David Boyle

What does divorce have to do with sustainability?

Green Futures, 9 November 2000

D-I-V-O-R-C-E. We have to spell it out so that the environmentalists can't hear.

After all, green means juggling hedgerows, effluent and ozone, right? It's a kind of intrusion to write about marital breakdown in a magazine devoted to a green future. I mean, they've got nothing to do with each other.

Or have they? It's true that environmentalists haven't yet latched onto divorce as a major problem, along with pollution, dwindling resources and environmental degradation - still less of sustainability.

Yet as we broaden the definition of sustainable to include the more human or psychological roots of problems - our addiction to cars, the way we tackle misery by going to the shopping malls - there is growing evidence that our collective inability to make our relationships work could be undermining our ability to save the planet.

While we were all blaming the crazy economic system or people's pig-headed greed, a senior executive at Ford UK has been quietly admitting that actually, yes, divorce is rather good for car sales. Divorced couples tend to buy two.

And when you think about it, that's not all. It isn't just that people buy more when they're unhappy. When families split up they tend to duplicate the raw materials they need - two televisions, two sets of cutlery, two sets of kitchen equipment. Even two sets of toys: children in divided families like to have a complete set in each home.

"It is difficult to argue that society is actually better off with smaller household size," says Mayer Hillman, a fellow of the Policy Studies Institute. "Quite apart from whether people are happier living on their own, it means more energy for cooking and heating. It means more packaging for smaller packets."

There's no doubt about it. If more than 40 per cent of British marriages end in divorce, as they currently do, that is likely to have a major effect on consumption of raw materials.

Under the current, much-derided measure of economic achievement known as GNP, this is a success. More divorce means more money - for somebody. Not of course for the poor couple involved. But for the distant hope of sustainability, it's not a success at all.

And one of the most important impacts the divorce rate has is on the countryside. The latest controversial extrapolation is that the UK will require another 3.8 million homes by 2016 - many of them in the south east, many on green field sites, many of them for single people.

In fact, thanks to burgeoning divorce, as many as one in three of us are expected to be living alone by 2003. Despite that, the housebuilders seem intent on churning out the usual three-bedroom fields of ticky-tacky for us to rattle around in.

"For a long time, design for single people was the Cinderella for house builders," says Alison Ravetz, author of The Place of Home and one of the few academics to have studied the history of such matters. "They were expected to be lodgers in someone else's house. The assumption was that a single person's life was isolated, that they never invited anyone to dinner."

Clearly the failure to design homes for singles hasn't prevented their rapid rise as a demographic group.

There may also be more profound impacts on our consumption patterns and sustainability because of what family breakdown can do to people.

Children of divorced parents are more likely to get into trouble, perform badly in school, get stress-related illness and get divorced themselves. When the 'aga saga' novelist Joanna Trollope researched her book about divorce, Other People's Children, she said she had never come across so much hidden pain. "I regard it as a personal holocaust when the parents separate," wrote the Tavistock Clinic psychiatrist Sebastian Kramer.

Perhaps it's not surprising, in these circumstances, that children are becoming such consumers - aided and abetted by the shopping malls and targetted adverts, 20,000 of which the average American seven-year-old is now seeing on TV every year.

Even Business Week is worried: "Instead of transmitting a sense of who we are and what we hold important, today's marketing culture is instilling in them a sense that little exists without a sales pitch attached and that self-worth is something you buy at a shopping mall," they wrote recently.

It's hardly a prescription for a sustainable, low-consumption world, and the evidence is that children from broken homes are more susceptible than most.

Yet the divorce rate rises consistently almost as fast as the FTSE-100 or the Dow Jones. And since the corporations and share-holders do so well out of the situation, perhaps that's not surprising either.

Nor is it surprising that it should now be so easy. It takes only 20 minutes to produce the papers needed for a divorce through the US QuickCourt interactive computer system.

Of course, it isn't divorce in itself which is the environmental problem. This is no conservative moralistic plea for tough laws to enforce family life. If people never got married at all, their single lives would have a similar effect on sustainability. It's our failure to sustain relationships that causes the damage. I should declare an interest too: I'm not divorced, but I've consistently failed to sustain my relationships too. And to think I've been buying recycled kitchen roll all these years.

So what can we do about it? Are there environmental policies which can go some way to tackling the crisis?

On the face of it, there aren't. The last thing we want is the green police knocking on front doors, enquiring about the state of your marriage, or haraguing divorcees - who may have enough to contend with already - until they hang their heads in shame for devastating the earth.

But, as Mayer Hillman suggests, if there is an urgent attempt to slow the greenhouse meltdown, there might have to be measures in place to encourage more communal living - maybe tax breaks for living together or local counselling services.

"I think we are willy-nilly going to have to go towards rationing fossil fuels, and that may give a huge boost to the promotion of convivial living in company - it doesn't necessarily have to be the traditional model of husbands and wives," he says. "We may find ourselves looking for ways of helping people see the virtues of living together, and the economic, social and environmental benefits of doing so."

Local counselling services seem especially necessary in some of the new commuter belt estates. When the marital counselling organisation Relate opened an experimental service at a doctor's surgery in the Essex commuter belt in 1991, they were completely overwhelmed.

The South Woodham Ferrers surgery offered a free 45-minute counselling session for stress and loneliness. Within two months, they had become so over-stretched with the demand that they had to close altogether. Who knows what they could achieve if it was considered a priority.

The emotional literacy campaign Antidote is planning its first emotional and social 'audit' in a housing association in south London, looking at how the social dynamics, legal structure and architecture affects the people who live there. It's the first of what they hope will be many similar projects, building up into an emotional index of the UK as a whole.

"Housing is an incredibly conservative sector at every level," says Antidote director James Park. "Perhaps that's not surprising because it's so emotionally laden. People's sense of emotional powerlessness may well emerge in the way they act out on the environment. And hypothetically at least, people's fears about the state of the environment may be a contributing factor to people finding it less easy to negotiate stresses in their relationships as well."

So maybe it's not just divorce damaging the environment - maybe the environment exacerbates divorce. Maybe there is something about the way we design the places we live which could help.

Some years ago, I reviewed a so-called 'Home of the Future', sponsored by British Gas at the Ideal Home exhibition, which had almost no internal walls and next to no privacy. Had I made the mistake of living there with a wife and family, I probably would have been divorced within weeks.

It raises the question of whether houses could be designed to help people get along. And if we can improve the design of houses, why not institutions or housing estates?

Clearly some environments sustain relationships with neighbours better than others. Terraced housing - without the enforced friendliness of adjacent front doors - is known to be far happier than the disastrous high rise developments of the 1960s and 70s. But what about their effects inside the family.

Finding the tools to discover this is still some years away, but they are beginning to emerge.

Maybe the successful idea of measuring corporate performance according to their social impact - known as social auditing and featured recently in Green Futures - could be adapted to look at how housing affects the relationships of the people living there.

Alison Pilling, who runs the New Economics Foundation's Living Space project, has been carrying out social audits with housing organisations, and working with the construction industry to develop 'sustainability' indicators. These apply to house design and housing management, but that might also apply to people's social relationships too.

"There is already an established track record looking at sick building syndrome, and whether buildings make us ill," she says. "Living Space is about how people have control over how and where they live, looking at the sustainability of housing in a broader way."

Between them, the Living Space index and the Antidote index might give us a handle on planning relationship-friendly places.

How much can environmentalists use their skills to make relationships more sustainable? That is not clear. But clearly human misery can and does put block our collective progress towards greener futures.

At the very least, we are going to have to understand the range of pressures on modern life - social, psychological and psychic - that can make all the difference between sustainability and planetary exhaustion.


Back to top


title: books by David Boyle
Broke Voyages of Discovery Money Matters Blondel's Song Leaves World to Darkness The Little Money Book Funny Money The Tyranny of Numbers