By Juliet Eilperin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, December 4, 2007
Divorce is not just a family matter. It exacts a serious toll on the environment by boosting the energy and water consumption of those who used to live together, according to a study by two Michigan State University researchers.
The analysis found that cohabiting couples and families around the globe use resources more efficiently than households that have split up. The researchers calculated that in 2005, divorced American households used between 42 and 61 percent more resources per person than before they separated, spending 46 percent more per person on electricity and 56 percent more on water.
Their paper, published yesterday in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, also found that if the divorced couples had stayed together in 2005, the United States would have saved 73 billion kilowatt-hours of electricity and 627 billion gallons of water in that year alone.
Married households use energy and water more efficiently than divorced ones because they share these resources -- including lighting and heating -- among more people, said Jianguo Liu, one of the paper's co-authors. Moreover, the divorced households they surveyed between 1998 and 2002 used up more space, occupying between 33 and 95 percent more rooms per person than in married households.
"Hopefully this will inform people about the environmental impact of divorce," Liu said in an interview yesterday. "For a long time we've blamed industries for environmental problems. One thing we've ignored is the household."
Liu, who directs Michigan State University's Center for Systems Integration and Sustainability, and research assistant Eunice Yu spent five years analyzing data from 12 countries, including Belarus, Brazil, Kenya and Greece.
Lester Brown, president of the D.C.-based Earth Policy Institute, said the study's finding made sense, but it is hard to craft public policies to address the problem of the increasing number of households in the United States and elsewhere. He noted that in many countries, such as Japan, women are choosing to marry later or not marry at all, which also expands the number of people living alone.
"I'm not sure how to get around this," Brown said. "Shifting to more energy-efficient appliances is the answer, not trying to prevent divorce or trying to make divorce more difficult."
There is one solution to this conundrum, the study's authors found: Individuals who remarry soon establish new households that use the same amount of resources as married couples who have never divorced.
Ralph Cavanagh, a lawyer at the advocacy group Natural Resources Defense Council who has studied this issue for decades, said the findings serve as an argument for marriage and cohabitation, rather than as reason not to divorce.
"There's strong evidence, which emerges clearly in this paper, that merging what otherwise would be separate households will reduce energy and other resource needs," Cavanagh wrote in an e-mail. "The best advice to those who are miserable together is not, however, to avoid divorce for the sake of the environment, but to find someone else as quickly as possible."
Liu, who recently celebrated his 20th wedding anniversary, said he also tries to practice what he preaches. "I'm not divorced, and I've not thought about divorce," he said.
The study does deliver a warning to men and women headed down the aisle, Brown said.
"It would suggest we should be a little more careful when one's marrying to make sure the marriage is going to last, but that would be counter to the trend we've seen in recent decades, at least in this country," he said.