US Must Decouple Economic Growth From Material Use

The US must decouple economic growth and reliance on material use if it wants to overcome ecological and economic strains, says a Worldwatch Institute report.

"Creating Sustainable Prosperity in the United States: The Need for Innovation and Leadership" asserts that entire sets of assumptions, beliefs, and practices have to be overturned to  build a sustainable economy in the decades ahead.

"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," says 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 prosperity today while preserving resources and ecological functions for use by future generations – entered the mainstream over 25 years ago. Yet US leaders have failed to embrace the full measure of the needed changes, says the report.

Although the technological and policy tools needed to create a sustainable economy activity have advanced rapidly around the world, the US continues to focus on unsustainable practices such as linear flows of materials, heavy dependence on fossil fuels, disregard for renewable resources, and wasteful resource use that is strongly connected to economic growth.

As a result, the US ranks poorly on many environmental indicators, including:

  • The US is an ecological debtor, consuming 207% of its ecological capacity (Global Footprint Network). It ranks as the 46th greatest ecological debtor worldwide out of 151 countries evaluated.
  • The average US citizen consumes 11 times the resources as the average Chinese, and 32 times the average Kenyan.
  • In 2010, the US 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 30 years, average temperatures in the continental U.S. rose five times more than for the century-long period since 1901.
  • The US scores 38 out of 100 in "global stewardship" and 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 (Columbia University’s Environmental Sustainability Index).
  • In a 2010 survey of consumers in 17 developed and developing countries, Americans ranked last in green consumption habits (National Geographic).

Historically, the US has risen to meet new challenges with innovation. The report notes its 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 US has lagged behind many other countries, including in Europe and Asia, in developing more sustainable economic processes and energy infrastructure.

"The United States once set the world standard in confronting its environmental problems – protecting wild lands, establishing an environmental protection agency, and acting assertively to limit pollution of all types," notes Robert Engelman, Executive Director of Worldwatch. "Americans benefited economically and in many other ways from these efforts. Yet today the country’s government plays at best a very limited role in domestic or global efforts to create sustainable societies. We need a powerful citizens’ movement to help policymakers see that any efforts to make the United States enduringly prosperous are doomed to fail so long as we forget that we are living on a finite planet and cannot change the laws of physics and biology to suit our ambitions."

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.

Deceleration of population growth will also make the creation of a sustainable economy far easier, the report notes.

Key Policy Principles the report recommends:

  • 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
  • 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," says 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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