What is low-hanging fruit?

The phrase low-hanging fruit refers to easy and effective ways to begin solving a complex problem.

This phrase is often used in business. If there is some simple process change that your organization could implement to increase efficiency and make customers happier, that is low-hanging fruit.

The phrase can also be used in our daily lives. For example, consider the problem of cleaning your house. Sorting through all the clutter in the attic is a daunting challenge. But maybe, in half an hour, you could straighten up the stuff that has accumulated on the kitchen table, and make the heart of your home feel neater and brighter. That’s low-hanging fruit.

What is the low-hanging fruit when it comes to solving our present environmental crises? America’s greenhouse gas emissions are mostly coming from the transportation sector, but addressing that means changing the whole way we move people and goods, and that’s a complicated problem. The way we produce food is wiping out wildlife habitat, destroying soil, and polluting water sources, but fixing these problems means overhauling our entire farming system, and that’s a huge, thorny challenge.

What can we do, right now, to help slow or even reverse the damage to our environment?

We can change the way we garden in our yards.

Imagine if everyone just stopped doing yard work: no more mowing, no more leafblowing, no more watering, no more spraying of pesticides. As That Blog has documented for three and a half years, this would have rapid and meaningful environmental benefits: less greenhouse gas emissions, less toxic chemicals in our environment, less water pollution, less water waste, less noise, more wildlife habitat, better human health and wellbeing – and, as we sit back, relax, and solve all these problems by simply letting plants do what they naturally do, there is virtually no evidence that some other set of problems will crop up.

This past October, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change – a working group of nearly 100 leading climate scientists from dozens of countries – released a report stating that we have barely a dozen years to take drastic action to protect and restore our environment. Achieving the targets the scientists say we must reach will mean that we must rapidly make massive changes to the way we travel, the way we produce food, the way we build our houses, and many other aspects of our lives.

If we fail to immediately tackle the low-hanging fruit – if we do not stop burning fossil fuels to prevent plants from growing, if we do not stop using disposable items when perfectly good reusable alternatives are available, if we do not stop spraying toxic chemicals to kill harmless insects – there would seem to be little hope that we will make meaningful progress on the actually difficult challenges that we must solve in order to save our civilization and our planet.

What is low-hanging fruit?

What are shifting baselines?

Shifting baselines refers to a change in what people think is normal.

For most of history, the world around us changed very slowly. People didn’t see things becoming different during their own lifetimes, and didn’t realize that their environment was not quite the same as what their great-grandparents had experienced. The slow change in reality, from generation to generation, without a corresponding awareness of the change, is an example of shifting baselines.

Experts now think that shifting baselines are part of the reason for why megafauna – huge animals – disappeared from North America. Our continent used to be populated by mammoths, giant sloths, camels, and other kinds of big wildlife. Now, all of these species are gone. Why?

Experts think that these animals were hunted to extinction by humans, but very slowly. The early human inhabitants of North America probably only killed a few members of each species every year. But, because large animals reproduce so slowly, even this was enough to cause a gradual decline in their populations.

The key word is gradual – each generation of humans saw the number of large animals they shared their world with, and didn’t realize that that number was somewhat less than it had been in the past. By the time it became clear to people that the animals they liked to hunt were heading towards extinction, it was too late for those species to recover.

Today, we notice that we don’t see many animals in our yards. But most of us are not really aware of how many animals we don’t see. Not knowing that the total number of birds in North America used to be a billion more than it is today, not realizing that the total number of wild mammals on our planet is less than half what it was a few decades ago, we take the absence of animals in our neighborhoods as disappointing but not unusual. Our baselines have shifted.

Now, though, things are changing so quickly that we do notice the differences within our own lifetime. People of a certain age recall that the skies used to be filled with monarch butterflies in the fall, but now we see only a few of these beloved travelers during migration season. People remember when there was more nature in our communities. People remember when there were not so many severe storms.

The speed with which damage to our environment is happening is, in a lot of ways, bad news. But the silver lining may be that we can see the changes occurring. This means that, instead of complacently thinking that the world has always been this way and there is nothing wrong, we can point to the changes we don’t like, remind ourselves that things used to be better, and demand that our society stop moving down a dangerous path.

What are shifting baselines?

What happens when lawns are replaced with thriving plants? #2

The neighborhood becomes more attractive.

Urban greenery “doesn’t just beautify the city,” begins an article published in an Italian newspaper last February. And the article isn’t talking about lawns. It specifies that the gardens in question contain trees and bushes, and the feature image depicts drifts of tall grass. Yet the author seems to take it as an uncontroversial fact that these types of plantings are beautiful, listing this virtue of healthy vegetation right alongside “screening out noise” and “filtering pollutants from the air.”

Crime goes down.

The real focus of the article is an experiment in Philadelphia, in which researchers established gardens in small abandoned lots. In the months after the gardens were installed, police records showed that crime in the areas near the gardens decreased markedly, compared to the months before the planting took place. Thefts decreased by 22%, while shootings dropped by 30%.

Some people think that lush plantings create places for criminals to hide, or that they have a neglected look that encourages criminal behavior. But the article specifically contrasts the new gardens with the “broken windows” conditions that contribute to drug dealing, prostitution, and other unsavory activities.

People’s lives are better.

The improvement in public safety was obvious to the residents of the communities that hosted the new gardens. The article reports that people who lived near the plantings felt less fear of moving around the neighborhood, and were able to visit and enjoy the green space in their community. Exposure to green space is known to have a wide variety of positive impacts on human health and well-being, meaning that people living near the gardens received benefits far beyond a reduction in crime.

And these benefits did not come with a steep price tag. The researchers spent only $5 per square meter for the initial installation of the gardens, and $0.50 per square meter for maintenance over the course of the study. Comparing the costs of these urban green spaces to their benefits, the researchers concluded that law enforcement officials and public health workers alike should invest resources in greening our cities.

 

Given all the benefits that healthy plantings provide, we all should be transitioning our own spaces from low-value turf grass to air-cleaning water-filtering community-beautifying crime-stopping native landscaping. Moreover, we should be demanding that our local authorities do likewise on city-owned property, and that they create rules or incentives to move our reluctant neighbors in the same direction. When thriving vegetation provides so many benefits with so few drawbacks, there’s simply no reason to delay.

What happens when lawns are replaced with thriving plants? #2

What happens when lawns are replaced with thriving plants? #1

The people responsible for the change win awards.

A few years ago, mainly due to the efforts of one resident, a homeowner’s association in Colorado organized residents to change how they landscaped. The neighborhood converted 250 private gardens from lawn and pruned shrubbery to native plants, replaced turf grass in sidewalk strips with alternative plantings, and added vegetable gardens. After making this change in their own neighborhood, community leaders engaged in advocacy work to persuade homeowners in other neighborhoods to do the same thing.

These leaders, through their homeowner’s association, won no fewer than three awards, including one from a wildlife-focused non-profit, one from a non-profit that focuses on conserving water, and one from Colorado’s state government.

The property owners see tremendous savings on their water bills.

It was actually the water issue – not concerns about wildlife or about sustainability in general – that first prompted these local leaders to do something about their landscaping. By replacing lawn with less thirsty plants, and by watering the remaining lawn through more efficient methods, the homeowner’s association reduced their water usage by a staggering 15 million gallons per year. The residents of the neighborhood, who had been splitting the total cost of the community’s water usage, saw dramatic savings on their utility bills. Plus, the local water company rewarded them with additional rebates for their conservation efforts.

Property values go up.

After slashing water consumption and changing the look of the neighborhood by adding vegetable gardens and native plants, the homeowner’s association noticed that the sale prices of condos in the community were going up. And this was not a coincidence or an unusual experience: a community in Illinois called Prairie Crossing was designed from the outset to incorporate native plantings and other lush vegetation, and people there remain in their homes for much longer than is typical in other communities. When residents of Prairie Crossing do move, it’s often just to a bigger or smaller house in the community as their life circumstances change.

 

Non-lawn alternatives are still unfamiliar to many people, prompting fears about the negative impacts they may bring about. But in reality, people who have given up their lawns find that they enjoy huge financial savings, a more beautiful community, and broad appreciation for their efforts.

What happens when lawns are replaced with thriving plants? #1

Does having a natural yard make you a bad American?

Not at all.

Some people think that natural yards look messy, unattractive, and unmaintained. They take pride in mowing their lawns and pruning their shrubs, thinking that by doing so they are showing that they care for their property, and that this in turn makes them a good neighbor, a good citizen, and a good American.

But a recent book argues that America’s Founding Fathers were themselves devoted gardeners, and that the way they gardened – the way they thought about plants – bore little resemblance to the beliefs and habits of many Americans today.

Here is one particularly striking paragraph from Founding Gardeners: The Revolutionary Generation, Nature, and the Shaping of the American Nation, written by Andrea Wulf, and published in 2012:

“By the time Jefferson became president, many trees had been lost [in Washington DC, which at the time was still more of a wilderness than a city]. Most shocking of all, those on the grounds of the White House had been felled by Federalists* after the accession of the Republicans, one observer noted, ‘out of spite to them who cherished it.’ Enraged by Jefferson’s election, so the rumor went, his rivals had ordered the ancient trees to be cut down as a parting gesture, knowing how such vandalism would wound the new president, who regarded tree-felling as ‘a crime little short of murder.’ Jefferson was so furious at this unscrupulous destruction that shortly after he moved into the White House, the author of the Declaration of Independence was overheard making the rather surprising comment, ‘I wish I was a despot that I might save the noble, the beautiful trees that are daily falling.'” (page 148)

(*Jefferson was a member of the Republican Party, as it existed in his day. The opposing political party – of which departing President John Adams was a member – was called the Federalists.)

And here are some other fascinating facts from the book:

Many of the most important figures in the founding of America had strong feelings about the importance of gardening. The first four presidents of the United States – George Washington, John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, and James Madison – all couldn’t wait to retire from politics and go back to working on their farms, vegetable plots, and ornamental gardens.

The “Founding Gardeners” understood the importance of nature. The fourth President, James Madison – the person after whom Madison, Wisconsin is named – was the first major figure to publicly call for an end to deforestation in America.

In the opinion of the “Founding Gardeners”, conventional yards are un-American. Jefferson and Adams, while serving as ambassadors in Europe, observed that many people there were turning away from a formal style of gardening, seeing straight paths, pruned trees, and geometrical hedges as too dictatorial. These landowners thought that a free people should embrace a more natural look in their gardens. In other words, Americans who value independence and democracy should show it by letting garden plants follow their natural life courses.

The “Founding Gardeners” believed that native plants make America great. At his estate at Mount Vernon, Washington planted trees and shrubs from all over the thirteen states, but he did not allow any plants from Europe in his gardens. And, while some Europeans disparaged America by saying that the wildlife there was inferior, Jefferson sent samples demonstrating that the New World had bigger animals and more beautiful plants.

Being a good American means having a yard that reflects the natural plant communities of America. Being a good American means letting plants have their own life, liberty, and pursuit of vegetative happiness, rather than constantly imposing our own will on them.

America invented the idea of national parks. Having nature in our yards shows that we share the longstanding American values of respecting and conserving our natural environment.

Does having a natural yard make you a bad American?

Is it like this everywhere?

As described in several recent posts, people who don’t like naturally-growing plants often try to shut down people who do by claiming that liking nature is strange and wrong. Sometimes this claim shows up in the form of the argument “It’s like this everywhere.” That is, every town insists on frequently-mowed grass and harshly-pruned trees, and anyone who doesn’t agree with this consensus on how to treat plants is just an odd person with a fringe opinion.

But it isn’t true that it’s “like this everywhere”.

In most other countries, lawns have never been a common feature of residential yards. Even in the United States, where lawns achieved a level of popularity never seen anywhere else in the world, the pendulum is now swinging the other way. Communities all over the country now encourage native plants. Increasingly, Americans towns and cities are banning lawns.

The habit of pruning shrubs into geometrical shapes – a hallmark of American gardening in the 1970s – is hardly universal either. In Sweden, gardeners do sometimes prune shrubs. But they don’t let their aesthetic preferences overrule the needs of other species. If a Swedish gardener finds a bird’s nest in a hedge, she’ll leave an oddly-shaped lump on the bush rather than harming the nest in the pursuit of a perfectly straight line.

It is also untrue that people all over the world casually destroy trees whenever they find the trees a little inconvenient. In the city of Curitiba, Brazil, property owners cannot cut down trees in their own yards unless they get a permit first – and the permit always requires homeowners to plant two new trees for every one that is destroyed. Rather than making it easy for residents to complain that they don’t like their neighbor’s native flowers, Curitiba’s leaders instead have created a dedicated phone line for people to report that someone is killing a tree without a permit.

How we treat plants is a choice, not a universal law. Compare the stories of two countries: Japan is a densely-populated island nation with few resources, yet two-thirds of it is covered with forest. In part this is due to Japan’s climate and topography, which favor rapid tree growth while making logging difficult. But it is also largely due to choices, made over centuries, to value and protect forests.

Conversely, Australia’s climate historically made it the least-forested continent. Yet, today, Australia is logging its forests at one of the highest rates in the world, losing 100 trees for every one that is replanted.

We can choose to treat plants as living beings, not as yard decorations. We can choose to treat them as members of our communities, rather than as our personal property, to be destroyed whenever we decide we don’t like them anymore. We can choose to value what plants do for us when they’re alive, instead of only calculating what they’re worth when they’re dead. And we can remember that plants are important not for what they look like, but for the vital roles they play in the ecosystem.

It’s not “like this” everywhere. And it doesn’t have to be like this where you are, either.

Is it like this everywhere?

Why do we need nature in every neighborhood?

People often toss around the words “appropriate” and “suitable” to describe where they think nature belongs. Nature is “appropriate” in city parks. Nature is “appropriate” in faraway wildlife refuges. Nature is “inappropriate” in people’s yards.

We should be asking these people why they think it’s “appropriate” to deprive others of a healthy living environment.

It’s a fact that some neighborhoods have more nature than others. In particular, affluent neighborhoods tend to have more street trees and more green space than poorer areas of the same town. Now, of course, there are lots of reasons why rich people are doing better, in all sorts of ways, than those who are less financially advantaged. There are also reasons why wealthy neighborhoods are greener: for example, those with money and status are more likely to demand that these kinds of amenities are created and preserved.

Presumably, the well-off would not be demanding more trees and parks if they thought these things were bad for them. But the more important point is that there are direct links between more greenery and being better off. Experts say that access to nature tends to move people towards healthier patterns in their exercise routines, transportation choices, and diets. Nature also reduces stress, moderates temperature, and combats air pollution. When people don’t have access to nature, they don’t have access to these important benefits either.

It’s fairly obvious that people who have nature right outside their front doors have more access to nature than people who have to travel some distance to experience healthy plants and plant communities. People who have more access to nature and all its benefits are more likely to actually receive those benefits.

The city of Madison recognized this when it said that destroying trees in some neighborhoods and not destroying trees in other neighborhoods would be unfair to the residents of the de-greened areas. It was exactly because of this unfairness that the city decided to work harder to protect trees.

In saying that it’s not fair for some people to have more trees and some people to have fewer trees, the city of Madison was expressing that trees have value. Nature has value. And so, to return to the original point – why would it be “inappropriate” to have valuable things on our property?

Nature belongs in every neighborhood – in the form of pocket parks, street trees, and natural yards – for the same reason that every neighborhood should have fire hydrants and nearby places of employment and access to public transportation. These things make our lives better. Anyone who says otherwise is not acting in your best interest.

Why do we need nature in every neighborhood?