Living the (Sustainable) Single Life: Nitty-gritty
By Judee Burr
Increasingly, people do not marry, or marry later in life. What is the environmental impact of a single person? Is it true that the increase in single households means a larger environmental impact and that living with a family is more environmentally friendly? If so, how can singles diminish their footprint on the environment?
Asked by Domenico Nesci, Rome, Italy
The rise of the singleton
Last year, we welcomed the seven billionth person to the planet; in 1950, the world had just 2.5 billion people. There could be 9 billion of us in 2050 according to the Population Reference Bureau—and where will we all live? Increasingly, alone. A report from the British Institute for Public Policy Research, for example, makes the prediction that more than one-third of all households in the United Kingdom will be single person homes by 2021. There’s no getting around the math: more people living more of their lives alone multiplies the total human impact on resources and the environment.
Are men or women more to blame for this increase in the single life? Although the number of men living alone is rising faster than the number of women, women pursue living alone more deliberately as a liberating lifestyle choice. According to the 2010 U.S. Census data, women compose 55.5% of people living alone in the Unites States. However, thinking about this as a “Bridget Jones” phenomenon doesn’t quite paint the right picture. Most women living alone are over 55 years old—in fact, elderly people are the most likely to live alone, because they have outlived a partner. The fastest growing group in solo living, however, is people aged 25 to 44, and men are more likely to make solo living a permanent choice.
Wealth has also been a significant factor in the rise of solo living. Euromonitor International found that the proportion of single person households is “closely correlated to living standards.” Not surprisingly, the proportion of single households is highest in developed countries—28.9% of households in Western Europe in 2006, and 26.7% in North America. As wealth increases, many people choose to livlilie on their own, even though it usually means spending a larger percentage of their income on housing. It is no longer assumed that individuals must build their lives around marriage and family. That’s fine, but it means single people are missing out on the environmental benefits of community living.
Living alone tends to go hand-in-hand with driving alone. Lots of non-singles drive alone too, of course, but that just means they, too, could be benefitting from the efficiency of car-pooling. In 2005, the U.S. Census reported that 87 percent of people in the United States drive to work, and that 77 percent of those drive alone. According to the Bureau of Transportation Statistics, there are about 137 million passenger vehicles in America—which is about one vehicle for every two people of driving age. Taken together, these facts suggest that singles will at least be part of the majority driving to work, and having no family means often means having no one to share the car with.
All that driving is harmful to the environment, rough on our state and federal roads and budgets, and comes with a host of social costs. But doubling up can cut your impact in half. Public transportation and car-pooling programs provide solutions to the damaging impact of driving alone. Public transportation isn’t always available, but the Internet makes connecting with friends, neighbors or coworkers a fast process. Want to arrange to car pool? Zimride is one popular ride-sharing website. Biking may also be an option—although areas without bike lanes and other accommodations can make it difficult to use the bike as a form of long-distance transport. Advocating for a more sustainable transportation infrastructure in your area is ultimately the only way to get away from car use, but, in the meantime, car-pooling is crucial. Two people riding in an SUV use the same amount of gas as one person driving in the SUV alone.
There is not enough research available to explain the exact correlation between solo-homeowners and their average transportation choices. While it is important to recognize that driving alone, like living alone, has a significantly damaging impact on the environment, that is not to say that people living alone are the majority of people driving alone. In fact, research by Euromonitor shows that the growth in single-households has largely occurred in urban areas, making more environmentally friendly forms of transport possible, like public transit, the bike, or your own two feet. Although it would be interesting and informative to learn whether people who live alone are people who, on average, drive alone, we have all the facts we need to determine that living and driving solo each represent an inefficient use of resources.
Whether at home or on the road, though, Americans like space—I certainly did when I was growing up. If someone told me that my family and I should move to a smaller house, and my three sisters and I should share a room – all for the benefit of saving energy – I would have called him crazy. There has to be a way to live comfortably and sustainably, though, to have the space we need, and use it efficiently. Finding a different and more environmentally friendly way of accommodating something we all value is in the best interests of both people and the planet we all depend on. Co-housing across Europe seems to be achieving this now. Participants still have a modest amount of personal space, supplemented by extensive community gathering spaces – like common dining spaces, living room, and a common garden. Besides, in these economically challenging times especially, co-housing can be significantly less expensive than living alone. Making such a big change for the benefit of the environment might seem scary or intimidating – but the reality is, it might leave singles with a house full of friends and a little extra money, rather than ruling over their own lonely, energy-intensive islands.
JUDEE BURR, ’12, is majoring in earth systems and philosophy.
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