Not from the Onion

by Russ Roberts on December 4, 2007

in Environment

I’m having a little trouble figuring out what to say about this story. The story is that divorce is bad for the environment. The Washington Post reports (HT: Mathieu Bédard):

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.

Well, yes. Two can live more cheaply than one. And of course, four can leave more cheaply than two because they can all watch the same TV and use the same overhead light. Thank goodness for the National Science Foundation that helped fund this study. (And some people say that we need more government support of basic research.)

"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."

The environmental impact of divorce? Are you kidding me? This is the cost of not understanding economics, not understanding trade-offs, not understanding the role of prices. The virtue of prices is that prices tell us what things cost. Some things are relatively cheap. Some are relatively expensive. Marriage is tough on cotton. When you marry, you tend to have kids. Kids tend to wear clothes and that means marriage is tough on cotton. But we don’t worry about that. We understand that the price of clothes discourages people from consuming too much clothing. And when clothing gets cheaper, as it has over the last 50 years, people buy more clothing as a result, use more cotton, devote more land to cotton farming and so on. That’s not a downside of marriage or having kids–people pay for the clothing they use. They take account of the cost when they decide to buy something. So when they do buy it or use it, that means that the benefits outweigh the costs. And that means that live IMPROVES and gets better, not worse when we use more of something.

In the case of water or electricity, if they’re subsidized, then yes, people ignore the full costs when they use more of those things, whether it’s because they’re divorced or simply because they want a warmer home or take a longer shower. The solution isn’t to decry divorce, it’s to fix the prices.

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 implication is that Liu hates his wife and she hates him. But are they considering a divorce? No way. They’re not that selfish. They care about the earth. Saints, that what they are. Saints.

The story closes with a similarly absurd quote from Lester Brown, head of the Earth Policy Institute:

"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.

Yes, that’s the reason to marry carefully. To make sure you don’t use too much water or electricity. Not because it’s tough on the kids or yourself to get a divorce. Here’s a secret. Don’t tell anybody. Living uses electricity and water and it’s worth it, most of the time. Here’s another secret. Civilization uses electricity and water. I guess we need more people living naked in caves.

If you don’t like how much electicity and water we use, explain to me why it’s the wrong amount. Then change the prices.

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caveat bettor December 4, 2007 at 3:50 pm

Change the prices?!? My-oh-my, many elected officials threaten to do exactly that–please don't help them.

Methinks December 4, 2007 at 4:08 pm

Divorce? why stop there? Obviously we need to selectively sterilize people and set the legal limit for living space at 9 square meters – regardless of family size (for the unsterilized few like Al Gore and John Edwards). Communal apartments are underrated.

trumpetbob15 December 4, 2007 at 4:20 pm

Perhaps we should all think about taking this idea to its natural conclusion. I am sure Al Gore or any of his rich Hollywood friends would not mind if I came to live with them right? What about a few other people, whole families even? Wouldn't that be the only real way to save the planet? Who's up for a little house-crashing party? (All in the name of the protecting the environment, of course.)

Steve December 4, 2007 at 5:28 pm

I loved the last line, "It would suggest we should be a little more careful when one's marrying to make sure the marriage is going to last". Of course, if we really did this it would mean fewer marriages which would result in the same thing as divorce (i.e., more people living alone). If Lester Brown were serious he would recommend thinking less about marriage and encouraging us to rush into it since that would be better for the Nature Goddess, at least temporarily.

Mauro Mello Jr. December 4, 2007 at 5:33 pm

Taking this very weak argument to its logical extreme, why not get everyone to marry everyone else instead? Wouldn't this negate the problems described in the article? There would be one single family, with an aggregate 'husband', an aggregate 'wife', children, relatives, etc., maybe even create a Central Family Planning and Coordination Agency! "Problem" solved! (What next, rate relationships with stars for their energy efficiency? Sheesh.)

diz December 4, 2007 at 7:11 pm

An excellent lesson in the perils of attemting to optimize a complex decision for only one variable, particularly one that most deciders wouldn't rank as very important in the decision.

ben December 4, 2007 at 7:23 pm

From the cited article:

One thing we've ignored is the household.

That is quite possibly the silliest thing I have heard for a long time.

The one thing the environmental movement has not ignored has been the household.

Wolfram Latsch December 4, 2007 at 7:53 pm

Torture is bad for the environment, too. See:

Chris December 4, 2007 at 10:48 pm

Divorce isn't the problem – its lack of cohabitation.

Single people are destroying the environment – whether they were previously married is rather besides the point.

jim December 4, 2007 at 10:57 pm

I swear I'm not making this up. The author Jianguo Liu actually holds the Rachel Carson Chair in Ecological Sustainability!

John S. December 5, 2007 at 7:11 am

To tie this in with the previous post, it looks like science is telling us that everything — and I mean everything — either causes global warming, or is itself caused by global warming.

That's coming close to being an unfalsifiable hypothesis.

Methinks December 5, 2007 at 8:32 am

Divorce isn't the problem – its lack of cohabitation.

Cohabitation isn't the problem – it's the usual outcome of cohabitation, children. According to environmentalists, all human existence destroys the environment, begging the question: why do environmentalists insist on reproducing?

diz December 5, 2007 at 11:42 am

It seems to me that if someone really wanted to make a lifestyle choice that minimized their impact on the environment, they would jog to the nearest waste-to-energy power plant (with Best Available Control Technology) and jump in the fuel hopper.

Since we don't see many people doing this, I think we can presume that most everyone is willing to trade environmental impact for higher quality of life.

Mathieu Bédard December 5, 2007 at 3:38 pm

"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.

This statement is the key part to this article. It's like saying "don't reduce the number of household, it could go back to what it originally was!"

KLR December 5, 2007 at 5:12 pm

As a result of these findings, we will be holding the inaugural meeting of "Polygamists for the Planet" this Saturday.

Paris Lovett December 5, 2007 at 5:37 pm

Environmentalists have transmogrified the concept of Original Sin. People by their very existence are guilty of sin against the Earth (God). Religious environmentalists are fundamentally against human life – they see human existence itself as a desecration of the Earth. There is something mean and outright puritanical in environmentalists' urge to control, minimize, and criminalize all human activity that consumes anything or leaves any trace behind (i.e. just about all human activity).

Why indeed to such absolutist environmentalists have kids? Perhaps it's the same kind of hypocrisy that has seen some hellfire-breathing preachers caught up in morals scandals.

Mesa Econoguy December 5, 2007 at 8:10 pm

Who says we “dismal scientists” have no sense of humour? Government sophistimicated plans are the greatest source of humour in our arena, no?

And in other governmental achievement news:
NASA Announces Plan To Bring Wi-Fi To Its Headquarters By 2017

[from America’s Finest News Source]

geoffrey December 5, 2007 at 9:41 pm


What a rant!!!

I loved (and agreed) with all of it..

vidyohs December 6, 2007 at 7:08 am

Being the natural skeptic that I am on anything having to do with gubmint using our money to "educate" us. I see a darker side to the implications contained in this study.

They want us to mate even with ugly people!!!

And/Or not worry about the sex of those we mate with!!!!!!

Get mated and stay that way!

AAAAAAAnd you will notice there was nothing age specfic contained in the data above so my take is that sooner we all mate the better…….why wait for even puberty. Hey, I guess this is good news for NAMBLA!

If a family in one household can live cheaper than one split into two households, then obviously it is indeed true that two families in one household can live even cheaper, or hell even three or more families in one household…….why not?….it protects the environment! The price that Russel insists on bringing in is here that you just never get to use the potty cause someone else is always in there. But, is any price too much to pay for the environmental enhancement that such a communal arrangement will bring?

OOOOOOOOF course not!

A guy walks into a bar, orders a drink and sits there muttering to himself. The bartender gives him his drink and asks what he is upset about.
The man says, "It's these damn socialists and their damn nanny state, socialist are just the worst kind of assholes!"

Another guy down the bar speaks up and says, "Sir, I resent the hell out of that comparison." The first asks, "Why, are you a socialist?"

The second guy answers, "No, I am an asshole."

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