About five years ago I traded my gasoline lawnmower for a battery-powered lawnmower made here in Vermont by the Neuton Company of Vergennes. I like that it's one-fourth quieter than my former lawnmower, but I especially like that it's much better for the environment.
Decades ago, while a student at UVM, I put together a panel about American Culture. Professors from a number of different disciplines spoke. Dr. Schultz from the History Department had everyone rolling with laughter when he commented that "Americans love to cut their lawns butch."
But that's not so great for the grass and means we cut our lawns too often. Each weekend, about 54 million Americans mow their lawns. In doing so, we use 800 million gallons of gas per year, and that in turn produces tons of air pollutants including carbon monoxide, volatile organic compounds and nitrogen oxides. So this very American, some might even say patriotic, activity produces up to 5 percent of the nation's air pollution. And of that 800 million gallons of gas we use in lawnmowers, it's estimated that 17 million gallons are spilled in refueling -- and that's more than the Exxon Valdez oil spill in Alaska.
But I can't feel smug about using my battery powered lawnmower, because I know I'm also polluting the earth. It takes roughly 10 cents of electricity to recharge the battery which helps to reduce my carbon footprint, thereby reducing one of the main sources of climate change. But the sources of that electricity are a combination of nuclear, wood, hydro, and wind. And those non-gasoline sources of electricity all have their own impact on the environment.
And that's why we need to get even smarter about our environmental choices. Environmental prophet and fellow Vermonter, Bill McKibben, has been warning us for years that we've already crossed the 350 parts per million of carbon red line in the Earth's atmosphere and that the consequences of our refusal as a species to reverse that number will be dire. His recently published article in Rolling Stone magazine is a very sobering environmental reality check that's a must read.
There's little we do that doesn't impact the environment. When you hear the word 'environment,' think: the ecosystem that sustains all life on our planet -- including you and me. We need to end the false dichotomy that addressing the crisis of the environment can only happen in ways that short change the American family. Getting smarter about how we discuss our relationship to the environment means moving the conversation beyond claims that climate change is not the result of human behavior and that changing our behavior will be bad for our standard of living. And we need that conversation to ignite a greater awareness that complex environmental issues are often no more than a critical mass of every day choices -- choices as simple as how and when to mow the lawn.
This commentary was first written for Vermont Public Radio on Oct. 2, 2012.