Wednesday, May 02, 2007

Can You Be Single and Green?


This column launches a weekly examination of current environmental issues that will focus on what matters most to eco-conscious Canadians: how individual actions can contribute to global ecological change.

If you feel as though no one else understands your overly close relationship with the cat, you're not alone.

The kingdom of one is the fastest-growing type of household in Canada, climbing from 2 per cent to more than 14 per cent in the past 50 years, with the figures steadily rising.

The new solo-living cohort are young (25 to 44), far more flush than the thrifty jar-reusing widows that once ruled the one-person roost and, as it turns out, the biggest consumers of energy, land and household goods.

Now that their numbers are shooting up, people who live alone represent what Joanna Williams, a sustainable development professor at University College London, calls "an environmental time bomb."

From washers and dryers to toasters and television sets, singletons burn through just over twice as much energy per capita as those who live in a four-person household.

According to the Recycling Council of Ontario, every Canadian throws away almost half a kilogram of plastic packaging a day - a figure that snowballs in the one-person household once the increased per-capita consumption and the gobbling up of takeout and single-serving foods are factored in.

For the eco-minded and unattached who aren't looking to bed down to do their part for the planet, Penny Gurstein of the school of community and regional planning at the University of British Columbia points to the Canadian Cohousing Network (, modelled after a 1964 Danish community-based project that had residents build individual homes clustered around a "common house" with shared amenities, thereby reducing the ecological footprint.
Ms. Gurstein also recommends the Vancouver Community Kitchen Project (, which offers "a way for people to get together to cook in large quantities and then parcel it out. You get something like seven meals doing it as a group, or you can eat together."

The communal Kumbaya life is a tough sell for your average single urbanite. Besides, shoehorned into their 600-square-foot lofts and often living close to the office, they in some ways actually have a leg up on the smug marrieds with children living out in the sprawl. As professor William Rees, a population ecologist at UBC and originator of the phrase and methodology behind the "ecological footprint" suggests, having loved and lost might be worse for the planet than never having loved at all.

"Let's say a professional family breaks up with mom and pop going their separate ways but sharing the kids. Now there are two households, but the same number of people. With a doubling of households, the energy needed per capita to manufacture, operate and maintain twice as many appliances and automobiles increases. This means that the per-capita eco-footprint rises even faster."

Short of mating for life or joining a commune, if you happen to be unattached and environmentally conscious, it may be time to test your horse sense and peruse the classifieds: Eco-friendly person seeks like-minded roommate to lessen ecological footprint. Must be cat positive.

Heidi Sopinka, a licensed helicopter pilot, has cooked for firefighters in the Yukon, edited Southeast Asian poetry in Singapore, and written two travel books. A seasoned world traveller, she now agrees to stay put until the afterlife in order to neutralize her carbon footprint.

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