Shacking up is good for the planet, says economist

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Getting hitched and shacking up are both good for the planet, a UBC economist has suggested.

Marina Adshade was responding to a question about whether or not the environmental movement’s dire warnings about the world’s deteriorating health are having an impact on people’s sex lives. According to the former Dalhousie University academic—who created a course called The Economics of Sex and Love—activists don’t seem to be doing a good job of explaining how living together may help save the Earth.

“If people really cared about the environment, they would either get married or cohabitate with other people,” Adshade told the Georgia Straight in an interview at a West Side café. “Far more people are single, and far more people live on their own.”

Being single not only increases one’s carbon footprint, it also creates housing pressure. “Twenty years ago, I would have been happily married and I would have shared exactly the same space that I have now with one other person,” the author of the blog Dollars and Sex said by way of illustration.

Between 2006 and 2011, the number of one-person households in Canada increased by 10.4 percent, according to Statistics Canada. For the first time, there are more people living alone (3,673,305) than couples 24 years old and under who have children (3,524,915).

StatsCan notes in “Canadian households in 2011: Type and growth” that the proportion of one-person households increased from 25.7 percent to 27.6 percent of all households in the decade between 2001 and 2011, “continuing an upward trend that has existed for many decades”.

It’s about the same ratio in the U.S. (26.7 percent in 2010) and the U.K. (29.4 percent in 2011), according to the national statistics agency, but figures are higher in Finland (41 percent in 2010), Norway (39.7 percent in 2011), and the Netherlands (36.9 percent in 2011).

Saving the planet may be a bit nebulous as marriage motivation for some people, but there’s another, more down-to-earth reward that comes from tying the knot with that special someone.

“Nobody has more sex than married people,” Adshade pointed out. “Married people, statistically, have sex more often than anyone else. I know that people don’t believe this, but the numbers bear this out.”

One might say that unmarried people can have sex as well. But there’s a big difference, according to the UBC academic.

“Sex makes married people happier than it does single people,” Adshade said. “So, for example, a person who is married and is having sex four times a week or something like that, which is a lot more than most people do, they’re happier than someone who’s single and having sex four times a week.”

Census data show that as a proportion of all types of families, married couples declined from 70.5 percent in 2001 to 67 percent in 2011. However, the ratio of common-law families increased from 13.8 percent to 16.7 percent. The share of lone-parent families rose from 15.7 percent to 16.3 percent.

As a 12-year-old, Adshade—today a macroeconomist interested in economic history who earned her PhD from Ontario’s Queen’s University—enjoyed reading ex–New York madam Xaviera Hollander’s 1971 memoir, The Happy Hooker: My Own Story, not knowing then that decades in the future, she would be looking at sex and human relationships.

Adshade started as a sessional lecturer at UBC’s Vancouver School of Economics last fall. She has yet to teach the same full course about the economics of sex that she did at Nova Scotia’s Dalhousie, where she taught from 2004 until the summer of 2012.

“It started off being an idea to get students engaged in learning economics by teaching them a subject that they would find fun and entertaining, and something that they could relate to their own lives,” she said.

Currently teaching a course about women in the economy, Adshade recalled that a day before the interview, she and her students were talking about how people are becoming “more promiscuous”.

Only six percent of Canadian 19-year-olds in the 1900s had had sex, according to Adshade. This had increased to about 25 percent by 2002. It’s not just because there’s now less stigma attached to sex outside marriage; there’s also an economic story behind it.

“It’s very closely tied to the availability of birth control,” she explained. “The IUD was available in 1909. Latex condoms were invented in 1938, I think. Diaphragm and birth-control pills in the 1960s. This is a cause of having sex outside marriage, because it’s a lot safer.”

According to Adshade, Canadians should consider themselves “lucky” because they’re more liberal than their neighbours to the south. “Over 50 percent of Americans still believe that sex before marriage is wrong,” she said.

Although Adshade acknowledged that many things in life cannot be measured, people’s willingness to enter into relationships can be. She cited, for example, the fact that economists at Columbia University in New York City conducted speed-dating trials and were able to correlate dating choices to objective qualities like race and level of education.

“I know that when it comes to love, people think that there’s something just mystical and magical about it, and it’s not that I’m not a romantic, but we can observe the choices people make,” she said.

Adshade’s book Dollars and Sex: How Economics Influences Sex and Love (HarperCollins) comes out February 26.

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