Friday, September 10, 2010

Eco-Friendly Golf Courses... Oxymoron?

Milly doesn't care about golf courses but is a model to us all for growing her own cat nip without the use of synthetic fertilizers or toxic pesticides.
I know I have the tendency to come down pretty harshly on green technology that allows people to feel good about their purchases while maintaining the same level of unnecessary consumption (see my early, pessimistic posts on recycling bottles of water and using biodegradable coffee cups). I also know that it can be hard for me to value tiny positive change because I automatically think about the bigger picture and the overwhelming amount of work yet to be done. I've been adopting a more optimistic attitude day by day, but this week I had to bang my head against the wall when I read someone's online statements about a golf course being sustainable because of the use of organic fertilizer on the grass. Actually, I kind of want to bang my head against the wall right now, just thinking about it...

A few members of the LinkedIn Green Group started discussing the concept of "organic golf courses" when someone posted an article about a course on Martha's Vineyard that stopped using pesticides in favour of non-toxic alternatives such as using beneficial bugs to eat the insects that feast on grass. With my new-found optimism about every green action making a difference, I applauded this initial effort... then pointed out that it's probably impossible to make the entire golf course sustainable. The truth hurts, I know. But so far so good, people were sharing educated opinions, there was some consensus on better vs. worse ways to promote healthier forms of pest and weed control, etc. Then, tragically, someone mentioned a company that has been supplying organic fertilizer to golf courses for a few years now, "so there are golf courses that are "green sustainable" already".

Please excuse me while I bang my head against the wall, again.

To be absolutely clear, I wholeheartedly support the use of fertilizer that is not hazardous to plants, animals, the soil, the water, the air, and us. I'm actually willing (just like Local Food Plus is) to accept the limited use of minimally harmful fertilizer if it's absolutely necessary to maintain the overall sustainability of an agricultural endeavour. However, to claim that a golf course is green because one single element has been switched from conventional to organic is at best, ignorant, and at worst, threatens to misinform a large audience. Granted, I'm hoping most Green Group members won't take that member's comment literally, and I'm betting neither will you. However, this is a great opportunity to explore some of the basic concerns I have with golf courses.

After switching to a healthier fertilizer option, the next problem to tackle is pest control. Both fertilizers and pesticides have the nasty habit of dirtying the soil and groundwater, and in turn, the plants we eat and the water we drink. Pesticides in particular have far-reaching side-effects due to their indiscriminate killing of most insects (both unwanted and beneficial ones) and their tendency to promote resistance in the ones that survive.

If the fertilizers and pesticides have been taken care of, what do we do about the massive amounts of water necessary to keep the grass green? This is tricky because golf courses cluster in areas that see lots of heat and sun and very little rain. Automatic sprinkler systems abound. One option is to choose hardier varieties of grass, the camels of the plant world, if you will. There's this stuff called Eco-Lawn that claims to be drought-resistant. Let's hope golf balls roll the same way on Fescues and Ryegrass as well as on standard turf!

Now that we've taken care of what lets the grass grow, let's move on to what cuts it down. Is there such thing as an industrial mower that runs on electricity instead of gas? Even if there were, the electricity would have to be bullfrogpowered to be sure the sustainability label can still be applied to this element of the golf course. Also, used engine oil must be properly disposed of. Maybe they can charge golf courses the same environmental fee they charge car owners for oil changes? Or they could use push mowers, or scythes.

See, this is getting out of hand. This is what happens when I start with one good idea and then think up all of the other problems that need solving. Add a dose of perfectionism, and you get one cynical environmentalist. I haven't even gotten started on the energy use of the golf course club house, the source of the ingredients in the kitchen, the nature of the synthetic materials that form the golf balls, or the likelihood that the owners would take a pay cut to implement green technology.

Here is what needs to be said: cutting down big patches of forests is bad. Cutting them down to grow food to sustain the population is acceptable. Cutting them down to build a golf course wastes energy and water, pollutes the soil, the water, and the air, and destroys the natural habitat of diverse lifeforms. At the risk of upsetting each golf-playing member of my immediate family, this game is yet another example of a human luxury that nature has to pay for. And, as part of nature, we suffer, too.

Can we agree to be more conscious in our recreational choices? As Mark Twain once said, "golf is a good walk spoiled". So next time you feel the urge to spend all day outside, spend it on a hiking path instead of a golf cart.

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