In the early 1960s, a series of popular “public awareness” ads debuted on television and in print, introducing America to a new, imaginary object of derision: the Litter Bug. “Don’t be a Litter Bug,” the ads advised over images of good little girls and boys carefully placing their milk cartons in a schoolyard trashcan.
In this more enlightened age, I realize that it may be difficult to imagine a time in which an entire ad campaign was needed just to stop people from throwing their trash on the ground wherever they happened to be.
Just kidding. It’s actually quite easy to imagine. In fact, if you look around, littering is obviously still a thing. Thankfully, however, it has become socially unacceptable to litter, something that most likely happens when the litterer thinks nobody else is looking. If that’s the case, then the Litter Bug and his playful public shaming did their part.
While the original Litter Bug will soon be a septuagenarian, one can cite a more recent, albeit “bottom-up” example of this kind of environmentally oriented consciousness-raising resulting in mass behavioral changes for the better: the “locavore” phenomenon.
In the not-so-distant past, calling out an ingredient in a restaurant menu as “imported” was intended to enhance its appeal, as in, “Wow! Anchovies all the way from Nova Scotia!” Apparently, there was a time when nobody’s conscience was troubled by the carbon receipts piling up as a result of having their food commonly shipped halfway around the globe – just for fun.
Responding to concerns about Global Climate Change, an increasing number of chefs began to take a hard look at the environmental costs of cooking with so many imported ingredients and began introducing the idea of “eating local.” This educated their customers, who soon began to equate “local” with “better,” turning the old gourmand paradigm on its head. Now, in the interests of demonstrating a commitment to lowering its carbon footprint (while offering the freshest possible product), a restaurant serving “Sonora Wheat Toast Points with Anchovy Terrine and Cardamom-Infused Heirloom Tomato Coulis” boasts that the anchovies are “local.” (If you live in Los Angeles, this presumably means they were caught in the Santa Monica Bay, in which case it is safe to assume that they’re laced with DDT, have three eyes and glow in the dark. Bon appetit!)
There are other examples, from mass recycling to replacing single-use shopping bags and water bottles with reusable alternatives. What all of these simple yet seismic changes to individual attitudes and behavior share, however, is their evolution from an obscure concern limited to a relatively thin stratum of tree-huggers to a broadly accepted social norm through the same two-step process: 1) the growing awareness of an environmental problem; 2) the raising of consciousness through the agencies of example, education and social pressure.
Which brings me to my point.
Here in California, it is way past time to add buying an exotic, industrially grown plant for your garden to the list of formerly common-but-no-longer-acceptable abuses of the environment. It is way past time that purchasing and planting a non-native, factory-farmed product of the globalized nursery industry should be seen as just as slovenly, self-indulgent and destructive to planetary well-being as littering or eating imported anchovies when there are perfectly good anchovies to be had right where you are.
Because it is.
The underlying problem is essentially one of scale
Of the many hurdles standing in the way of such a shift in awareness, the most formidable may be that it necessarily involves plants, all of which, excluding obvious weeds, are considered to be “green” and therefore, inherently “good.” Even when a frivolously imported, non-native species has been shown to be noxiously invasive and causing unimaginable damage to the local ecology, it appears to be quite difficult to get people to perceive of a plant – any plant – as having the potential to be a destructive force. (See, “They Grow…and Kill!,” in which I argue that, while there may be no such thing as a “bad plant,” there is absolutely no shortage of stupid people.)
What’s more, being made to feel that one can no longer blithely pick up an exotic “color pack” at a big box nursery without having to take the damaging consequences of that decision into consideration must feel, to the average gardener, like yet another cabal of blindly elitist, grimly puritanical environmentalists is out to take away even this simple pleasure in what is an otherwise short and brutish life. “Can’t I do anything anymore –” this hapless gardener might wonder, “not even put a pretty, little flower in the ground – without having to feel bad that I’m helping to destroy the earth?”
Um, no. You can’t. Not when you are one of over seven billion human beings on Planet Earth.
The underlying problem is essentially one of scale. If a hundred tourists were to visit an ancient Egyptian tomb in one year, it probably wouldn’t pose much of a threat to the tomb’s long-term preservation. But if hundreds of thousands do, even the small amount of moisture in their individually harmless (but cumulatively destructive) exhalations will begin to destroy the frescoes that made the tomb a tourist destination in the first place.
To apply this analogy, if you were living in 1890, and there was a little nursery propagating petunia starts down the road, planting them in your California garden wouldn’t be such a big deal. But multiply yourself – and the number of those petunias – by many orders of magnitude, centralize their production in huge, faraway, globalized factory farms; exploit enormous amounts of natural resources and generate tons of pollutants in order to grow, ship and distribute them; engineer and build an immense, statewide apparatus to suck water from remote ecosystems and move it vast distances to irrigate those millions of petunias and it suddenly becomes (to quote Joe Biden) a very big fucking deal. (Not to mention the fact that, unless you’re gardening somewhere in South America, a petunia is an exotic plant that doesn’t really belong in your biome. And while it may do no real harm, it won’t do much good either – unless you’re a garden snail.)
Another obstacle to changing our unsustainable gardening practices in California is an artifact of its history of colonization and the associated, enduring phenomenon of what I refer to as “Mass Oceanic Nostalgia Psychosis.”
The non-native population here, whose numbers grew steadily over the course of the 1800s and early 1900s, consisted largely of Europeans – either directly or via New England, the Southeast and Midwest – and they brought their understanding of the seasons with them. They also brought their beloved (but foreign) roses and tulips. Even today, I suspect that most Californians don’t really know (or care) that they’re living in one of the world’s rare Mediterranean Climates, where the summers are hot and dry. Instead, when they garden, they attempt, perhaps unconsciously, to mimic the rhythms of the Oceanic Climate of their ancestors’ native lands, where it rains regularly all year long.
At the opening ceremony to commemorate the opening of his monumental Los Angeles aqueduct in 1913, William Mulholland famously declared, “There it is. Take it!”
In the early decades of the last century, this phantasm was encouraged by real estate interests attempting to lure skeptical Easterners to dry, dusty Los Angeles with the promise of endless sunshine and the freedom to garden to your heart’s content all year long. The only thing missing was the water. (When the novelist Henry James visited Los Angeles in 1905, he observed, with characteristic, High Victorian disregard, “Southern California seems to me a country of possibilities. What it will be when water runs over it, when irrigation touches everything, the mind cannot contemplate.”) Eventually, the engineering needed to support the illusion of endless spring was put into place, willfully sucking the water (and life) out of faraway places like the Owens Valley. (At the opening ceremony to commemorate the opening of his monumental Los Angeles aqueduct in 1913, William Mulholland famously declared, “There it is. Take it!”) To this day, the nursery industry implicitly promotes the notion that everyone can have a summer garden in Southern California – current population 39,466, 917 – as green and full of thirsty exotic plants as if this were Cape Cod.
In the face of so much ingrained resistance then, it will take a lot to convince people that planting factory-farmed exotic plants is as transgressive as littering or as decadent as regularly eating imported foods with a carbon footprint the size of Alaska. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try. The ultimate destination, while far-off, should be a California in which the one house on the block that hasn’t converted its lawn to a biodiverse, geographically appropriate landscape of beautiful native plants is the talk of the neighborhood:
“I see the Cunninghams are still watering their gigantic lawn.” “I know. What is this, 1990? I mean, really.” “Exactly. And did you see all those horrible petunias they put in last week?” “Oh my God, yes. Disgusting. My penstemons are so much prettier.”
Naive, perhaps. But if it’s true that modeling (i.e., setting an example), education and social pressure have successfully changed large-scale, environmentally destructive patterns of behavior in the past, perhaps they can be effective in this case as well. So, what can we – as advocates for a radical rethinking of what it means to garden in California – do to bring about such a revolution in attitudes and behaviors?
Educate through example: garden with geographically appropriate native plants that started life in a small-scale, decentralized, preferably local nursery. Open your garden to your extended family and friends. Play docent: let them know why you have chosen to plant native plants and how you sourced them.
Be a Twitter Bug: post photos and write about your experiences gardening with native plants on social media; Sing their praises (of which there are many), providing the global context within which you have made your personal gardening choices.
Recruit “Cute”: people will mobilize to change their behavior if they think it will help “save” something they consider cuddly or pretty, like a Monarch Butterfly, for instance. In your native plant spiel, don’t hesitate to link plants – which are probably too inert to generate a sufficiently strong emotional response in most people – to the animals whose lives they support.
Appeal to Self-Interest: They may not give a shit about pollinators, but most people do like to eat.
Suggest Reasonable Alternatives: If you know someone who just really loves exotic plants, someone whose life would lose all meaning if they were unable to plant them in their garden, then encourage that person to at least “offset” their exotics by dedicating a commensurate portion of their yard to locally native plants. (The garden real estate occupied by that boring, purposeless, biologically sterile, resource-guzzling lawn would be a good candidate.) Suggest low-maintenance, fool-proof but wildlife-supporting native species like buckwheats, artemesias and sages to the horticulturally challenged.
Educate Early: Teach children (at home) and advocate that they be taught (in school) the difference between native and non-native plants. Encourage them to understand and respect their surroundings when it comes to gardening, to see themselves are stewards, rather than exploiters of the land and to find satisfaction in gardening in harmony with the natural rhythms of their own neighborhoods.