Want to Go Green? See a Marriage Counselor

A new study says need for more housing as a result of divorce is having a bad effect on the environment

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Besides staying together for sake of the children, a new study says keeping your spouse is better for the environment. Homes occupied by fewer people—those split up by divorce, for example—take up more land and gobble up more energy and water.

"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," said Michigan State University conservationist Jianguo "Jack " Liu, who led the study.

A refrigerator uses about the same amount of energy whether it belongs to a family of four or a family of two. Housing units, even if they have few people in them, require resources to construct, and they take up space. They require fuel to heat and cool.

The survey of 12 countries showed the number of divorced households ranges from 40,000 in Costa Rica to almost 16 million in the United States at the turn of the 21st century. Lui and his coworker Eunice Yu calculated the impact of divorce on utilities and unused housing space per individual.

The United States, developing countries, and even places with strict religious rules regarding divorce are seeing more divorced households. "We see increases in consumption of water and energy and using more space everywhere," Liu said.

In divorced households, for instance, the study found the number of rooms per person was 33 percent to 95 percent more than in married households. In the United States alone, 38 million extra rooms were needed to shelter divorcees along with costs for heating and lighting.

In 2005, divorced U.S. households used an excess of 73 billion kilowatt-hours of electricity and 627 billion gallons of water compared with usage by married households.

In the United States and 11 other countries, including Brazil, Costa Rica, Ecuador, Greece, Mexico and South Africa, divorced households required an extra 7.4 million living quarters between 1998 and 2002 compared with the average number of households for married people.

What effect did getting back to together have on the planet? The study compared married households with households that had weathered marriage, divorce and remarriage. The environmental footprint shrunk back to that of consistently married households.

The research shows that environmental issues are complex and policy should consider more than a single solution, Liu said. "Governments across the world may need to start factoring in divorce when examining environmental policy."

—Sue Nichols, Michigan State University

The research was funded by the National Science Foundation, the National Institutes of Health and the Michigan Agricultural Experiment Station.

This report is provided by the National Science Foundation, an independent federal agency that supports fundamental research and education across all fields of science and engineering, in partnership with U.S. News and World Report.