Monthly Archives: December 2007

Divorce = bad for the environment!

– student essay by Angelica Del Villar

In countries around the world divorce rates have been rising, and each time a family separates the result is two new households. “A married household actually uses resources more efficiently than a divorced household,’’ said Jianguo Liu, an ecologist at Michigan State University whose analysis of the environmental impact of divorce appears in this week’s online edition of Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. More households means more use of land, water and energy, three critical resources, Liu explains in an interview. Households with fewer people are simply not as efficient as those with more people sharing. A household uses the same amount of heat or air conditioning whether there are two or four people living there. A refrigerator used the same power whether there is one person home or several. Two people living apart run two dishwashers, instead of just one. Liu, who researches the relationship of ecology with social sciences, said people seem surprised by his findings at first, and then consider it simple. Some may think that some extra energy or water use may not sound like a big deal, but it adds up.

According to researchers the United States, had 16.5 million households headed by a divorced person in 2005 and just over 60 million households headed by a married person. Per person, divorced households spent more per person per month for electricity compared with a married household, as multiple people can be watching the same television, listening to the same radio, cooking on the same stove and or eating under the same lights. That means some $6.9 billion in extra utility costs per year, Liu calculated, plus an added $3.6 billion for water, in addition to other costs such as land use. And it isn’t just the United States. Liu looked at 11 other countries such as Brazil, Costa Rica, Ecuador, Greece, Mexico and South Africa between 1998 and 2002.

In the 11, if divorced households had combined to have the same average household size as married households, there could have been a million fewer households using energy and water in these countries.

‘‘People have been talking about how to protect the environment and combat climate change, but divorce is an overlooked factor that needs to be considered,’’ Liu said.

Liu states that he isn’t criticizing divorce because some people really need to get divorces. However, one way to be more environmentally friendly is to live with other people and that will reduce the impact.

So, what prompts someone to figure out the environmental impact of divorce?

Liu was studying the ecology of areas with declining population and noticed that even where the total number of people was less, the number of households was increasing. He wondered why.

There turned out to be several reasons: divorce, demographic shifts such as people remaining single longer and the demise of multigenerational households.

“I was surprised because the divorce rate actually has been up and down for many years in some of the countries … but we found the proportion of divorced households has increased rapidly across the globe,’’ he said.

So he set out to measure the difference, such as in terms of energy and water, land use and construction materials and is now reporting the results for divorce. The research was funded by the National Science Foundation, the National Institutes of Health and the Michigan Agricultural Experiment Station.

There is one solution to this conundrum, the study’s authors found: Individuals who remarry soon establish new households that use the same amount of resources as married couples who have never divorced. Ralph Cavanagh, a senior attorney at the advocacy group Natural Resources Defense Council who has studied the issue for decades, said the findings serve as an argument for marriage and cohabitation rather than as reason not to divorce.

There’s strong evidence that merging what otherwise would be separate households will reduce energy and other resource needs. “The best advice to those who are miserable together is not, however, to avoid divorce for the sake of the environment, but to find someone else as quickly as possible.” Science Daily News has more on this, and the abstract of the PNAS paper is online here.

What do sea otters and cat poop have in common?

– A student essay by Melinda Martinez

The southern sea otter (Enhydra lutris nereis) was listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act of 1973. After listening to Dr. Paul Crosbie, Associate Professor, Biology Department, CSU-Fresno during the inaugural Central Valley Café Scientifique on October 1, and after reviewing the recovery plan data, it became clear to me that the general goal of the Endangered Species Act to recover listed species until they are no longer in danger of extinction fell short.

There has been a lot of discussion and monies spent regarding the southern sea otter since 1973, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service formed a Southern Sea Otter Recovery Team (Recovery Team) and finalized a recovery plan 1991. While the Recovery Plan was controversial for its mammal population size of 5400 animals, the range extended from Point Conception, California, to the Oregon border, and its focus was on oil spills and commercial fishing. More scientific information was needed to support their endeavor. During one of the public reviews in 1996, two significant findings were reported. First, the number of dead sea otters stranded on the beach increased significantly from previous years. Second, large numbers of sea otters were reported near Point Conception at the southern end of the range.

As the efforts to mitigate oil spills and incidental mortality caused by commercial fishing activities were more successful, there still exist no explanation for the decline in the population rate of 5 percent per year between 1995 and 1999 per the Federal Recovery Plan for California Sea Otters. More scientific data was needed, made available and better understood by 2001 regarding the habitat degradation and human take and a proposed $10 plus million dollar budget over a twenty year period. With progress being made in the two areas previously mentioned, the focus and heightened awareness to the potential infectious disease resulting from increased immune deficiencies or elevated parasite and pathogen exposure became more evident as a factor. According to Dr. Paul Crosbie, 38 percent of the sea otters deaths are caused by infectious diseases. In the California, according to the Sea Otter Alliance, it has been estimated that seventeen percent of sea otters die from brain disease caused by single-cell deadly parasite, Toxoplasma gondii. This parasite moves among animals, particularly cat family, and humans on land and has migrated to the sea where it is attacking the sea otters immune system. According to the Sea Otter Alliance, “Sea Otters and other ocean mammals do not have immunity to the land-based parasite. Fifty two percent of the three hundred and five dead sea otters found and thirty percent of the two hundred and fifty seven live sea otters captured along the coast between 1998-2004 were infected. Of all dead sea otters found between 1998-2001, seventeen percent died from the parasite”.

It is clear to me that if we are to provide an opportunity for delisting of the sea otters, we have to continue with priority our efforts in better understand infectious parasites, identify steps to be taken and then mitigate their transmission. One question that needs to be answered: Is it feral cats or domestic cats – or both – who are putting most of the parasites into the environment? The simple passage of a bill by the State legislators and signed by Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger that raises the maximum fine for harming a sea otter to $25,000 and requires that all cat litter sold in California carry a warning label advising cat owners not to dump their pet’s dropping into toilets or storm drains is a start, but for the most part is lip service. As individuals, we can each do our part by:
• Don’t flush kitty litter down the toilet – sewage treatment may not kill Toxo “eggs.”
• Put cat poop in plastic bags and drop them in your trashcan.
• Keep your cats indoors.
• Remove cat poop from your yard. Toxo “eggs” last for months in soil and can move into rivers and oceans during the rainy season.

Please help by contacting your local representative in office and do your part in delisting the sea otters.

Cats, birds, and the people who love them

There is a relentless war going on for decades, you may have heard. Is it the one feral cats are waging on birds and other wildlife, driving many species to extinction? Or the one raging between cat-fanciers versus bird-watchers? One can argue that the former is an inevitable consequence of how these two kinds of animals have evolved and where they find themselves. That other war between their respective human champions, however, is much more interesting, shedding light as it does on our own species, which has caused more extinctions than cats, with or without their help. I confess myself somewhat on the fence about the former war, and an often fascinated spectator in the latter. I was surprised, therefore, to realize that I had missed a major incident in the cat-people vs. bird-people war last year, when the director of the Galveston Ornithological Society in Texas got himself in trouble by shooting a feral cat he had seen stalking endangered piping plovers. He was arrested, shot at, and the case ended in a mistrial a couple of weeks ago. That incident provides the seed for this rather good article in the NYT Sunday Magazine today – worth reading regardless of where your loyalties lie.