U.S. Must Commit to Sustainability to Overcome Mounting Economic and Ecological Strains

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Worldwatch report assesses U.S. sustainability record and calls for renewed innovation and leadership

Washington, D.C.—Entire sets of assumptions, beliefs, and practices will need to be overturned if the United States is to build a sustainable economy in the decades ahead, according to a new report from the Worldwatch Institute, Creating Sustainable Prosperity in the United States: The Need for Innovation and Leadership. The report assesses the country’s environmental record and calls for a broad range of policy innovations in the areas of renewable and non-renewable resource use, waste and pollution, and population that would help boost the sustainability of the U.S. economy while maintaining people’s overall well-being and quality of life.

“Creating a sustainable U.S. economy will require a thoughtful and strategic set of national, state, and local policies that would remake the economic playing field under a new set of principles,” said Worldwatch Senior Fellow Gary Gardner, the report’s author. “Unfortunately, the window for shifting to a sustainable economy relatively painlessly is closing, and each year of inaction makes the eventual shift potentially more jarring and costly for a growing number of Americans.”

The concept of “sustainable development”—the idea that we can generate clean prosperity today while preserving resources and ecological functions for use by future generations—entered the mainstream more than 25 years ago. Yet U.S. leaders have failed to embrace the full measure of the needed changes, according to the report. Although the technological and policy tools needed to create sustainable economic activity have advanced rapidly around the world, U.S. output continues to be bolstered by unsustainable practices such as linear flows of materials, heavy dependence on fossil fuels, disregard for renewable resources, and resource use that is strongly connected to economic growth.

As a result, the United States ranks poorly in many environmental indicators, including:

  • The United States is an ecological debtor, consuming some 207 percent of its ecological capacity, according to the Global Footprint Network. It ranks as the 46th greatest ecological debtor worldwide out of 151 countries evaluated.
  • Studies show that the average U.S. citizen uses 11 times as many resources as the average Chinese, and 32 times as much as the average Kenyan.
  • In 2010, the United States was a net importer of 67 non-fuel minerals and metals out of the 92 tracked by the U.S. Geological Survey.
  • Over the past three decades, average temperatures in the continental U.S. rose five times more than for the century-long period since 1901.
  • The United States scores a 38 out of 100 in “global stewardship” and a 27 out of 100 in “reducing stresses,” reflecting its minimal support for global environmental institutions and treaties and its poor performance in mitigating air pollution and water and ecosystem stresses, according to Columbia University’s Environmental Sustainability Index (ESI).
  • In a 2010 survey of consumers in 17 developed and developing countries undertaken by National Geographic, Americans ranked last in green consumption habits.

Historically, the United States has risen to meet new challenges with innovation. The report notes that the country has a long tradition of environmental leadership, dating back to Teddy Roosevelt, and became a world leader in environmental policy in the 1960s and 1970s when it established a series of progressive laws and institutions. Yet the United States has lagged behind many other countries, including in Europe and Asia, in developing more sustainable economic processes and energy infrastructure.

“For a nation that prides itself on leadership and progress, the United States can do much more to create a sustainable society and educate its citizens about what this really means,” said Robert Engleman, Executive Director of Worldwatch. “The country has access to a diverse and innovative policy toolbox that could help positively reorient consumption habits without reducing people’s quality of life. The real question is whether we have the political will to embrace these new approaches.”

The report outlines a series of cogent and practicable policy measures that can be instituted today to put the United States on a more sustainable path. These include shifting from an income tax to a progressive consumption tax, creating more standard eco-labeling for products, encouraging more producer “take-back” opportunities, and promoting a more feasible renewable energy market. A deceleration of population growth also will make the creation of a sustainable economy far easier, the report notes.

Key Policy Principles in the Report Include:

  • Make sure the true ecological cost of environmental degradation is felt in the market
  • Promote efficiency and reduce waste by creating a circular economy
  • Decouple economic growth and reliance on material use, and emphasize services over goods
  • Shift from an income tax to a progressive consumption tax
  • Curb population growth by focusing on immigration law and on reproductive health issues, particularly efforts to reduce unwanted pregnancies
  • Implement targeted fiscal tools to shape sustainable consumption
  • Focus development less on ever-higher levels of consumption and more on increased quality of life
  • Create more standardized eco-labeling to encourage smart purchases of efficient goods
  • Encourage producer responsibility laws and “take-back” opportunities
  • Promote a renewable energy market

“America’s long ‘maybe’ in response to history’s invitation to sustainable prosperity is no longer viable,” said Gardner. “The choice is not between the status quo and sustainability. A sustainable America is inevitable. The question is whether the United States builds sustainable prosperity through prudent choices now, or declines into sustained impoverishment because it failed to steward its assets when it had the choice.”

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