To home heating and cooling, and cooking and cleaning, add yard work. Time is money, and you’ll be devoting a lot more of both to your lawn if the assault on efficacious appliances succeeds.
“Small gas engines” — such as those in lawn mowers and blowers — “are not only bad for our environment and contributing to our climate crisis,” California assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez declared in 2021. “They can cause asthma and other health issues for workers who use them. It’s time we phased out these super-polluters and help small land-scaping businesses transition to cleaner alternatives.” She made these comments to justify legislation she had co-sponsored that would ban the sale of gasoline-powered lawn equipment. Now signed into law, the prohibition will take effect in January 2024. Dark-blue states including New York, New Jersey, and Illinois are considering similar legislation, and a combustion-engine-free future is already the reality in many municipalities.
The dubious environmentalist argument against gas-powered equipment and tools is that they harm the climate even more than passenger vehicles do. Using a combustion-driven leaf blower produces emissions equivalent to “driving from L.A. to Denver in a 2017 Toyota Camry,” said the mayor of San Anselmo, Calif., defending her city’s ban on certain landscaping equipment. That is an improvement on a 2011 estimate by the car-shopping experts at Edmunds, one of whom found that doing “a half-hour of yard work with this two-stroke leaf blower” produces the emissions equivalent of driving a pickup truck “from Northern Texas to Anchorage, Alaska.”
But scratch the surface of the case against noisy, smoky lawn-care equipment and you’ll often find that what their opponents really don’t like is the effect on their quality of life.
The machines intrude upon “the lovely sounds of spring, summer, and fall,” according to USA Today contributor Ellie Gruber. They kick up “disease-causing mold and fecal matter” at “200 miles per hour,” per the editorial writers at the Maryland Daily Record. They menace the already marginalized migrant laborers who landscape the locals’ yards “with leaf blowers just inches from their lungs and ears,” the author Michael Shapiro told the California paper the Press Democrat. Insisting that his neighbors “use rakes” instead, the author exposed the pretextual nature of his concern for yard workers. Suddenly, the neighborhood was once again a placid place “where we could hear ourselves think, listen to birds sing and enjoy the sound of our neighbors playing Mozart.”
Adopting alternatives to gasoline-powered tools involves only the “simplicity and speed of personal decision,” Montclair, N.J.–based opinion writer Jessica Stolzberg wrote in a New York Times op-ed. That decision demands nothing more of you than trashing the arsenal of antiquated mowers, blowers, and string trimmers in your garage and replacing them with electric alternatives.
By now, the obstacles to widespread adoption of such alternatives are familiar. Lawn equipment powered by lithium-ion batteries is more expensive to purchase than gas-powered versions, though the minimal maintenance requirements might offset some of the higher purchase price associated with electric implements. Electric equipment pollutes less, though the environmental benefits it provides are debatable given the destructive strip-mining practices associated with the production of these batteries. But, from the consumer’s perspective, cost–benefit analyses sidestep the most important consideration: Electric landscaping equipment is just not as powerful as gas-powered tools.
Electric push mowers and leaf blowers will clear a quarter-acre suburban plot just fine. But if you live anywhere beyond the exurban radius around the major metropolitan areas where America’s tastemakers reside, chances are that you’re sitting on more mowable acreage than that. An electric-only future would compel a property’s caretakers to devote vastly more time, energy, and resources to a job that gasoline-fueled equipment can mop up on a Saturday morning.
The attack on effective appliances does occasionally encounter a hard target, with pro-ban activists and their critics fighting decades-long stalemated battles over contested terrain. In 2007, George W. Bush signed a law designed to gradually phase out inefficient incandescent light bulbs. Barack Obama accelerated the phase-out by tightening efficiency standards via regulatory mechanisms. In 2019, however, the Trump administration rolled those requirements back, giving incandescent bulbs a new lease on life. But in 2022, Joe Biden’s Department of Energy reimposed Obama-era lumens-per-watt standards designed to finally bury the filament bulb.
The effort to snuff out incandescent lights for good has continued despite the clear preferences of consumers, particularly low-income Americans. In 2018, University of Michigan researchers found that high-efficiency LED light bulbs “are more expensive and less available in high-poverty urban areas than in more affluent locations” and that the cost to upgrade “was twice as high in the highest-poverty areas.” Not only is the expense a burden; some LED adopters aren’t satisfied with the quality of light the new bulbs produce.
“Obviously enough, through millennia of human existence, the point of reference for artificial illumination was firelight or lamplight,” author and columnist Tom Scocca wrote for New York magazine. There is simply no replacement for “that ineffable and as yet irreplaceable glow” produced by incandescent bulbs. But beginning in August, with the exception of industrial applications like heat lamps, the government will formally retire Thomas Edison’s design. You will be able to purchase only LED lights — for your own good, of course.
The irrepressible self-righteousness of America’s technocratic social engineers may know no limits, but politicians who are responsible to voters just might learn from some of the green movement’s failed experiments. Take the State of New Jersey’s woeful example. In 2022, the Garden State implemented a policy so profoundly foolish that most residents probably doubted it would ever go into effect: an outright ban on single-use packaging — including food containers, plastic shopping bags, and even paper bags — in big-box and grocery stores.
Advocates of this policy routinely present circular logic by insisting that the success of their proscription can be measured in the number of people who comply with it. Yes, banning bags is an effective way to ban bags. But by any other measure, the switch makes little sense.
The alleged environmental benefits are indefinable. Scuttling plastic bags forces consumers to purchase and tote around reusable shopping bags, which require more energy and resources to produce (one European estimate found that reusable bags must be reused 7,100 times before they compete with plastic bags’ carbon footprint) and are less sanitary (as some might recall from the pandemic). The practical impact of the ban was so pronounced for disabled and low-income residents and the charities that serve them that the state baked into the law loopholes that temporarily allowed certain institutions to avoid complying with it.
The only observable effect of the ban has been to make daily life marginally more expensive and noticeably more annoying for New Jersey residents. The same might be said of far-more-widespread (but ever so gradually disappearing) restrictions on plastic straws. Straw restrictions — which, I kid you not, were conceived in response to a 2015 video shot by a Texas A&M scientist of a sea turtle struggling to dislodge a straw from its nostril — quickly made disposable plastic tubes into sought-after pieces of contraband.
Hoarding plastic straws became the preoccupation of what the New York Times derisively deemed “die-hards.” The reactionaries were admonished for refusing to adopt the plastic straw’s ready replacement: the paper straw, which functions for all of ten minutes before dissolving into a wash of particulates that gluts your drink and coats your mouth.
These campaigns against contrivances that improve the quality of daily life are not justified by clear environmental or material benefits. They are costly impositions on the time and resources of everyday Americans — downsides that their advocates apparently don’t worry about. If they find any inconvenience in their preferences, they subordinate that concern to their ideological goals.
As consumers, they have that right. But the policies they support force a lifestyle brand on everyone else and display contempt for all who disagree. By itself, an electric range, a heat pump, an ugly LED bulb, or a paper straw is a minor irritation. In a mandated aggregate, they look like a society-wide assault on the dignity of personal choice. Activists, like-minded bureaucrats, and their allies in elected office are, in the name of climate change, waging war against products and conventions that make everyday life work. For the targets of their hostility, they would substitute alternatives that either perform less effectively or demand more of your time and money. And you’re expected to bear this burden indefinitely. Or at least until you communicate your displeasure in no uncertain terms at the ballot box.