Shaping a path to sustainability

Shaping a path to sustainability


describes the conclusions of President Clinton's top level Council on Sustainable Development

Both production and consumption in the United States are unparalleled. Its 261 million people make up the world's third largest population, but it is by far the largest consumer and generator of waste.

Now the President's Council on Sustainable Development has delivered to President Bill Clinton a plan to launch the United States towards a new type of economic prosperity that preserves the planet's resources and biological systems. Delving into issues of consumption, population, education and economic and regulatory policy, it aims at helping the country shape a path towards sustainability.

President Clinton established the Council in June 1993, calling on 25 leaders of environmental, business, Government, and native American organizations to agree on a bold, visionary plan for the 21st century. Drawing on information from eight task forces and more than 450 experts from across the country, the Council members have recommended 38 major policy changes, and outlined 154 specific actions to accomplish them.

The laborious task of reaching unanimous agreement ultimately rewarded members by becoming a valuable lesson in sustainability itself. Collaborative decision-making changes the way people think. The Council worked by consensus. No one had a veto. Early agreement on the Brundtland Commission's definition for sustainable development - 'development to meet the needs of the present, without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs' - leant cohesiveness to the disparate group.

Flowing from this and other work on sustainability came the Council's core principle that economic, environmental, and social equity issues are inextricably linked and must be considered together. That theme - that Government, business and individuals must hardwire into their daily decision-making tests for economic fairness and ecological sustainability - echoes across the issues addressed by the Council, including the closely linked areas of population and consumption, which are two sides of the same coin in striving for sustainability in the United States.

Production and consumption account for the total mass of materials and energy that is used and which makes its way through the economy, resulting in a United States gross domestic product of more than $6.4 trillion in 1994. The United States consumes more than 4.5 billion metric tons of materials annually to produce the goods and services that make up its economic activity.

Room for improvement

With just 5 per cent of the world's population, the United States accounts for approximately 25 per cent of annual global energy use, and has a particularly great opportunity for improvement. The nation's energy use per unit of gross national product is approximately 36 per cent greater than in Germany and 79 per cent higher than in Japan. The United States' consumption of petroleum feedstocks is seven times the world's per capita average: in 1994 it used 19.9 million barrels of oil per day, only slightly less than the 23.8 million barrels that the remaining 24 countries in the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development burned between them. It is also the world's largest producer of garbage and industrial wastes.

Meanwhile, as the result of natural increase and immigration, the United States population is growing by 3 million people each year, at 1 per cent a year - more than twice the growth rate in most industrial countries, if far less than in developing ones. The United States Census Bureau estimates that, if current demographic trends continue, the population will reach 350 million people by the year 2030, and almost 400 million by the middle of the 21st century.

The Council report does not necessarily fault economic growth or large populations. It focuses, rather, on the problems that arise when 'the numbers of people and the scale, composition, and pattern of consumption and waste generation combine to have negative effects on the environment, the economy and society' - in other words, when these factors impede the ability to achieve a sustainable future.

snow covered fields Even slight changes in consumption patterns or population in the United States can have an enormous effect on global sustainability, and both are needed: 'Each is necessary, neither alone is sufficient', says the report. Based on current trends, efficiency in the use of all resources would have to increase by more than 50 per cent over four or five decades just to keep up with population growth. The Council recommended, therefore, that the United States move toward stabilization of its population, while also reducing its waste and consumption patterns.

Reducing consumption and waste is addressed throughout the report. The challenge of sustainability is to encourage economic development in a way that allows the country to produce goods and services that meet its people's aspirations for a better quality of life without destroying the resources upon which future progress depends.

The Council considers tax policy a powerful tool for sustainability since it influences individual and institutional investment decisions. The Federal Government now raises more than $1 trillion per year, predominantly by taxing wages and personal and corporate income. The Council recommended that the United States begin the long-term process of shifting its tax policy so that, without increasing the overall tax burden, it would encourage employment and economic opportunity, while discouraging environmentally damaging production and consumption decisions. It would like to tax forms of consumption that are bad for society - inefficiency, waste and pollution - while reducing taxes on those that are economically beneficial - employment, income, and savings and investment. A major criterion, however, is that the tax reform should not place a disproportionate burden on lower-income individuals and families.

The Council recommended removing subsidies that encourage behaviour based on consumption rather than conservation by obscuring the true costs of decisions about the use of resources; these include, for example, subsidized overgrazing of public lands, which leads to the destruction of habitat and to reduced productivity.

Encouraging innovation

It also recommended that companies and communities should be given greater operating flexibility, enabling them to innovate and reduce costs while achieving superior environmental results. It urges designers, suppliers, producers, users and disposers of products to adopt a voluntary system of extended responsibility and calls on all sectors of society to work together to exercise environmental stewardship throughout the entire life-cycle of a product - from procurement of raw materials, through manufacture and distribution, to disposal and re-use.

The Council believes that the Federal Government should work with the private sector and with non-profit-making groups to identify ways to use materials and energy more efficiently through education programmes, partnerships between the public and private sectors, product buy-back, take-back, leasing and re-use/recycling programmes, and through Government subsidies or tax credits to encourage sustainable products and practices.

The subject of population growth is complex and controversial and must be approached with respect for various religious and ethical values and cultural backgrounds. The Council focused on family planning, personal responsibility and voluntarism. And it urged that the issue of immigration be addressed in light of American traditions of fairness, freedom and asylum.

It proposed expanding access to family planning and reproductive health services so as to reduce unintended pregnancies, which occur most often among younger and poorer women. It urged full funding of Title X of the Public Health Service Act of 1970, which provides for family planning services for low-income people, but not for abortion, a subject which the Council did not discuss. It also urged increased guidance for adolescents on values and abstinence - as well as information for the already sexually active - through families, social institutions, and community-oriented and adult mentoring programmes. And it called for partnerships to enhance educational work opportunities for women, particularly teenagers.

A sustainable United States will be one in which all Americans have access to family planning and reproductive health services. It will be one in which responsible immigration policies are fairly implemented and enforced. And it will be one that produces and uses goods and services efficiently - and so causes fewer adverse effects on natural systems and on human health.

Molly Harriss Olson is Executive Director of the President's Council on Sustainable Development, United States.

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