Weeds — Earliest manifestation of the unintended consequences of globalization

After being being pulled screaming and kicking into the special insane asylum that we call suburbia, where the overall objective seems to be to escape urbanism — ironically through the violent expropriation and quasi-urbanization of the wilderness, I have discovered that suburbia does have one significant benefit over city-living: You can create your own eco-system, a microcosm of the earth before man.

Our re-establishment of bulldozed- and paved-over flora, a small Panamanian jungle on the East Coast of the United States, now attracts a rich and hugely diverse fauna, which, amazingly, live in near-perfect harmony — sometimes even exhibiting symbiotic relationships and something nearing interspecies camaraderie, as when, for instance, the local gang of crows collectively chase of the falcon that is targeting our burgeoning pigeon population. It ain’t cheap to establish and maintain this eco-system, but the rewards are significant, including the joy of observing chipmunks preparing for winter through massive hording, being buzzed by hummingbirds, being rebuked by flying squirrels and blue jays for being late in putting out food, observing the Monarch on its intergenerational migration, and being robbed by raccoons.

Most importantly, however, it provides an oasis, where there is not need to think about wearisome subjects such as the impact of globalization — halt… what was that again?

Japanese Stiltgrass — A silent, but deadly foe

Japanese Stiltgrass

Over the last three to five years, our neighborhood yards have been invaded by Japanese Stiltgrass, a highly invasive species of weed, originating from Asia and imported to the United States in the early part of the 20th century, apparently as packing materials for goods imported from China, in what may very well be the first sign of the scourge of globalization.

Japanese Stiltgrass (Microstegium Vimineum) looks like miniature bamboo.   It germinates in April, grows through the summer, and can reach a height of up to three feet. Its pale spring-green leaves are about three-inch elongated ovals, with blunted points at each end, branching alternately from the wiry stem.   The weed’s seeding and flowering season is September and early October.

The weed has the dubious honor of being one of the fastest spreading weeds in North America, primarily because:

  1. it spreads by forming large monocultures (large clumps, if you will,) that shade and crowd out domestic grasses, including Zoysia grass;
  2. it can thrive in as little as five percent of normal sunshine, handily out-competing domestic grass;
  3. it tends to initially establish itself in the shaded areas of gardens, where it is not noticed;
  4. it spreads following disturbance, such as people or pets walking on in the yard or the yard being lawn-mowed;
  5. it is incredibly prolific at producing seeds, which in turn are long-lasting, with each weed capable of producing an astonishing 1,000 seeds per season, and each seed having a dormant life-span of three to five years in the soil;
  6. it, in its seed stage, can travel extensively, for instance, from neighborhood to neighborhood by way of a lawn-mowing service’s mowing equipment, or from your back-yard to your front-yard by way of your lawn-mower; and
  7. it is exceptionally deadly to domestic grass, killing 100% of all domestic grass in the area that it covers

The prolific seeding nature of this weed can be understood by the fact that, when you walk on the weed areas in September, you can actually hear and see the seeds spreading (it sounds like pop-corn popping and looks like a ticker-parade in New York City.)

I had observed the first sign of the Japanese Stiltgrass outbreak in my neighborhood and noted with some interest that it was progressing towards my plot of tranquility with the pace and inevitability of the German army in Russia in the Summer of 1941, and, so, I was not surprised when my back-yard was overwhelmed in one season, with Japanese Stiltgrass killing virtually all of the domestic grass I have.

Biological and Chemical Warfare

Fighting the weed

In North America Japanese Stiltgrass is not balanced out by its natural enemies and, therefore, it must be managed through a comprehensive — and expensive — program of applied biological and chemical warfare, with the biological component being me, hand-weeding and weed-whacking, and the chemical warfare being the application of massive amounts of supposedly eco-friendly weed-control and pre-emergent herbicides.

As Virginia Tech puts, it, in rather clinical terms, long-term management programs should emphasize prevention of seed-head formation to deplete the seed reservoir, which is a fancy way to say that we need to kill the seeds to stop the weeds and need to stop the spreading by kneeling a lot in the garden.

Having avoided entirely the use of chemicals, including weed-and-feed, for more than five years, the necessity of the application of weed-control and pre-emergent herbicide has been difficult to embrace.    Unfortunately, however, this particular manifestation of this particular Chinese import is so aggressive that we now have no choice, but to pollute our eco-system with chemicals.

The Economic View

Thinking about the economic consequences of combating this weed is interesting.   Successfully defeating the weed in my yard alone requires a five year economic and time commitment by me — and importantly — by my eight surrounding neighbors.  If during five years,  just one neighbor does not participate consistently, the weed will immediately re-establish itself in my yard, resetting the five year clock.

Assuming that every year I and my neighbors each spends $200 on pre-emergent weed-killer, spends $200 on amphibian friendly Roundup Pro, spends one hour spreading the weed, spends 48 hours through the season hand-weeding or weed-whacking to prevent extra growth, spends 24 hours lawn-mowing  throughout the season (you cannot control the spread from yard to yard if you use a lawn-mowing service,) then the direct economic impact over five years is $50,850 (I assume a leisure rate of $10 per hour for yard-work.)   And, of course, this replicates  throughout the neighborhood, because, like us, our neighbors will need to enlist their neighbors, and so on.

The math is truly astonishing and begs the question if buying trinkets that Walmart has imported from China is really saving the American consumer any money at all.    Moreover, if the economic consequence of this simple act, the import of glass and china, wrapped in materials that, ultimately, cause the introduction of a non-domestic, invasive weed into our eco-system, is so dramatic, the question then becomes one of what happens when you factor in the other consequences as well.   Consider, for instance, on the one end of the spectrum, the Brown Marmorated Stink Bug (halymorpha halys,) an agricultural pest that made is way from China to the United States in 1998 and is now wreaking havoc on fruit, vegetable, and farm crops on the East Coast of the United States, and, on the other end of spectrum, the whole-sale reduction in the industrial labor force and the adverse long-term economic impact of a lop-sided trade balance.

Is it possible that the cost of a consumer saving $1 on a drinking glass, is really $25 in societal and environmental charges — payable by the same consumer ?   Consider this question carefully next time you visit or consider investing in a retail chain relying on imports.

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