chain saws and wood chippers. A city crew was in the neighborhood yesterday, trimming overhanging branches from the roadways and chipping the branches. Trimming branches by hand would take forever and chipping would be impossible. (The chips were taken to our local wood-burning electric plant.)

Gas-powered lawn mowers, on the other hand, seem foolish. I live in a neighborhood of one-eighth acre lots. No one’s going to drop dead of exertion from cutting the grass in a back yard on my street with a human-powered mower.

Worse, the one-cylinder, two-stroke engines in lawn mowers (and weed whackers and leaf blowers) are extraordinarily inefficient. Witness the clouds of blue smoke and oily smell that issue from these engines when they’re fired up. The average lawn mower engine emits four times as much pollution per hour of use than the average automobile. There are no catalytic converters to catch pollutants and no mufflers to catch noise. (The same holds true – in spades – for those other destroyers of summertime peace, personal watercraft.)

The EPA estimates that 17 million gallons of gas are spilled every year while filling lawn equipment. That’s spilled, not used. Seventeen million gallons is one and a half times as much oil as was spilled by the Exxon Valdez. The Humvee parked down at the corner is still as an offensive sight as it ever was, but Lawn Boys and Toros should also start looking that way to us.

Tuesday was a remarkable day in our social history. For the first time, I saw an article in a mainstream media outlet – the Washington Post, in this case – that seriously discussed the possibility that world oil supplies are close to their peak and that demand for oil is outstripping supply.

On one hand, our supply of oil is diminishing, you can argue amongst yourselves how rapidly. On the other hand, we need to drastically reduce the amount of carbon dioxide we put into the atmosphere. As I’ve noted recently (and you can expect to see this over and over) we have eight years to prevent runaway global warming. This is the situation in which we find ourselves and yet, rather than use rakes and brooms, we move leaves around with gas-powered leaf blowers. Rather than trim grass around the edge of the garden with hand clippers (hell, I just let it grow), we use a gas-powered weed whacker.

I don’t want to sound too pious here. Thirty-five years ago, my brother and I cut the grass with a hand-pushed reel mower. We begged our dad for a power mower. (It was cash consciousness, rather than environmental consciousness that dictated his thoughts on the subject.) Finally he gave in and bought a bright green Lawn Boy. Yes, it was easier than the hand mower, but my brother and I soon learned that walking around in circles in the back yard was just as hot and tedious as it had been with the old mower.

A generation and a half later, I still hate cutting the grass. Perhaps if I were more courageous, I’d turn my tiny yard into something like the meadow or forest that was here before the white people showed up and started blasting their engines.

We have eight years left. Eight years in which we need to do things. We had ten years, but we spent the first two making things worse, not better, which means the sacrifices we’ll have to make in the remaining years will have to be more painful. If we continue to insist on burning gas for the simplest of chores that we could do by hand, there’s not much reason for hope.

© Mark Floegel, 2008

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