Across the United States and in 11 other countries studied, soaring divorce rates have created more households with fewer people. Each time a family breaks up the individual members set up households that take up more space and consume more energy and water than the same people used when living together.
The findings of Professor Jianguo "Jack" Liu and Eunice Yu at Michigan State University are published in this week's online edition of the "Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences."
"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," he said.
Each member of a former couple uses more resources living separately than when living in the relationship. (Photo credit Kansas State U.)
Broken couples also increase demand for housebuilding and infrastructure such as new roads.
In the United States and 11 other countries such as Brazil, Costa Rica, Ecuador, Greece, Mexico and South Africa between 1998 and 2002, if divorced households had combined to have the same average household size as married households, there could have been 7.4 million fewer households in these countries.
"A married household uses resources more efficiently than a divorced household," said Liu.
In the United States alone in 2005, divorced households used 73 billion kilowatt-hours of electricity and 627 billion gallons of water that could have been saved if household size had remained the same as that of married households, the scientists found.
Thirty-eight million extra rooms were needed with associated costs for heating and lighting. The number of rooms per person in divorced households was 33 percent to 95 percent greater than in married households.
"People's first reaction to this research is surprise, and then it seems simple, but a lot of things become simple after research is done," said Liu.
A professor of fisheries and wildlife and Rachel Carson Chair in Ecological Sustainability at Michigan State, Liu has spent more than two decades integrating ecology with social sciences to understand how those interactions affect the environment and biodiversity.
"Our challenges were to connect the dots and quantify their relationships," said Liu. "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."
When divorced people returned to married life, the study found that their environmental footprint shrank back to that of consistently married households.
"Solutions are beyond a single idea," Liu 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."
The research, Liu said, shows that environmental policy is more complex than one single solution. He suggests that governments across the world may need to start factoring in divorce when examining environmental policy.
Copyright Environment News Service (ENS) 2007. All rights reserved.