We know that our lack of patience as a civilization has reached its apex when companies invest their best engineering talent in speeding any process between goods and services and people. The less time one must wait since the order has been placed, the smaller the chance to make up one’s mind and realize the purchase is futile.
Instant gratification powers Amazon Prime, on-demand digital entertainment, instant order deliveries, and on-demand help, from personal classes to what services such as TaskRabbit call “same day handyman.” Benjamin Franklin, to whom we credit the aphorism “time is money” (from his essay Advice to a Young Tradesman), would be proud.
Or would he? When we decide to restrain ourselves and wait to get an object, service, or experience, we don’t only test our self-control; we also weigh in on how much we need, want, or care about what comes to our minds. By simply waiting, we’ll soon realize that instant ordering services are betting on our lack of self-control to predate on wants that aren’t actual needs.
Not enough time to reflect on things
But instant gratification (the immediate desire to feel satisfaction) can also affect our existence in many other realms. Let’s consider the effect of stress on self-absorbed people going about their day without much time to spare to be kind while waiting in line or driving. When it comes to waste removal, the same instant gratification rationale seems to play out, and outsourcing garden work and waste means not paying attention to how healthy yards are —as long as they are leaf and debris-free and properly manicured.
When we skip the big picture and think the main goal is to maximize our gain in the shortest possible time, even if that means acting aggressively, we nurture a reactive behavior that considers reality some Darwinist race for Hunger Games competitors.
Even if most of us avoid on-purpose situations that can trigger phenomena such as traffic rage or infantile hyper-competition (say, waiting in line for hours to get the chance to be among the first buying a product engineered to appeal to the public through artificial scarcity), we live and interact in family circles, communities, companies, towns, and societies that are urged to consider instantaneous service as an advantage or even virtue.
The busier we think we are (or we want to believe we are, feeling the guilt of not working hard enough or not occupying our free time with purposeful tasks), the less time we think we have to take care of mundane tasks that may make a difference long term.
A middle-aged suburban task: attic renovation
A friend recently decided to renovate the unused attic in his two-bedroom, 1,250 square feet (115 m2) old bungalow-style home. His house has a crawl space underneath, making it difficult to expand the residence without venturing into lengthy and expensive transformations such as asking for a permit to lift up the whole structure and hence create a whole new floor, whereas digging underneath for a basement could be structurally even more complex and expensive.
By contrast, cleaning and properly insulating an attic, and probably raising a whole floor over the bearing walls to make it safe, can be a quick and affordable way to enjoy already existing unused house space by making extra storage space, a playroom for children (as is his case), etc.
As a busy, accomplished professional, my friend delegated this work to a contractor, relying on advice from an engineer and an architect to make sure the project made sense structurally. And, like most of us unrelated to the building trade would do, he relied on the contractor to make some decisions that we consider “unimportant”: when I heard he wanted to use plywood as a finish for both floor and roof in between the interior joists of the gabled roof, I asked him whether the insulation and the plywood were formaldehyde-free.
He asked if that was important. “What’s formaldehyde, after all?” Another friend present, an architect, argued that if he wanted the space to be used as a playroom (a place to stay for hours) subject to relative radiation from the sun even when roofs are properly protected, any interior with no materials likely to off-gas hazardous substances would give him peace of mind.
Not enough time to consider healthier choices?
As it usually happens these days, the three of us ended up talking while each of us looked at his smartphone’s screen to read a few lines of some resource talking about formaldehyde and off-gassing indoors. This conversation would not have even existed a few years back. Nonetheless, recently, during Thanksgiving week, we retook the conversation; the attic work had finally started, my friend said.
When I asked about his decisions regarding plywood and insulation, he said he had had an eye-opening conversation with his contractor, who explained to him that all plywood is basically the same as it is glued together and that the mineral-derived insulation he’s comfortable with gives the best R-value per square foot at a very competitive price. Sure enough, the Rockwool batts, as does the used plywood, have formaldehyde on them.
A perception of lack of time and knowledge may have prompted my friend to delegate his contractor’s decisions that will affect the air quality inside his home, especially to those using his attic on very sunny days, when radiation is highest, due to VOC’s off-gassing.
A quick search, a short conversation and clarification with his contractor could have sufficed to land in alternatives (available at Home Depot, Lowe’s and probably lumber shops) such as plywood using PureBond (vegetal-based, formaldehyde-free plywood) and no VOC insulation batts with equivalent R-values (from hemp-derived alternatives like Hempwool to no VOC versions from big brands, readily available anywhere: Owens Corning EcoTouch Fiberglass Insulation, Kraft-Faced Batts, etc.).
Yet he would have needed to confront inertia and probably his contractor’s discomfort, which is probably used to relying on a small number of suppliers carrying only main sellers at a big volume. The uncertainty of wait time and a marginally bigger expenditure on things that won’t become a visible part of the experience (i.e., the renovated attic) made these materials a non-priority. To clarify: my friend doesn’t live in Antarctica but in one of the main metropolitan areas on the West Coast.
Knowing the materials you’ll be breathing indoors
How much do we need to care about our life indoors to finally care about materials such as insulation and plywood (if we want to use it to avoid the extra cost and weight of a hardwood floor), and not only about paint colors, types of surfaces, ranges, fridges, bathroom tiles, or curtains? By investing our attention in only superficial things, we miss what’s underneath and how it will affect how we experience a place —and how healthy it will be.
A bias on how we perceive reality makes us think we can’t afford to invest our attention in non-priority things, such as knowing which construction materials and substances will go in the things we will build and wrap the places we live in, leaving room to long term mistakes such as the one described by the German chemist Michael Braumgart and the American architect William McDonough in the entry chapter of their 2002 book on sustainable design Cradle to Cradle: Remaking the Way We Make Things.
Other even more mundane things carrying even less attention than construction materials also affect how we live. We have heard about the effects that car-oriented urbanism or food deserts can have on people, but how about the toll of “smaller” things like lacking tree-lined streets, safe sidewalks and an “appreciation” for the ecology of plants and animals in the city?
Who has time to, for example, demand alternatives and effective ways to keep sidewalks safe and non-slippery in the fall by removing leaves from them while at the same time avoiding the strange fad of blasting entire neighborhoods and properties with leaf-blowers (“the devil’s hair dryer,” as jokingly attested by Bloomberg’s David Dudley), preventing the soil from regenerating by nurturing its humus with the fallen leaves?
Blowing leaves stuck in the rain
Former correspondent for The Atlantic James Fallows wrote extensively about the “menace” of this worthless yet loved by some appliance, which has blended with the sociology of the modern American urban landscape: busy Americans will argue that they are necessary. As James Fallows explains:
“But there’s another counter to the “how could we possibly get the job done otherwise?” argument, which becomes more evident with each passing year. It is that a larger and larger share of the use of this equipment has become ritualized, even sumptuary and “conspicuous” (in the Thorstein Veblen sense), and has less and less to do with the basic task of removing heavy leaves.”
On the contrary, with the excuse of keeping sidewalks clean, public and private gardening services have convinced everyone (even the ecology-oriented “busy” tribes, ready to delegate their love and care for their immediate environment) that leaf blowers are essential to keep streets leaf-free in late fall. Most leaf blowers are noisy and, despite the existence of electric versions, the most powerful models used by yard workers use engines powered by internal combustion using several fuel types.
Gasoline-powered leaf blowers—the ones some of us can smell in the fall, of pervasive use among gardening companies servicing suburbs with abundant greenery—are as powerful and polluting as they sound: they often use a two-stroke engine cramped in a fuming backpack and are pernicious for their operator (causing hearing loss and poisoning) and neighborhoods that take their particulates air pollution and noise in exchange for leaf removal.
The Kleiman Center for Energy Policy at the University of Pennsylvania mentions a 2011 study by Edmunds, estimating that driving a Ford F-150 Raptor truck from Texas to Alaska would emit the same amount of air pollution as a half-hour of yard work using a two-stroke, gas-powered leaf blower:
“Indeed, Edmunds estimated that some gas leaf-blowers generate 23 times the carbon dioxide of the Raptor and 300 times more non-methane hydrocarbons. Both contribute to climate change and harm public health. Worse yet, gas-powered leaf blowers also emit nitrous oxide. The EPA estimates that the impact of one pound of nitrous oxide on warming the atmosphere is almost 300 times that of an equivalent pound of carbon dioxide. Professor Karen Jubanyik at Yale School of Medicine has astutely noted that lawn equipment may become one of the country’s largest sources of pollution.”
Paying to make your yard unhealthier & more sterile
By blasting powerful leaf-blowers in sidewalks and yards, institutions and universities, companies, and homeowners contribute not only to a source of air pollution but remove soils from key nutrients, degrading the process of the carbon cycle in neighborhoods with rich flora and fauna: as Braumgart and McDonough remind us in Cradle to Cradle, there’s no such thing as “waste” in a healthy pasture or forest, where the “waste” of one system (fallen leaves and fruit, dead trees and branches) becomes food for another.
Leaf-blowers seem even more obnoxious than normal when rain sticks leaves to the ground, making the work unattainable, though, to the frustration of neighbors and passers-by, the task will usually go on despite its obvious futility. Adrian Higgins, the Washington Post’s gardening columnist, has a theory regarding the controversial practice:
“There is a weird human phenomenon at work here: Sound is far less irritating to its creator than to its recipient.”
Higgins cites a study by Erica Walker, a Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health doctoral candidate. Her Greater Boston Noise Report pointed at leaf-blowers as prime offenders, particularly in the suburbs. Instead of raking, composting, or learning to mulch, most suburban neighbors will outsource the work, bringing powerful leaf blowers into the neighborhood.
With the excuse of a sterile conception of cleanliness and safety, leaf removal empoverishes yards, which miss the nutrients provided by organic decomposition. Humus increases the organic content of the soil, providing nutrients to plants, mycelia, animals and microorganisms. When decomposing, leaves have a nearly neutral PH, providing little concern and much benefit.
Stuffing leaves in sealed plastic bags
Like with other things in life, we have little concern for soil fertility in our sidewalks and front and back yards, prioritizing aesthetics that have trickled down into ordinances favoring lawns and manicured ornamental gardens over long-term approaches such as xeriscaping, peri-urban habitat restoration, or holistic techniques that have proven effective, from Masanobu Fukoka’s natural farming to Bill Mollison’s permaculture.
In reality, busy suburban lives are complicit in financing the extended practice of blowing yard and sidewalk leaves and other carbon debris to a corner. However, instead of profiting from this active matter in decomposition and effectively turning into fertile humus, the pile is treated as unlabeled “garbage” collected in big poly plastic bags, tied in and removed from the property.
The piles, effectively composting, cooked inside the bags in the nearest landfill. How many busy, law-abiding and conscientious families, many of them sensitive to the environment, pay for such a disservice to their yards’ soils? Leaves in decomposition are a free, PH-neutral compost source that can complement any mulch in garden beds.
Many argue that it’s not the lack of time or attention that explains the yard cleaning services they pay for, but the concerns of preventing grass growth in springs if leaves are left to decompose in place. In reality, it takes a few minutes a week to clean conventional yards with a manual leaf rake; the collected pile can feed a wood compost bin (easy to DIY but also commercially available at competitive prices).
As an alternative to home and yard composting when time, attention, or space are a concern, more and more cities collect yard and other organic waste in residential waste bins; the organic waste is then composted and available for pick-up by all residents. Public and private gardening services also dump the mulch derived from tree maintenance at compost pickup centers.
In California, cities like Berkeley not only collect green and organic waste from residents but turn it into compost for pick up by all at the Berkeley Marina, along with the mulch derived from clearing the surrounding hills of hazardous vegetation, like fire-prone eucalyptus overgrowth.
According to CalRecycle, 75 percent of the state’s communities have residential organic waste. Some offer compost sharing as their city’s carbon cycle outcome, allowing residents to bring their waste, already turned into compost, back to their yards. No extra work or mental bandwidth is required to prevent fallen leaves and other organic waste from ending in 55-60-100 gallon black plastic bags destined for the landfill.
By ritualizing nice yards and pristine streets, we agree with sacrificing any enriching and common sense practices such as making sure trees benefit from mulch (reducing water evaporation and water needs and providing nutrients to the soil) and compost (by improving yard soils’ structure and health through adding organic matter). Practices such as city compost and home composting, or even vermicomposting (using worms to speed the process of organic matter transformation into the best, safest plant nutrients), are taking ground in neighborhoods.
The yards of the Burnout Society
Will they stay their ground, or the call for instant gratification, hedonic lives (and yards), and convenience is too strong to fight the army of leaf-blowers and leaf removal into sealed garbage bags that others toss up for us in the landfill so we don’t have to deal with it nor think about it too much?
The real reason manicured gardens and leaf-free yards and streets (sometimes through the use of leaf-blowers, sometimes by outright avoiding or getting rid of deciduous trees) has to do with social signaling. According to German-Korean philosopher Byung-Chul Han, the shift from disciplinary societies towards a society that reveres overachievement implies that, even though we feel we are too busy, we can externalize our life to gig services that will keep the shiny facade glowing, no matter how burnout we feel.
In his 2019 book How to Do Nothing: Resisting the Attention Economy, Jenny Odell argues that shutting down social media and reconnecting with the natural world around us is the most radical act of our times.