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Not from the Onion

Posted By Russ Roberts On December 4, 2007 @ 3:39 pm In Environment | Comments Disabled

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 B├ędard):

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 [1] 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 [2],
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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[1] Michigan State University: http://www.washingtonpost.com/ac2/related/topic/Michigan+State+University?tid=informline

[2] Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences: http://www.washingtonpost.com/ac2/related/topic/National+Academy+of+Sciences?tid=informline

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