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The Environmental Impact of Divorce

- December 9, 2007

Want to save the environment? Get married. Or if you’re already married, take in a boarder.

In the U.S. and all around the world, divorce rates are soaring. That trend has well-documented social and economic consequences, but now comes word that it has environmental consequences as well. In a just-published study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Eunice Yu and Jianguo Liu characterize divorce as a significant contributor to natural resource depletion and ultimately to environmental devastation.

At first blush, this may seem a bit far-fetched, but as the so-called “butterfly effect” in chaos theory — often expressed in the notion that the flap of a butterfly’s wings in Brazil can trigger a tornado in Texas — reminds us, small causes in a complex system can produce large effects.

Yu and Liu’s argument is simple: Divorces create more households with fewer people in them, and these in turn consume more space, energy, and water.

Well, okay, but it’s when Yu and Liu do the math that things get really interesting.

* Across the 12 countries that Yu and Liu consider, divorced households occupied 33-95% more rooms per person than married ones. In 2005, almost 40 million rooms would have been saved in the U.S. alone if the average number of rooms per person in divorced households had been comparable to that in married households.

* Ditto for water and electricity consumption. In the U.S. in 2005, divorced households spent 46-56% more per person on water and electricity. More than 73 billion kilowatt-hours of electricity and 627 billion gallons of water could have been saved in the U.S. that year if efficiency per person in divorced households had been the same as that in married households.

* Of course, there could be differences between the types of people who divorce and those who don’t. Thus, Yu and Liu followed up with an analysis of households pre- and post-divorce. In the U.S., households that divorced demonstrated a 61% increase in the number of rooms per person, compared with a mere 6% increase in households that remained married — with the corresponding increase in resource consumption. Then, after remarriage, resource consumption dropped again.

Divorce, as Yu and Liu grant, is “just one mechanism that leads to a decine in household size and extra households. Other mechanisms include declines in multigenerational households, delays in first marriage, increases in empty-nesters, and increases in separated couples” — each of which “may create environmental impacts similar to divorce.”

Perhaps it’s time for defenders of “family values” to join forces politically with the environmental movement?

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