How green is your green?


What a difference a decade makes.

In the early 1990s, Japanese environmentalists feared that golf courses were going to carpet the country, wipe out its forests, pollute its rivers and poison its wildlife. Today, golf talk is more about buyouts and bankruptcies than biodiversity.

But despite the moribund economy and greater awareness of the environmental threats posed by courses, golf here remains far from “green.”

When I first flew into Japan more than a decade ago and looked down at Chiba Prefecture as the plane approached Narita, it seemed all I could see were golf courses.

Then, as I waited on platforms, rode trains and walked the streets of my new homeland, golf indeed seemed to be everywhere: Multistory driving ranges draped in netting, as if to camouflage their trespass on the skyline; salarymen in various states of sobriety driving imaginary balls down imaginary fairways with imaginary clubs; and old men on side streets, often in pajamas, practicing their swings in blissful oblivion.

It all seemed pretty harmless, if rather daffy.

However, when I became The Japan Times’ environment columnist in 1992, I began hearing reports of a more disturbing side to Japan’s infatuation with the dimpled white ball. By 1994, I was well aware of the threat golf courses and resort development posed to the environment, and that summer I wrote several columns about it.

Back then, there were 2,016 golf courses in Japan, with 315 more under construction, 80 with permits to begin construction, and about 1,300 others planned. Thanks to the bubble economy, Japan had become home to almost one in 10 of the world’s courses and an estimated 20 million golfers — nearly one in six Japanese.

Even then, though, course development had passed its zenith. Economic malaise was creeping into the resort business, and anti-golf-course protests were falling onto increasingly receptive ears. That summer, Kumiaki Hanaoka of the Consumers Union of Japan told me, “Since 1988, when the anti-golf-course movement became widespread, plans for 720 courses have been canceled.”

Today, thanks more to recession than anti-golf activists, the number of courses in operation has stalled at around 2,400. The glamour of golf seems to have lost some of its luster, too.

According to a report last summer by the Institute for Free Time Design, golf courses and driving ranges were tied as Japan’s ninth-most-popular participation sport, with each drawing more than 13 million participants. Assuming these groups of players overlap to a large extent, the number of players has fallen considerably since the bubble burst in 1991.

With fewer players, courses now are less of an environmental threat than they once were, as expenditures on many of the polluting or toxic maintenance chemicals have been cut. Also, thanks to growing environmental awareness and government guidelines on chemical use, conservation efforts have improved.

Nevertheless, golf courses are far from environmentally benign — even though they feature trees, bushes and grass. It is perhaps easy, but mistaken, to regard them as sculpted nature preserves.

Eight years ago, I quoted a student writing for a university journal who captured this misconception beautifully. “The construction of golf courses doesn’t disrupt the natural environment,” he asserted. “The point here is that conserving the natural environment is not leaving it alone, but taking care of it. A forest left alone will waste away someday. But the forests on golf courses remain full of life 10 years after their construction. From this point of view it is not too much to say that the construction of golf courses is effective in producing and keeping forests green.”

Today the irony is clear. Thanks to growing environmental awareness, people today are far more likely to recognize that forests can take care of themselves just fine, and golf courses are about as natural as concreted river banks. Unfortunately, though, the true ills of golf courses remain largely hidden.

In a 1999 article titled “Towards a Greener Game,” Chris Reuther lays out the case against traditional golf courses. “Golf is played on painstakingly groomed courses with complex irrigation systems, where grass height is often measured to the (millimeter) . . . (and) golf courses around the world have been incessantly mowed, watered, fertilized and treated with a broad range of herbicides, insecticides and fungicides — often with little concern for how these practices might affect nearby water and wildlife.”

Reuther, a science writer with The Academy of Natural Sciences in the United States, asserts that in the U.S., “the average golf course superintendent applies over 20 kg of pesticides to each acre (50 kg per hectare) of golf course per year,” including chemical poisons that kill insects, plants and fungi.

Based on this figure, Reuther calculates that U.S. golf courses — about 15,000 in all — use more than 5 million kg of chemicals annually. Globally, there are some 25,000 courses, each of which requires three to five times more chemicals per unit of area than agriculture.

Unfortunately, too, golf courses are built for porosity, which ensures that a lot of the chemicals sprayed on them soon reach water courses, rivers and lakes, and permeate into ground water. Consequently, these toxins can kill insects, birds, fish and mammals way beyond the courses’ boundaries.

They can also harm golfers and green-keepers. Reuther cites a 1996 study in the American Journal of Industrial Medicine that found “golf course superintendents have an elevated risk of developing certain types of cancer.”

Fertilizers, too, are heavily used on golf courses, and when these leach into nearby waters they cause algal growth that can suffocate all other life.

But chemicals are not the only environmental threats. An average golf course requires the clearing and “face-lifting” of 40 to 80 hectares of land — which of course means valuable wildlife habitat is lost.

Even water use is a problem. “Maintaining the turf grass on one golf course requires between 500,000 and 800,000 gallons [1.9 to 3 million liters] of water per day,” Reuther writes, citing figures from the National Golf Foundation.

These days, though, golf isn’t just causing problems for the environment; the industry is having financial problems of its own as well.

Industry data show that more than 100 courses went bankrupt in 2002 — a number that has doubled every year since 2000. This has created an attractive market for foreign firms that have begun scooping up courses on the cheap. According to the New York Times, the U.S.-based investment-banking firm Goldman Sachs bought 30 Japanese golf courses in 2001, and last month was reportedly bidding for a company with 11 more courses among its assets.

What Goldman Sachs plans to do with all these courses is unclear. Certainly its executives — golfers among them, no doubt — could hold on to the courses till Japan’s economy rumbles back to life and golf once again becomes profitable. The wait, however, would be costly, and perhaps interminable.

Or better yet, in land-starved Japan, rather than encouraging millions to chase little white balls around an artificial landscape that guzzles water and oozes chemicals, why not try this: Turn these golf courses into eco-neighborhoods, featuring energy-efficient solar- and wind-powered houses set among stands of trees, with ponds and streams and grassy parks for children to play in.

One reason deflation is gutting the housing market (and certainly why our family is not buying) is that housing in Japan is built for obsolescence. So here’s a chance to create communities that inspire permanence and sustainability, and which — even if expensive — would likely attract buyers in droves.

Of course, a couple of tennis courts wouldn’t hurt either.