Why my existence is bad for the environment

My carbon footprint's in trouble, with with both divorce and Hanukkah candle lighting being blamed for global warming this week. Will such claims keep people from taking the green movement seriously?

Michelle Meyers
Michelle Meyers wrote and edited CNET News stories from 2005 to 2020 and is now a contributor to CNET.
Michelle Meyers
4 min read

Tuesday was a really bad day for my carbon footprint.

First I learned that my divorce is heating up the planet. A Michigan State University study concluded that divorced couples use up more space in their respective homes, resulting in 38 million more rooms around the globe to light, heat, and cool.

Then, later in the day, as I readied to go home and light candles for the first night of Hanukkah--the Jewish Festival of Lights--I learned of the environmental implications of the annual tradition. The Jerusalem Post told of a campaign--now the topic of much blog fodder--encouraging Jews to light at least one less candle this Hanukkah to save Mother Earth. After all, every candle that burns completely produces 15 grams of carbon dioxide, the group says. Imagine if my ex-husband and I both light Hanukkah candles--double the emission. Gasp!

Now, I'm not pointing these things out because I seriously believe my sheer existence as observant Jewish divorcee makes me all the more a cause of global warming. Al Gore got to me long ago and I'm well aware of the social, environmental, health, and even moral issues surrounding global warming. I've got a long way to go, but every day I'm a little greener. You won't find plastic sandwich bags in my daughter's lunch (take that you Hanukkah-candle grinches.)

What I am worried about, however, is that such ridiculous and unproductive claims will keep people from taking the green movement seriously. If they're not laughing out loud--as many people around me did in response to Tuesday's new items--they might feel personally attacked or tempted to write off reasonable and rational efforts to combat climate change as "eco-freakiness." The extreme claims interfere with the larger message and distract from efforts in which we can really make a difference.

How are we served by that Michigan State divorce study? Would a green extremist advocate staying in an unhappy marriage for the sake of the environment? The response among a cynical group of fellow editors (with well-honed wry humor) was: We could always kill our spouses instead of divorcing them; that would spare some resources.

The divorce study comes on the heels of another one out of University of Alberta that found that getting rid of old "beer fridges" often found in North American and Australian homes could have a significant impact on household greenhouse gas emissions. This is the kind of report that makes even those of us with deep concerns about global warming wonder what's next on the list of environmental sins.

And it just fuels conservative theories of a "junk science fad known as global 'warming'", as was described in response to the divorce study on the blog "Crush Liberalism." One commenter notes, with appropriate facetiousness: "This is great news--I'm going to find that carbon replacement Web site and log in and tell them that I'm married, therefore I'm repaying my carbon print on society. I'm going to go out now and buy two SUVs and celebrate."

Update at 11 a.m. PST, December 10: And in another even fresher such academic report, a report in the Medical Journal of Australia cites a professor arguing that every couple with more than two children should be charged a $5,000-plus "baby levy" at birth and an annual carbon tax of up to $800 a child, according to an Australian news site.

As for the "Green Hanukkia" campaign encouraging less Hanukkah candle lighting, I'm sure the coordinators meant well. But they also managed to irk many Jews around the world who felt their sacred annual menorah-lighting tradition--and a beautiful one at that--was being challenged, and for what? Fifteen grams of carbon dioxide per candle?

What about the billions of tons of carbon dioxide emissions coming out of China each year, questioned my friend Rabbi Richard Steinberg, who leads the reform Jewish Congregation Shir Ha-Ma'alot in Irvine, Calif. Steinberg emphasized that Judaism has been a "green religion from its inception," in part through a holiday honoring trees called Tu B'Shevat, which recognizes that "the air trees breathe out is the air we breathe in." The campaign to avoid lighting Hanukkah candles "puts values in conflict," he said.

Other Jewish environmental groups, such as the Coalition on the Environment and Jewish Life, have tied their educational efforts to Hanukkah, which celebrates the ancient miracle of one day's oil lasting for eight nights. But advocating for the general use of CFLs, as COEJL does, is different than challenging people's candle-lighting tradition. (On the "Green Hanukkia" campaign, a COEJL representative said her group supports its goal," not necessarily its means.")

To be clear, I'm all for a green holiday season with more gift cards, less packaging, fewer trips to the mall, and even artificial Christmas trees (although even being Jewish, I'm a sucker for that pine smell). But let's not let Christmas, Hanukkah--or any ritual that gets us to stop for a moment and celebrate--take the fall for global warming.

Let's not watch birthday candles take the next hit. And what of that divorce rate if candlelight dinners are considered an environmental no-no?