By Bill Coady
In my short career in science, I was introduced to the idea of a “paradigm shift.” Basically a paradigm shift occurs when when an old scientific theory is either replaced or altered so much as to create a completely new world view. An example of this was the shift from Newtonian physics, where the universe was thought of as a giant clock to quantum mechanics where nothing, it seems, is certain.
The same kind of thing can happen in society as well. There have been many paradigm shifts over the last 100 years or so, one of the biggest has been the changes brought about by the automobile. In the past neighborhoods included everything people needed: houses, stores, workplaces were all clustered together because people mostly walked to their destinations. With the advent of the car, these functions could be separated, with houses in one place, stores in another and workplaces in a third. This world view has been codified in our zoning practices. Not saying that one or the other is better or worse than the other, just that at one time dense multiuse city neighborhoods were “normal” and now separate clusters are “normal.”
It takes a lot of energy to shift the world view like that. Shifting from muscle based transportation to machines took about 100 years or so. And the shift was only made possible by abundant and cheap energy resources. But it might be possible that another paradigm shift is in the winds. If energy is no longer cheap and abundant, then everything that is now “normal” will have to change. A new “normal” will develop. Many people are thinking about a new world view in many different areas, and I saw a nice indication of this a few days ago.
“Lawns are for Losers” the bumpersticker proclaimed. Yes, the sticker was on the back of a truck which belonging to Tom Girolamo, the owner of Eco-building and Forestry, LLC , but the message is more about changing a world view than directly promoting his business.
The close cropped, “golf course” lawn has been a symbol of prosperity and order for 60 years or more here in America. In fact in many places, Wausau included, this has been codified. People are not allowed to not mow their lawns or to have certain “weeds” growing there. Because the “golf course” lawn is completely unnatural, especially here in Wisconsin, it exists as a social convention. And social conventions can change.
To most people a more natural approach to a yard in Wisconsin would look chaotic, “weedy” and maybe even unkept. Although a properly planted and maintained natural yard should not run afoul of Wausau’s noxious weed ordinance (which says certain weeds need to be controlled or eliminated in yards) that does not mean the neighbors won’t complain. Last I saw, Wausau’s ordinances specify that plants in your “lawn” have to be less than 12 inches high, a height exceeded by many native grasses and plants.
In science when the paradigm is in the process of change, sometimes that science is said to be in “crisis,” which can be true when two groups of people just completely (and honestly) see the world in different ways. Perhaps in the coming world lawns ARE for losers, even though now a “nice” lawn is seen as the sign of a winner. Only time will tell.
In the meantime, I do hope that people will have the freedom to move in the direction of more eco-friendly yards and that our city ordinances and other laws will reflect that.