Published 10 November 202311 November 2023 · Marx / ecology Overgrowing the lawn-industrial complex: thoughts on suburban political ecology from a landscaper who reads Marx Andy Mason This essay explores the political ecology of suburban gardens, focussing on Sydney but also drawing on insights from cities around the world. It draws on my academic studies in geography and political economy, but also on an adult life spent largely as a labourer building and maintaining gardens, parks and urban bushland. Residential gardens make up about 20 per cent of the total area of urban and suburban Sydney. Along with public green spaces, they provide important environmental benefits in a huge, sprawling city otherwise dominated by the built environment. My main motivation for writing this essay is a sense of frustration and anger at how many resources are wasted maintaining suburban gardens, when they could be used providing food and increasing biodiversity. I have also been inspired by Marxist labour process sociology — an approach to analysing economics which places the experiences of workers ourselves front and centre in the analysis. I use some concepts from economics and political economy to analyse the role of gardens in the process of urban development, before describing how urban gardens are really managed and what purposes they really serve. I ask whether this form of urban environment is ecologically sustainable, economically fair or socially just. I will argue that the expansion of suburbanisation fails to satisfy such criteria, with the production of the current suburban landscape driving both ecological degradation and socio-economic inequality within the city. Finally, I consider what a more sustainable and fair suburban landscape might look like, exploring how suburban lots might instead become sites of ecologically responsible community provisioning and ecological regeneration, as well as reflecting on the political agency required to enact such a transformation. Economic theory in the garden The discipline of economics has a vexed relationship with the debate on environmental issues, which is probably not very surprising. The sub-discipline of environmental economics builds on mainstream, neoclassical-influenced economic theory (here is a good explainer if you have been lucky enough to escape having to study the shit) in analysing environmental issues as part of the operation of market processes. Fundamentalist versions of this type of analysis reject any need for concern over the environment at all, suggesting for example that pollution is of net benefit and should be increased — since pollution-generating economic activity lifts living standards. Ecological issues, when recognised as significant, are often explained as instances of market failure arising from the absence of clear property rights. Failure to internalise social costs resulting from environmental degradation (known as ‘externalities’) is seen as creating mismatches between market prices and the real impact of industry, suggesting the need for market reform or policy intervention (such as taxes) to more closely align market outcomes with social priorities — such as reducing pollution. The property-rights discourse is especially influential, following the famous (but very controversial) 1968 article ‘The Tragedy of the Commons’, in which Garett Hardin described the tendency of common-pool resources to degrade in their absence, and another very popular argument about the inefficacy of taxes as a means for internalising ecological externalities. Broadly, this perspective stresses the efficiency and social optimality of market processes in management of the environment. This is broadly what you will be made to read if you study environmental issues from a mainstream economics or public policy perspective. Thinkers within the environmental economics paradigm go on to apply these conservative economic concepts and methods to the analysis of suburban gardens. Environmental amenity is often discussed in terms of its impact on residential property values, with research finding that well-managed green space and mature trees can increase house prices by between 2 per cent and 10 per cent, and that prospective home buyers are prepared to pay 5-11 per cent more for properties with landscaping improvements. Property industry literature draws on this research in recommending landscaping as among the most reliable home improvement investments, stressing the large rate of return on investment in commercial landscaping and gardening services as well as the positive effect of DIY garden management on house prices. Suburban green space is treated within this literature both as an investment good and as a consumer good, with observed prices ultimately seen as being driven by home-buyer preferences stemming from socio-cultural factors — for example, a desire to have neat lawns and hedges. Within this perspective, negative socio-ecological impacts associated with suburban gardens are dismissed or minimised, while private property values are increased as a result of public expenditure on green space. The ultimate purpose of this literature is to aid in maximising value creation for either property investors/homeowners, or for the landscape industry. Marx among the shrubbery Ecological Marxism, by contrast, sees capitalism as a predatory regime which depends on the systemic exploitation of workers and degradation of nature (among many other things, from the theft of Indigenous land to the exploitation of women’s unpaid domestic work). Under capitalism, nature must be converted by capitalists into private property, and natural resources then transformed by workers into commodities that can ultimately be sold in the market for a profit. While social and economic inequality is a key component of the system — since most people do not directly own a stake in a merino stud or a landscaping company and consequently have to sell our capacity to work to business owners in return for wages — in many ways capitalists are also subject to the discipline of the market because they exist in competition with other businesses. This ‘grow or die’ dynamic puts society at odds with the natural environment, because the cycles of business processes do not line up with natural processes: for example, trees which took two hundred years to grow can be harvested and milled into timber in an afternoon. This is seen by ecological Marxists as constituting a ‘metabolic rift’ between society and nature. Furthermore, socio-economic marginalisation and ecological degradation are fundamentally linked, with marginalised social groups bearing the brunt of negative social and environmental effects of development while privileged groups are better able to avoid them. For example, the COVID lockdowns highlighted the unequal access to green spaces within our cities. The experience of lockdown in Bondi was very different to the experience of lockdown in Blacktown. The ecological Marxist tradition analyses suburban backyards as an artefact of the production of nature under capitalism, rather than merely an expression of the inherent preferences of home-buyers. The ‘industrial lawn‘ has been identified as a powerful symbol of North American cultural power and economic hegemony, with strong links between capital accumulation, state coercion and societal conflict driving the production of the suburban lawn environment. The ubiquity of lawns is driven by the political economic power of a ‘state-industry alliance in support of the industrial-pesticide economy’, and this financial power is underpinned ideologically by powerful discourses around freedom, democracy, science, individuality and the taming of nature. Thus, suburban backyards must be understood historically as a product of complex social forces, rather than simply explained in terms of individual consumer or investor desires for particular landscapes. Eco-Marxist approaches stress the negative socio-ecological effects associated with the suburban landscape, and support environmental justice movements in envisioning more equitable and sustainable forms of urban environment. Suburbia in practice Dominant policy around suburban gardens obviously reflects the market-driven orientation of economic management in the neoliberal era, with private businesses rather than government assuming the major responsibility for producing the suburban landscape. Landscaping is a major industry in Australia, as of 2010 employing nearly 200,000 people and representing $5.17 billion in gross national revenue. 90 per cent of revenue comes from private households, commercial customers or private architects, with residential customers comprising the largest revenue share at 60 per cent. However, despite its own small direct share in industry output, the state continues to both support and constrain market actors in important ways, echoing tendencies under neoliberalism toward ‘re-regulation’ of markets rather than a straightforward retreat of the state. Suburban garden management can be directly subject to government regulation, for example through local government biodiversity statues which regulate the clearing of mature trees, while the commercial contractors and suppliers in the industry are also subject to bureaucratic-legal regulation around environmental standards, industrial relations, tax obligations and so on. The direction of change in such regulation in the context of Australian neoliberalism has been analysed in terms of its contribution to curbing the power of workers in favour of employers, as well as the reduction of environmental standards in order to release capital from the constraints of ‘green tape’. In Australian cities, an investor-friendly property market with surging asset prices and tax incentives like the franking credits scheme is driving sustained growth in spending on home improvements, including landscaping and gardening, and therefore successfully facilitating capital accumulation in residential property — in other words, helping to drive the housing market to greater heights of inequality and unfairness. So, rather than producing socially and ecologically optimal outcomes as might be expected by adherents of mainstream economics, this policy and market environment contribute to building a socially unequal and ecologically degraded suburban landscape. Landscape gardening is a notoriously competitive and cut-throat industry, with even household name franchises like Jim’s Mowing possessing less than 5 per cent of the market share. Most of the residential landscaping market is comprised of small, independent businesses owned and operated by tradesmen (qualified, if you’re lucky) alongside a few labourers. Most clients are private households, but contract work for real estate firms, insurance companies, NDIS providers etc is also common. Work is typically spread throughout a wide suburban area, with the entire workforce congregating for labour-intensive jobs such as digging out and re-laying lawns, but more commonly dispersing in 2-3 person teams for maintenance jobs (mowing, hedging etc) using petrol-powered tools. The equipment employed in any task is determined by the imperative to reduce costs and stay competitive in a packed marketplace. Thus, while some aspects of the work are only possible because of specialised and expensive tools like excavators, other aspects — such as transporting soil and mulch by hand in 40L plastic bins — echo labour processes that have essentially remained unchanged for thousands of years. This holds true also in the construction industry, where large firms working on civil construction projects use modern methods and have strong union representation and high wages, while residential construction remains a highly exploitative landscape. In the cut-throat small-business environment of the landscaping industry, under-Award wages, underpayment of wages and off-books cash payments are common, as are informal workplace settings with haphazard and opaque employer book-keeping, the lack of formal employment contracts, constant employee turnover, a high proportion of migrant workers and the general absence of trade union representation. Organising workplaces in these conditions is extremely difficult and unfortunately relevant unions in Australia do not see casual labourers in residential landscaping or construction as a priority, despite the highly exploitative and unsafe nature of the work. Lack of any real timesheet systems enables employers to habitually rip off their staff, and makes any challenges over wage payments very difficult, and highly dependent on the personal assertiveness of workers and the goodwill of their employers. Lack of basic amenities and conditions for labourers — such as the practice of eating lunch while driving between sites, which maximises productive time on the job, and the general lack of access to toilet facilities while on site — function to de-humanise and psychologically damage manual workers. Casual labour status and lack of formal allowances also means labourers lose income for taking sick or rain days, incentivising us to perform physically demanding work and expose ourselves to a range of harmful chemicals and substances even while ill, as well as to work in the rain. Ecologically destructive work can also have negative psychological effects on manual workers, with anti-nature sentiments often accompanying harmful social attitudes such as on-site racism and misogyny. Even more alienating is the realisation that workers will never be able to afford to access the landscapes we are producing. Similarly, the lack of regulatory oversight of this industry contributes to poor environmental standards, extensive clearing of native vegetation (to achieve the cultural-aesthetic desires of clients), illegal dumping of waste in publicly-owned land (to avoid landfill costs), and heavy use of industrial pesticides and fertilisers (to reduce labour costs). Due to difficulties in realising value from collected waste material, waste processing schemes in Australia have failed to divert substantial amounts of garden waste from landfill despite public enthusiasm for separate organics collection schemes, with the result that significant quantities of potentially compostable organic material from gardens instead becomes landfill. Furthermore, turf lawns require high levels of ecologically harmful inputs, especially chemical fertilisers, pesticides and gasoline. These inputs are largely unregulated in the residential garden market, despite extensive regulation of the same chemicals in agricultural settings, and their widespread application creates significant concentrations of industrial pollutants. Urban waterways can contain greater concentrations of insecticides, fertilisers and herbicides than those in agricultural areas, with highly damaging impacts on aquatic life, while two-stroke petrol power tools produce greater air pollution than agricultural machinery. Some of the herbicides used are also incredibly nasty — for example, pre-emergent chemicals designed for ‘vegetation management’ (ie killing all growing things) in industry and agriculture are sometimes also used in broadleaf weed control in suburban backyards. These chemicals prevent any seeds from germinating in the treated area for up to twelve months, and inevitably find their way into waterways and non-target areas. This situation can ultimately be seen as constituting a ‘lawn-industrial complex’, with large corporate chemicals manufacturers driving rapid expansion of the lawn landscape at the expense of the ecology and human health. * Unfortunately, in Australia suburban development always seems to prevail over biodiversity conservation within planning systems, despite policy commitments to ecologically sustainable development and formal biodiversity conservation statutes. Bureaucratic preferences for economic growth, the political influence of developer capital within relevant state bodies at all levels, and incapacity of under-resourced local governments and environmental agencies to enforce legal restrictions on vegetation clearing render the political system uninterested in and unable to prevent biodiversity loss. The consequence of this approach to suburban governance has been serious ecosystem fragmentation and biodiversity decline, replacing Australia’s globally unique ecosystems with a monoculture of buffalo grass and box hedges. No-mow and beyond: towards suburban ecological justice How might these harmful socio-ecological effects of suburban gardens be addressed? Since the dominant paradigm governing suburban gardens is unjust and unsustainable, with privately-owned lots managed in ways that exploit and degrade workers, drive unequal residential property markets and damage the environment, a vision of more equitable and ecologically responsible gardens is needed. Suburban lawns have become a political issue in some Canadian cities, where concerns over the negative effects of lawn fertilisers and pesticides on both local ecologies and human health have coalesced a ‘lawn reform’ movement demanding state intervention aimed at curbing these harms. This conflict has been especially pronounced at the municipal government level, with passage of legislation prohibiting the use of ‘cosmetic’ pesticides following intense academic and public debate heralded as a major success for the environment movement. Similarly, the ‘No-Mow’ phenomenon has been gaining some traction in Australian cities, urging people to replace lawns with native plants or otherwise manage them in ways that don’t require mowing and herbicides. However, merely advocating that individual homeowners avoid the use of synthetic herbicides is inadequate for achieving a more just and sustainable suburban landscape, since the underlying political economic logic behind the suburban lawn remains unchallenged. For example, in some cities cutbacks to municipal services and gentrification have been driving a movement away from manicured lawns, since ‘naturalised’ public spaces are less cost-intensive to maintain and native species are becoming preferred over traditional lawns in some places as a result of changing consumer preferences. Furthermore, municipal statutes prohibiting pesticide use are enforced more leniently than those stipulating normative aesthetic requirements. A more thoroughgoing suburban environmental justice movement might pursue more than ‘lawn reform’, instead seeking broader transformation of urban space. For example, there is an urgent need for massive expansion of urban food production in order to transform our cities into sustainable ecosystems. Sydney presently exemplifies an unsustainable and inequitable food landscape characterised by declining local food production as agriculture gets displaced by suburban development, increasing food wastage, and ‘food deserts’ where fresh fruit and vegetables are inaccessible for poor communities. This shift could involve the conversion of decorative lawns and gardens into food-producing intensive organic gardens, ‘edible landscapes’ and ‘forest gardens’. Alongside unused urban lots and public parklands, residential gardens could provide a significant proportion of urban food needs if managed appropriately – for example, Cuban urban agriculture initiatives supply 40-60 per cent of the fruit and vegetable needs of major cities and employ 383,000 people. Working class and migrant traditions of household food production within Australian cities — for example the widespread culture of vegetable gardening during the Depression in the 1930s which has passed into many families’ folklore — demonstrate the social possibility of alternative uses of the suburban landscape. However, we should remember that vegetable gardens alone do not automatically indicate a more equitable suburban environment, since both community and backyard gardens have historically been encouraged by states alongside austerity policies during periods of war and economic crisis to promote community self-sufficiency and reduce demand for unemployment relief. Furthermore, there is a rising trend of commercial services installing and maintaining food-producing gardens for wealthy clients who desire access to the green cultural capital associated with the ‘locavore’ movement without having to engage in the dirty, repetitive work of maintaining a garden. Suburban gardening, then, needs to be pursued as a transgressive strategy for reducing market dependence and challenging commodification as part of a broader anti-capitalist politics, rather than as a lifestyle product for wealthy suburbanites. Similarly, DIY household food production may not tangibly contribute to reducing the ecological footprint of cities if still reliant on mainstream commercial supply chains for inputs such as mulch, timber, tools, and animal feed. Such complications highlight the inadequacy of individual consumer choice as a vehicle for environmental justice. What we need instead is collective politics. Successful urban environmental justice movements such as Sydney’s Green Bans demonstrate the power of alliances between workers, citizens and environmentalists in challenging the planning prerogative of private developer capital and articulating a public vision for a more just and sustainable city. Some promising alternative suburban land management practices exist. For instance, the urban agro-ecology in Cuba produces more food per unit area than conventional chemical and energy-intensive monoculture agriculture, without the use of these ecologically harmful inputs; while community gardens in Los Angeles support food security for economically marginalised communities of colour while simultaneously contributing positively to urban biodiversity. Some urban food projects in Australia have also combined local food production with social justice in innovative ways. At CERES, in Brunswick, a heritage market garden has been transformed into a multi-disciplinary environmental education and training hub. Farm it Forward, in the Blue Mountains west of Sydney, provides both social connection for isolated elderly residents and employment and land access for young farmers. Transforming the suburban garden into a more fair and sustainable landscape will require simultaneously challenging the interests underpinning the urban status quo, and fostering the development of more environmentally responsible and socially useful ways of managing a quarter acre-block. * Suburban gardens reflect the ecologically destructive and socially unequal tendencies of urban development under capitalism. Contrary to the dogma taught in economics and urban planning departments, market-driven policy has again failed to deliver ecologically positive and socially just outcomes. Suburban gardens, unlike other aspects of the environment, are directly subject to private property regimes, explicitly integrated into market transactions, and straightforwardly assigned prices – the conditions theorised as necessary by environmental economics for efficient results. However, suburban gardens are highly destructive from an ecological point of view, requiring unsustainable inputs and contributing to numerous streams of pollution and waste. In addition, gardens are implicated in the exploitation of workers and the development of unequal housing markets, since their primary function is the accumulation of private property capital. All of this demonstrates the utility of ecological Marxist approaches to environmental issues, capably of exposing the ways in which capital accumulation simultaneously degrades the environment and creates socio-economic inequality. Given the role of market processes in creating the unsustainable landscape of the contemporary suburban garden, a more just and sustainable suburban garden will require the de-commodification of urban space. Assertions of collective social authority over the built environment might allow for the re-invention of the suburban backyard as a site of sustainable production and ecological regeneration. This piece is sponsored by CoPower, Australia’s first non-profit energy co-operative. To find out more about CoPower’s mission, services, and impact funding, jump online at https://www.cooperativepower.org.au/ or call 03 9068 6036 today. Andy Mason Andy Mason is a bush regenerator, gardener, community activist, geographer and member of the United Workers Union. They are currently based in Bathurst and working on ecological restoration projects on farmland across far western NSW. You can contact Andy at email@example.com More by Andy Mason › Overland is a not-for-profit magazine with a proud history of supporting writers, and publishing ideas and voices often excluded from other places. If you like this piece, or support Overland’s work in general, please subscribe or donate. 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