Divorce Your Spouse, Harm The Environment – or – “How an English King Killed The Planet 500 Years Ago”


“Environmental Impacts of Divorce” (pdf here) reads the title of an accepted manuscript soon to be published the highly accoladed journal PNAS (press release)

You meet the love of your life, you marry them – you move into one house. That’s one house to heat, and one house to supply potable water to – see where I’m going here?

A statistical remedy: Fall back in love. Cohabitation means less urban sprawl and softens the environmental hit.

Some stats from the paper’s abstract:

  • In 12 chosen countries, if every divorced individual remarried, there would be over 7 million fewer households.
  • The number of rooms per person is 33-95% higher in divorced households than married households
  • In the US, divorced households use 42-61% more resources than their (un)happily married counterparts
  • In the US , 73 billion KWh of electricity would have been saved in 2005 had every divorced person remarried, as well as 627 billion gallons of freshwater

Yea, I’ll say it – Bullshit. What do you think? It does make some sense – sense that no one bothered to look into until now – but really, its addressing a much older and larger problem: do we live alone or together?

Ok, time for back-of-the-envelope mathematics. Assuming 100% of the energy required for these households is from coal (worse case scenario), and assuming 207 lb C are released for every 15 million Btu of energy (convert BTu to KWh here; thus turns into ~2.75e-8 kg C per KWh), then those 73 billion KWh (sounds big doesn’t it) translates into ~2 tonnes carbon per year.

This a veritable drop in the US anthropogenic carbon emissions bucket of ~2 million tonnes C per year. What about water use? Well, 627 billion US gallons converts to the equivalent of ~0.5% of the total volume of Lake Erie.

Okay, the author’s don’t claim Divorce is causing climate change, but rather, “The results suggest that mitigating the impacts of resource-inefficient lifestyles such as divorce helps to achieve global environmental sustainability”

Sure, I’ll give them that.

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Dave Semeniuk spends hours locked up in his office, thinking about the role the oceans play in controlling global climate, and unique ways of studying it. He'd also like to shamelessly plug his art practice: davidsemeniuk.com

12 Responses to “Divorce Your Spouse, Harm The Environment – or – “How an English King Killed The Planet 500 Years Ago””

  1. Angry Kerrie

    Interesting how US Conservatives will stop at nothing to shame anyone outside the heterosexual nuclear family, even by using the environmental problems they claim don’t exist.

    This theory is complete bullshit. Single people like living in dense, urban environments where they can be near their friends and go out for “single, sexy and fabulous” martini nights with their girlfriends and then bus home drunk. I mean the closest thing single people get to the suburban dream is singing “all by myself” a la Bridget Jones in their single, fabulous bathtubs.

    Single people don’t need to take the car to the grocery store because they can carry the amount of food they need to buy. Single people in many towns group up with roomates. The typical married+kids lifestyle is what’s inefficient. Kids today, *stomps cane on floor* get driven everywhere. The baby “industry” is incredibly wasteful because God Forbid we reuse strollers, toys, clothes, or put neighbourhood cloth-diaper services in place. For some reason our North American culture has decided that a mind-stifling indoor suburbia is the best place for growing brains and bodies. This article has got to be kidding me. I feel like I should clean my dentures and go to a bridge meeting or something.

    I don’t know what’s up with this surge of “scientific” research that always mysteriously ends up with the conclusion that immoral, selfish, divorcing, undomestic women are ruining the world. First, U of C tells me that “housework” (no, not exercise, housework), prevents breast cancer. Then, estrogen from my SELFISH birth control is RUINING THE RAINFOREST. Now, divorce rights my foremothers fought for are a threat to the environment! The 50 FOOT TALL ESTROGEN-CONTAMINATED SELFISH WOMAN IS COMING TO RUIN YOUR LIFE!! RUNNNN!

  2. Angry Kerrie

    Ok…went a little postal there. Sorry.

    *stomps cane, demands soft-boiled egg*

  3. Erin York

    Kerrie, I think you are focusing a little too much on what Sex and the City has showed us about single people and what many single people are like in the states.

    I am from the states and lived in Seattle, NYC and Staten Island. While there certainly are a lot of single dwellers that live happily in New York City by themselves, there are an equal amount of them who will still live in the suburbs, a few miles away from their former flames, in order to provide a more stable environment for their children post divorce. The new houses are often the same size, so that each of the kids can have their own bedroom.

    As someone very skeptical of US politics and coordinating the Vagina Monologues at UBC this year, I really don’t think this piece is an attack on the single female. I also don’t necessarily think it is the Conservative agenda in the states to avoid divorce. Look at Rudy Guilianis history.

  4. David Ng


    PNAS is one of a few high tiered journals where members of the academy have a fast track approval process. Something like each member can use or sponsor up to 2 slots per year, where the normal scientific peered review process is not used (not entirely sure what the process is exactly, but I know in the past PNAS has had a certain bad rep for this nuance, although the argument is that you have to have very strong credentials to be made a member in the first place).

    Anyway, the paper can be found here (pdf), and if you look closely, this is one of those “direct submissions.”

  5. Dave Semeniuk

    I didn’t know that about PNAS…interesting indeed.

  6. Angry Kerrie


    Yeah, I was mainly joking about the SATC/Bridget Jones stuff. However, it is clear that any environmental damage comes from the inefficient suburban lifestyle, not marital status.

    If this isn’t a politically motivated article, why do they attack divorce and not marriage? They don’t focus on married versus single people-they focus on married versus divorced (fallen, godless!) people. Just because they don’t say he or she doesn’t mean it’s not a strongly gendered argument.

    David: no kidding about the peer review process. I was wondering that while reading it.

    I still demand a soft-boiled egg.

  7. Vivian

    Definitely true that this is no Conservative conspiracy to bash the divorced. But I think Kerrie’s got a fine point here.

    This is a classic jellyfish argument, where the it stings you out of nowhere and you don’t even realize until later that you got stung. From what I know and believe, there is no standard or straightforward formula for saving the environment (read: get back to your husbands!) It’s about what we as individuals or groups can do each to our own independent capacity, which is totally uncorrelated to any martial status.

    God researchers are getting really creative here with the stuff… either that or they’re getting desperate.

  8. Kerrie

    I just want to clarify that at no point did I say I thought it was a conspiracy. What I think, is that they have a big gap between their research and conclusions, a gap that also supports a US-conservative view on marriage (and we know which sex’s rights are to blame for the failure of the family!).

    Playing logical hopscotch should not earn you publication in a scholarly journal. This isn’t about a powerful group of people working in secrecy-in fact, they are being very blatant.

  9. Joel Stephanson

    My thought: few would consider divorce to be ideal. On the other hand, some people consider singlehood to be, well, at least a very good option.

    In light of this, it sort of makes sense to focus on how a reduced divorce rate specifically may improve our resource-efficiency, since it’s not the first option on anyone’s list anyway. We thus find, with a study like this (assuming it’s research is solid) that there is more than one good reason to stay together if/when possible. It makes the paper’s conclusion all the more compelling when there are multiple positive ramifications to be derived from its thesis.

    That said, you could also send out a call for all single people to get hitched, or else live in hippy communes (another worthy option, imo).

  10. Kerrie

    The paper gives no context to their cross-cultural research. They assume that an increase in rooms per household in Kenya would have the same environmental impact as in Canada. Given that the ecological footprint of the average North American is several times that of our Majority World counterparts, how is their data relevant outside North America?

    Within modern North America, how is the data useful from a policy perspective? Discouraging divorce and encouraging living with your in-laws (good luck with that) seems like an awfully circuitous route to saving the environment.

    The convincing data that they do report does not seem to be a direct consequence of divorce, but a broader issue of lifestyle. Pre-colonial Iroquois had divorce but we didn’t see them building McMansions and driving SUV’s between mom and dad’s house did we? No attempt was made to disaggregate the data by childless vs. child-bearing couples, urban vs. rural or by income level, all of those factors seeming like they would heavily influence the outcome! Even if we were to disaggregate the data, what then? Well we might find that suburban, middle/upper class First World couples with children create additional resource usage after a divorce. Again, pretty circuitous. I would say divorce all you want and just put a grey-water toilet in your home, it would likely more than compensate.

    What I am left with after all these questions is an empty husk of an article, useful only for blaming and shaming people who have had unfortunate (or even…abusive?…) marriages. Don’t let the dry, statistical presentation fool you-these writers have their politics on their sleeve just as much as I do. They criticise an increasing culture of individual rights. Whose individual rights? I feel like I’m the only person who has a problem with this article’s agenda. Well if I’m crazy for holding these opinions, call me Kate Millett and throw me in the loony bin.

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