Shaping a path to sustainability
MOLLY HARRISS OLSON
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
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
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.
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
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.
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
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.