Is history repeating itself, again? - The Edge from the National Association of Landscape Professionals

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Is history repeating itself, again?

In a recent Newsweek article on Al Gore entitled, “The Evolution of an Eco-Prophet,” the former vice president was interviewed about the genesis of his new book, Our Choice: A Plan to Solve the Climate Crisis. During the course of the interview, he talked about several ways to control greenhouse gases, including the use of solar and wind power, geothermal energy, nuclear energy, and the potential that urban forests have to soak up carbon dioxide. One fact jumped off the page — 20 to 23 percent of carbon dioxide emitted annually derives from burning and destroying forests. This is more than from all the world’s cars and trucks.

As I thought about Gore’s comment, a mental image came to mind. In the early 1980s, I traveled to China as a member of a technology exchange team. When traveling around the country, I saw farms, lots of farms, and observed the work of some of the most sustainable agrarians on earth. Through the course of several hundred years, their efforts had fed a huge population, and they recycled virtually everything they could in the process. In more recent years, though, under Mao Zedong (Mao Tse-Tung), the country had rid itself of ornamental plants, turfgrass, and other landscaping elements that the Marxists considered to be capitalist trappings. The farms remained, but the countryside looked like a moonscape — nothing was green.

Close your eyes and think what this world would look like without green. I experienced it in China, and it wasn’t a pretty sight. The air was filled with dust and dirt, and pollution was rampant, so much so you could actually taste it. Three decades later, the moonscape is gradually disappearing. Experience is a great teacher, and the government is replanting and tempering its sterile landscape with turf and other green elements. Bravo for them.

Back home, it appears that our government needs to become a better student of history. In an effort to apply a broad-brush approach to sustainability, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), in its residential WaterSense program, has put out the word that turfgrass is a water waster. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not against saving water, but this voluntary program that either (1) limits landscape to 40 percent or less in turf or (2) uses an Evaporation and Transpiration (ET) rate to determine the amount of turfgrass suitable for a WaterSense home has given turfgrass a black eye.

Furthermore, to impose a standard (voluntary or otherwise) across the country without regard to geographic location and water availability makes no sense at all — just as what the Marxist leaders did 50 years for political expediency was senseless. One size does not fit all. When bureaucrats try to enforce rules that do not make sense, the result is often unintended consequences not unlike the environmental disaster that occurred in China.

The same EPA that requires engine manufacturers and coal power plants to outlay huge expenditures to clean up emissions ignores the important role that turf, ornamental plants, and trees plays in our ecology, including their ability to sequester carbon dioxide. The question is shouldn’t we put as much emphasis on natural ways to sequester carbon dioxide as we do on ways to control its production. We are the “sustainable” stewards of our environment. The irony for the Chinese farmers under communist rule and for us today is that any government can unwittingly undo what nature does rather effortlessly through the miracle of photosynthesis — provide life on what would otherwise be a barren planet.

If you really want to be green, plant something green, and take the greenhouse gases out of the atmosphere. Don’t do what China did under Mao and what the EPA’s voluntary residential WaterSense standards propose to do — ignore the benefits of a healthy and, yes, aesthetically appealing landscape. 

Sustainable practices as they apply to the 3 P’s — People, Profit, and Planet — offer incredible opportunities for PLANET members, yet those practices have to be applied in a way that makes sense. A sweeping, broad-brush approach to anything rarely works. History has taught us that the most successful programs, countries, and even civilizations thrive under the guidance and supervision of well-informed decision makers.

We had well-informed decisions makers at this year’s Executive Forum/Leadership Meeting, February 17–21 in Las Vegas. In addition to learning about profitable and practical ways to implement sustainable practices, attendees heard from industry experts about how true leaders deal with today’s economy and other challenges. We also had a great tour of ValleyCrest facility and an outstanding interview with founder and CEO Burt Sperber. Thanks to ValleyCrest for its generosity and participation — another great example of companies and individuals helping to make the green industry the very best it can be.

Next month, don’t miss the testing ground for tomorrow’s leaders. Student Career Days will be held April 8–11 in Atlanta. See you there.

Bill Hildebolt, Ph.D., Landscape Industry Certified Manager & Technician
PLANET President