Actually, as weird as it might sound at first, the discovery — published in this week’s online edition of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences — makes perfect sense once you consider the typical result of divorce: two people and, possibly, children who once all shared one home now live in two separate 2,000- to 3,000-square-foot households with two sets of refrigerators, two water-heaters, two heating-and-air-conditioning units, etc.
“People’s first reaction to this research is surprise, and then it seems simple,” said Jianguo “Jack” Liu, who conducted the study with Eunice Yu, his research assistant at Michigan State University. “But a lot of things become simple after research is done. Our challenges were to connect the dots and quantify their relationships. People have been talking about how to protect the environment and combat climate change, but divorce is an overlooked factor that needs to be considered.”
Liu and Yu started out with a simple question: how do the world’s rising divorce rates affect humanity’s consumption of resources? They then examined housing space per capita and utility costs to show that divorce eliminates the economies of scale enjoyed by married families.
“Not only the United States, but also other countries, including developing countries such as China and places with strict religious policies regarding divorce, are having more divorced households,” Liu said. “The consequent increases in consumption of water and energy and using more space are being seen everywhere.”
In the U.S. alone, they found that divorce in 2005 led to the consumption of 73 billion more kilowatt-hours of electricity and 627 billion more gallons of water than would have been used had all those couples stayed married. Divorced people also raised the demand for housing by 38 million extra rooms, they found.
In only 12 countries (including the U.S., Brazil, Costa Rica, Ecuador, Greece, Mexico and South Africa) around the globe, divorce increased the number of households by 7.4 million between 1998 and 2002, the study reported.
Liu and Yu found that two other trends of modern life — fewer multigenerational households and more people staying single longer — also have a negative impact on the environment. On the plus side, though, they discovered that, when divorced people remarried, their environmental footprint returned to about the same size as in their previous marriage. So, good for you, Liz Taylor!
Liu said the study shows that creating positive environmental policies is even more complex than many governments might realize.
“Solutions are beyond a single idea,” he said. “Consider the production of biofuel. Biofuel is made from plants, which also require water and space. We’re showing divorce has significant competition for that water and space. On the other hand, more divorce demands more energy. This creates a challenging dilemma and requires more creative solutions.”
Are these social factors — couples getting divorced, kids living on their own longer, Grandma and Grandpa staying in their own homes on the other side of the country — really things to consider in tackling problems like climate change, rising energy demands and environmental protection? If so, how?