The topic of what, exactly, facilitates real change in human habits has been the focus of behavioral scientists, political pundits and clever marketers for as long as we’ve had a mature free market system in North America. In the non-profit world, where resources are scarce, almost by definition, we’re constantly looking for ways to get our message its proverbial 15 minutes in the limelight. Often, we’re lucky to grab 15 seconds of someone’s attention, so our message better damn well be clear.
At SafeLawns.org, founded in Maine and Washington, D.C., in 2006 to reduce the toxic load on our backyard lawns, business and college campuses and public parks, we’ve taken many of our cues from a lone Canadian doctor. A quarter century ago, when Dr. June Irwin, a dermatologist, heard the renowned author and activist Gordon Sinclair say that “letters to the editor are free,” she took it to heart.
Her relentless six-year letter-writing campaign and monthly visits to town meetings in her village of Hudson, Quebec, led her town to become the first municipality in the world to ban the applications of lawn and garden pesticides — the insect and weed killers that are applied by the millions of pounds in the Chesapeake Bay watershed and elsewhere in United States. By then it was 1991; she had started writing those letters, not just to her own newspaper, but to papers regionally and nationally, back in 1985 when she discovered a common lawn weed killer, 2,4-D, in the bloodstream of a very ill patient. And she always made a point of dropping off copies of her letters with her local mayor and town clerk.
The lawn chemical industry, both in the U.S. and Canada, immediately mobilized against the town and doctor. In Washington, the chemical industry funded the lobby group RISE (the Responsible Industry for a Sound Environment) to convince people that those lawn pesticides and chemical fertilizers were not a threat to people, pets or the environment. In Canada, the billion-dollar industry sued the little town of Hudson with its 5,200 residents.
In retrospect, though, that lawsuit was the most ill-fated decision the lawn chemical industry ever could have made. It gave Dr. Irwin and her then growing legions of followers the opportunity to write even more letters, and to organize other media oriented events including anti-pesticide rallies, educational sessions and inspirational speeches. By the time the Chemlawn v. Hudson case made it to the Canadian Supreme Court in 2000, millions of Canadians had seen the news reports, read the letters and had already made their decisions to quit the chemicals on their own. The Court’s 9-0 decision in Hudson’s favor, by then a fait accompli, set an epic domino effect in motion. Town by town, province by province, Canadians have banned products like Roundup and Weed ’n Feed in the past decade. Today more than 80 percent of Canadian citizens live in municipalities where the applications of these products are against the law.
The result, ultimately, has been real change in behavior. The very perception of what constitutes a beautiful lawn has been turned on its ear in Canada, to the point where neighbors frown upon other neighbors who don’t have at least a few dandelions and patches of clover on their lawns. If someone in Canada does have a perfect weed-free carpet, their neighbors call them out as cheaters — as people who traveled to a U.S. boarder state, bought the lawn chemicals here, then brought them back to Canada illegally.
None of this change, to be certain, happened easily. It happened because one person dared enough and cared enough to speak out and others followed. We have strived every day to make the most of Dr. Irwin’s work; we even helped make a documentary film about her story, titled “A Chemical Reaction,” that has played at theaters, high school auditoriums, church basements and living rooms across North America (see trailer below).
But have we had our 15 minutes? Not hardly. Sure, we’ve won a few awards and changed a few minds with our campaigns and the movie, but we’re still waiting to hit the zeitgeist. Yes, Maryland and elsewhere are starting to regulate phosphorus in lawn fertilizers, but toxins like Roundup and 2,4-D are still applied unabated. We rejoice in the fact that New York and Connecticut have passed the Child’s Safe Playing Fields Act to restrict the applications of pesticides on school grounds, but we bemoan the fact that similar measures have been shot down in numerous other states — because a well-funded lawn chemical industry shows up and lobbies like hell. They literally have hundreds of millions of dollars to spend to convince people that they’re somehow un-American if they let dandelions grow on their properties.
All we have is the ability to write . . . letters . . . and lots of them. And we’ll keep at it. And we’re thankful that organizations like Glenstone, a Maryland art museum in Potomac, has helped fund a long-term research project with the University of Maryland to help bring the best organic lawn information and practices to the Chesapeake Bay region. As Glenstone’s founder stated, “If we don’t do this, who will?”
On May 6, 2011, Hudson, Quebec, celebrated 20 years of chemical freedom on its lawns, playgrounds and playing fields. Property values have soared because people want to live in a toxin-free environment. Lawns and gardens are more beautiful than ever, having found a harmonious balance with nature.
We tell that story far and wide. And we hope you’ll help, because the Hudson experience should be our reality, too.