The planet is burning. Why do golf courses still exist?

This spring, I’ve grown fond of my community garden. It represents everything nature should be—and everything golf courses are not

July 04, 2021
St Andrew's golf course in Fife. In the UK, twice as much land is given for golf than it is for housing. Photo:
St Andrew's golf course in Fife. In the UK, twice as much land is given for golf than it is for housing. Photo:

Since spring this year, I’ve been finding solace in a community garden down the road. On one particularly sunny day, I excitedly hurried to the garden to check on the peppers I planted a while ago. When I arrived, I saw my neighbour Claire, a retired biology professor, cutting one up. “Hey! What are you doing Claire? They’re mine!”  

“Yours?” she interjects with a swift turn of her head. “These aren’t yours, my love. They belong to everyone here! The seed that grew this pepper came from the one before, and it will seed a hundred more. That’s the beauty of gardening like this Oli.” 

Community gardens are growing in popularity in Britain. They promote healthy lifestyles, community engagement and an understanding of how to treat and care for the land. Perhaps most importantly, they point to a more sustainable way of life. Some are situated on public land, while others are owned privately but have been bequeathed to the community. Either way, the land is not “owned” by any single entity: it is democratically managed and accessible to all.  

But barely a few miles away from the community garden lie at least three golf courses. Each of them, on their own, is at least one hundred times the size of the garden. They are mostly frequented by people who live on the road locally known as “millionaires’ row.” While I have no doubt that those people lucky enough to afford the membership fees are feeling the health and social benefits of regular games with their friends, sadly the impact of golf courses on planetary health is far from beneficial.  

The debate about the sustainability of golf courses is contested: many reports extol their benefits to physical and mental health of the golfers who use them, as well as how the planting of a deliberately wide variety of trees and fauna increases the biodiversity of the area.  

However, there is also a great deal of research that points to their dire environmental record. First, there is the gargantuan water usage—in the US alone, over two billion gallons of water is used every day to irrigate golf courses. There have also been studies on the high levels of toxicity that effect the local residents and environments that surround courses, due to the heavy pesticides used to maintain them (so much so that some argue it is deadly). Even the very construction of a golf course involves materials that have a negative environmental impact.

There are moves to reduce the environmental toll of golf courses— recycling water, for example—but that does not address the glaring issue: that so many resources are being used for land set aside for a select few. There are over two million acres of golf courses in the United States.

Golf courses disproportionately consume resources; to put it bluntly, they suck up water, poison the soil and enclose the land to the detriment of the social and environmental health of the community. Golf courses represent a luxurious use of land that the planet can no longer sustain. They are the very antithesis of the community garden that treats land as the precious resource it is.

The golf course and the community garden represent the two poles of how, and to what ends, we can relate to nature: the former misuses and consumes the land for the few, while the latter nurtures it for the many.

There’s been a welcome change: during the coronavirus lockdowns, when access to large open spaces was at a premium, some golf courses were opened up to become public parks—and they are not turning back. And even before Covid-19, golf courses were being repurposed as playgrounds, swamps, wildflower preserves and sites for affordable housing.

Given the pressing and continual climate emergency we are facing, fiddling at the edges of our current social system will no longer cut it. As Greta Thunberg has said: “We need system change not climate change.” Such a radical shift will not be easy, but as I argue in my new book, it is entirely possible: it is not more difficult that putting a community garden onto every golf course in the world. We just need to realise why it’s so vital to do so before it’s too late. 

We could well heed the words of my neighbour Claire, as she was chopping up the community garden peppers: “One pepper can grow a hundred more. And we can use them all without any interference from the market. It’s the most radical anti-capitalist thing we can do.”