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Save the world: stay married

Households torn asunder use more resources than homes still aglow with marital bliss.

Meghan Daum

December 8, 2007

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The American obsession with striking out on our own, with poster children as varied as John Wayne and Mary Tyler Moore, appears to be at odds with our other current obsession: saving the planet.

This is the gist of a study published Monday in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. When lead author Jianguo Liu compared divorced households (those headed by a divorced adult) with married households, he found that per capita, divorced households use 46% more electricity and 56% more water than married households. As for physical space, the study reported that the average divorced household in the U.S. offers a sprawling 3.7 rooms per person, while married people and their kin must make do with 2.5 rooms per person.

In other words, the splintering effect of divorce results in fewer people living under one roof -- and often one person living alone in a house. And as enticing as that may sound to anyone who's tired of sharing the television remote control, Liu's conclusion suggests this is equivalent to driving around in a gas guzzler all by yourself with the air conditioner on full blast and a cellphone needlessly plugged into the charger.

But laying blame on "divorced households" and lionizing marriage is also a bit of a canard. The study did not analyze resources used by never-married solo dwellers, people who cohabitate with partners or people who live with roommates or family members. Still, it seems safe to assume that the more elbow room we make for ourselves, the bigger our carbon footprints.

After all, it takes about as much energy for a single householder to preserve one container of Chinese take-out in the refrigerator as it does for the family of eight next door to maintain a supply of cold cuts and milk, if the refrigerators are created equal. It stands to reason that divorced people, living under two roofs rather than one, gobble extra resources, if only because they each have to have their own version of "Guitar Hero."

Of course, the real news here isn't that divorce is bad for the environment but that living with other people, whether or not they happen to be our spouse and/or offspring, is good for it.

So if we really want to save the planet, we should live in communes, bunk with roommates, rent out our basements to weird guys (who, we'll later tell the police, "pretty much kept to themselves") or, in a custom long practiced by unemployed philosophy majors, live with our parents until a) we finally give up and go to law school or b) someone marries us out of sheer pity.

The problem is, more Americans live by themselves than ever before (according to Census figures, 26% of U.S. households in 2005 consisted of one person, compared with 17% in 1970), and we're starting to see it as a choice we're all entitled to. With the exception of those who live in exorbitantly expensive cities like New York -- where having a roommate well into middle age does not signify being a loser as much as being unwilling to spend 80% of one's income on housing -- living alone is synonymous with being a grown-up. It's viewed as a crucial stop on life's journey, an essential precursor to marriage or domestic partnership or, in the absence of those institutions, as a far better option than living indefinitely with your buddies.

Having your own place accrues status points too, especially if your place is so large and well-appointed it could just as easily house a family of five. In the same way that SUVs convey assertiveness and a rugged, off-road lifestyle (not to be confused with actual ruggedness or off-road driving that really takes place off road), residing in a space that's larger than you need has become a hallmark of personal success and liberation. And although SUV drivers are losing their rough-hewn brio, the person who has three bathtubs but only one body to bathe is still considered god-like -- and not just because he's clean.

Even with a plummeting real estate market making possession of all that space a little less enviable, a lot us still think life is not sustainable without a walk-in closet the size of Gambia. So it's hard to imagine we'll be willing to get roommates, move back into our childhood homes or stay in bad marriages as a way of staving off global warming. Like the question of whether or not to have children (and remaining childless is one of the best conservation methods around), for most of us, the question of whom we live with is too personal to view in terms of carbon footprints.

Besides, a better case for staying married came not from a science journal this week but from Mississippi, where a man's wedding ring deflected a bullet and saved his life when his antique shop was robbed. "I knew being married was a good thing," Donnie Register told ABC News. "I just didn't know it was that good."

It might be even be better than 3.7 rooms of one's own.

mdaum@latimescolumnists.com