omnibus omnia

Big is beautiful, or, Why divorce is bad for the environment

In Catholicism, Christianity, Conservative, Distributism, Economics, Environment, Family, Life, News, Opinion, Religion, Science, Society, Values on December 12, 2007 at 03:25

Science now shows that, in our relentless quest for individual “independence” and “happiness”, we help destroy not only society but also the world itself.  

Recently, the news agencies published a strange story* about how a recent study (to be published soon by the US National Academy of Sciences) showed that the prevalence of divorce and smaller families has a negative impact on the environment.  In sum, it seems that 2 researchers at the Michigan State University, Jianguo Liu and Eunice Yu,  found that divorced households consume more energy and other resources than their married counterparts, resulting in a larger environmental footprint–the amount of chemical and other ecological change caused by activity.  The same effect, it seems, can be traced to the rise of smaller households, as opposed to the older multigenerational pattern (i.e., of parents, grandparents, maybe even aunts, uncles, etc. living together). 

I must say I’m surprised (or more accurately, astonished) that anyone’s surprised by the finding, though it is remarkable that it took so long for anyone to decide to make the study, so that Liu and Yu must be congratulated for their perspicacity. From an economic perspective, consumption in households is divided between those of its individual members and that of the whole group; and hence, the division of a larger household into smaller, separate units, even assuming that individual consumption remains constant, means a multiplication of group consumption.  From this, it is but another step to an ecological analysis of the resource and chemical effect of fissioned households; hence the reaction of Curt Jester:

They needed a study for this? Think of the time and money they could have saved if they knew the aphorism ‘Two can live cheaper than one’. Couples can announce to their environmentally conscience parents, ‘We have good news. We are going to be combining water and electric bills.’

To those of us who hold that the unity of the family is a fundamental value, this finding comes as good news.  Granted, as Curt Jester notes, the same could be used to justify “shacking up”, and does not provide unambiguous support for the Christian, nor even the humanist ideal of marriage.  Nonetheless, it does give another reason why  atomistic individualism, the state religion of the modern West, is erroneous; for the study tells us that individualism’s idealization of the person who stands apart from family and society–who listens to the beating of his/her own drum, to use Emerson’s (?) phrase–is unnatural not only in the ethical, but also in the ecological sense.  Apparently, in the relentless quest of youth for “independence”, and of married people  for “happiness”, they not only help destroy the fabric of society, but, in a microcosmic way, the fabric of the world itself. 

Of course, the study cannot be deemed strongly probative unless it is independently corroborated by other researchers.  Interestingly, no major controversy arose out of the Michigan study (perhaps because divorce has long ceased to be a contentious political issue), but in any case, I hope other scientists also study the interrelations of domestic life and the general ecology.  For now, it suffices to note that in the Michigan study, environmentalism, humanist economics or distributism**, and traditionalism have begun to converge under the auspices of science (unsurprisingly, if one understands them); and to note likewise its ironic twist to E.F. Schumacher‘s argument***: to have smaller consumption, we need bigger and more families.  I have no doubt that somewhere, in the Divine Presence or awaiting it, Schumacher, Chesterton and Muggeridge are gleefully sharing the joke. 


*Those who haven’t read the story of the Michigan study may check out the Science Daily, download the podcast of Scientific American, or  look through the Conservative Colloqium

**For a short, albeit polemical, summary of humanist economics from a Christian viewpoint, please see Anthony’s Basile’s essay (here).  Among blogs, The Distributist Review is specifically dedicated to its promotion,  while others like The Bride and the the Dragon are influenced by its principles. 

***I strongly recommend a reading of E.F. Schumacher’s Small is Beautiful: Economics as if People Mattered, in my opinion one of the most devastating critiques of today’s consumer capitalism ever written.  Those interested in his intellectual biography may also read “The Education of E.F. Schumacher“, a well-written essay by Joseph Pearce.


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