Man Bites Leaf Blower

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

Yesterday The Washington Post showed how the spirit of the bygone era of blogging isn’t dead—at least when it comes to pet causes:

Atlantic magazine national correspondent James Fallows incisively analyzed President Barack Obama’s Dec. 6 address on the Islamic State, guiding readers through its contents and what the speech conveys about the president’s leadership style. A few days later, he employed the same authoritative voice to write about a topic usually reserved for the rare publication that ventures into the dredges of municipal spats: noisy leaf blowers. … Entry titles include “History’s Greatest Monster” and “What the devil does in his spare time.”

Many Post readers are discussing the profile and leaf blowers in general:

I really have never understood the local obsession with leaves. Having grown up on five acres, dealing with leaves was impossible, so we didn’t bother (not that we would have anyway). And why would you? You need those nutrients back in the soil. Indeed, most of what makes top soil is not dirt at all, but decaying plant matter.

I recognize that many people are really obsessed about manicuring relatively small patches of land. I suppose you have your right to that, and I am not going to argue that point. However, leaf blowers are noisy, and gas powered ones are highly polluting. Where you start generating negative externalities that affect your neighbors [explained more by a reader below] are where your rights stop and I get to argue my point.

This reader focuses more on the untapped potential of dead leaves:

Why do landscaping companies continue to collect leaves instead of mulching them? We’ve known for several years that yards benefit from the nutrients found in the decomposing leaves. Given that you probably need to mulch the leaves at least two or three times over the course of a season, why wouldn’t the landscaping companies encourage this? It might cost the homeowner a little more, but it benefits their lawn and the landscaping company generates more revenue. That would seem to be a win for everyone.

Another hassle are the leaf piles blown or raked to the curb for free pickup by Montgomery County [Maryland]. The piles invariably end up in the shoulder and are a real nuisance for bicyclists. And the vacuuming process fills the air with leaf dust, a breathing issue for anyone exercising in the vicinity. Once I even fell into a pile that had filled a drainage ditch to the rim.

Regarding the leaf dust, my Notes compatriot Caroline flagged a passage from an old New Yorker essay:

Peter continued, “And then we try to enjoy a salad from our organic garden, and it’s covered with a fine dust thrown up by these two-hundred-plus-mile-an-hour bazookas—a biohazard buffet of diesel soot, brake-lining particles, fungi, mold, spores, and animal fecal matter.”

Yum. Back to the Post profile, a reader dissents:

Is there any better illustration of the kind of out-of-touch elitist Americans are becoming increasingly fed up with? A bunch of people outsourcing their yard work to the working class now telling them to be quieter about it, and using the force of law to ensure compliance. And of course the solution is so simple! Just use some weaker, battery-powered blower that will cost 3-4x as much as the equipment they currently own and use. All because a few minutes a week, a couple seasons a year, there is some blower noise in the neighborhood.

A like-minded reader sniffs, “Liberal bona fides on display. ‘I don’t like something, so it should be banned.’” Another counters:

I don’t agree with Fallows, but what [such readers are] actually describing is democracy. He wants a remedy for what economists call a negative externality: a negative component of a transaction not reflected in the price that has a cost to third parties not involved in the transaction.  You might recall that many conservatives don’t like abortion and want to ban it—just one of many things they’d like to ban (e.g., gay marriage, gay sex). So don’t blame liberals; blame democracy.

One more reader has some recommendations:

While I don’t think gas-powered leaf blowers should be banned, I’m curious to know why the reporter described only one alternative: “They hired a lawn company that uses a cordless electric lawn mower that costs about $350 and uses a $900 rechargeable battery.” That’s a commercial-grade lawn mower, not a leaf blower, so of course it’s going to be much more expensive than the one a homeowner would use. Popular Mechanics published an article in September highlighting eight battery-powered leaf blowers that range in price from $150 to $370.

Fallows, for his part, “hope[s] every lawn-owner in America will get a Stihl BGA 100 battery-powered blower for Christmas.”