Context of the Report
At the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro in June 1992, the largest gathering
of heads of state in history, more than 120 nations agreed to a blueprint
for global action called Agenda 21. The goal of Agenda 21 is to move the
world toward economic activity that meets the needs of present
generations without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs-that is, toward "sustainable development."
Sustainability requires a commitment by institutions and individuals everywhere to the
simultaneous goals of economic prosperity, ecological integrity, and social equity. In a
sustainable world prosperity is accessible to ever one and does not come
at the expense of the environment.
To begin translating the vision of Agenda 21 into U.S. action, President Clinton created the
President's Council on Sustainable Development (PCSD) in June 1993. This group of 25
industry, government, and nongovernmental organization leaders organized itself into eight "task
forces" to address significant aspects of the broad sustainable development agenda and to make
recommendations for a National Sustainable Development Action Strategy.
The Population and Consumption Task Force is one of the eight and this
report is part of that Action Strategy. (A brief administrative history
of the Task Force and its work follows at Appendix A).
WHY CONSIDER POPULATION AND CONSUMPTION?
The sum of all human activity, and thus the sum of all environmental,
economic, and social impacts from human activity, is captured
by considering population together with consumption.
"Population" customarily includes numbers of people and the rate at
which those numbers are
changing. The U.S. population is relatively easily understood: it is the
number of human beings within our borders (263 million in 1995).
Interesting features of population in the United States include: the number of babies born in
year (about four million); average family size (about two children), the number of deaths in
year (about two million); the number of people migrating into the United
States in a year (a one million); and net annual growth (three million
people or about 1.0 percent). Not so easily understood are the many
social, economic, and cultural conditions that underlie and derive from
those numbers: the variations in wealth, education, culture, and other
aspects that produce--and are affected by--different childbearing
patterns, family sizes, life spans, and migration patterns.
The simple term "consumption" masks a great diversity of meanings. At
one level, consumption means all the resources used in an economy by all
consumers, both individual and institutional, and the waste that
accompanies that resource use. It means both end-products and their raw
material and intermediate ingredients. This meaning of consumption includes the total amount of
resources used and wastes produced in the course of extracting, processing, manufacturing,
packaging, transporting, selling, using, and discarding goods of all kinds- from houses, steel
girders, and shipping pallets to automobiles, mattresses, and food.
Also included are the resources and wastes involved in creating and delivering services of all
kinds, from college educations to health care and television repair. Another term for this
meaning of consumption is "throughput"-used by ecological economists to mean the total mass
of materials and energy sources that makes its way through the economy. This is the meaning
that is intended when the term consumption is used in this report.
RAW MATERIALS, MUST BE INCLUDED
To many people, consumption means using and discarding finished products in households.
Though this meaning has an everyday familiarity, it does not readily capture the notion of the
raw materials--the ingredients--that go into making a finished product or
the concept of the
waste produced along the entire life-cycle of a product. It also neglects the use of materials and
energy by industries, governments, or other non-household institutions. The use of the term
consumption in this report includes household consumption and waste production but is not
limited to it.
At times, the term consumption carries with it the negative connotation of unnecessarily high
and wasteful levels of resource use. This report does not use this meaning. Instead it uses the
term consumption objectively as resource use and waste production, though we discuss the
consequences of U.S. consumption patterns and present facts about the scale of U.S.
consumption and waste production.
In fact, there is nothing inherently wrong with a population (even a large one) meeting its
material needs (even meeting them generously) by consuming resources and creating wastes.
Problems arise when the numbers of people combine with the scale and kinds of consumption
and waste production to have negative impacts on the environment, on the economy, and on
Negative environmental impacts can occur because the use of a material, even in small volumes,
is toxic, or has other harmful environmental consequences. Dioxin and chlorofluorocarbons are
two examples of this effect. Negative environmental impacts can also occur because the scale of
an activity severely disrupts or overuses the natural systems from which it derives or in which it
occurs, though it is not inherently toxic. The use of wood, not harmful per se, may become so if
forests are overharvested and ecosystems are severely disrupted in order to harvest timber.
Similarly, nontoxic wastes are not harmful in and of themselves. But when they become so
voluminous that they blight entire landscapes, strain municipal governments, or contaminate
groundwater beyond its cleansing capacity, then they are a problem.
Negative impacts--environmental, economic, and social--reach a particular
importance when they undermine the ability of the environment, the economy, and society to
continue, to endure, or to sustain themselves - in short, when the activities are unsustainable.
WHAT IS UNSUSTAINABLE BEHAVIOR?
In the Environment ... Eroding soil; depleting groundwater;
degrading rangelands; significantly polluting the air, water, and soil; destroying habitat and extinguishing species;
depleting the Earth's protective ozone layer; dramatically changing the Earth's climate;
harvesting fisheries to collapse; producing toxic and radioactive substances that must be
contained to be safe; and otherwise contaminating and diminishing the resource base and the
ecosystems on which economic activity and a high quality of life
depend-these acts cannot be considered environmentally sustainable. Yet all these things occur in the United States today, and sustainability
requires changing them.
A sustainable activity is one that can be continued indefinitely
without harming the environmental, economic, or social bases on
which it depends and without diminishing the opportunities of future
generations to enjoy resources and a quality of life at least equal
to our own.
In the Economy... A negative balance of trade and balance of
payments; deficit spending by governments and households; large-scale
spending for environmental cleanup and compliance rather than
investing in prevention; inefficient use of resources; and production of
large amounts of waste-all undermine the very economic success that
drives the American way of life. Yet all these things occur in the
United States today, and sustainability requires changing them.
In Society... Wide and growing disparities in wealth and
income; the existence of a disadvantaged "underclass" from which it is
difficult to escape; disproportionate siting of toxic facilities in minority and
low-income neighborhoods; gender- and race-based discrimination; the
use of more than a fair share of the world's resources and capacity to absorb waste; and the
accumulation of material goods to the exclusion of non-material sources of satisfaction such as
personal, family, and community connections-these acts cannot be considered socially
sustainable. They fray the fabric required for a durable society. Yet all these things occur in the
United States today, and sustainability requires changing them.
A constellation of social, economic, political, demographic, and cultural factors produces this
litany of unsustainable impacts in the United States, but at the physical root of everything is our
growing U.S. human population and the pattern and scale of U.S. resource consumption and
Not every person has the same environmental impact as the next, because of differing resource
use and waste production patterns. Similarly, not every unit of consumption-say, a ton of
material-has the same environmental impact as the next, because some materials and uses of
energy are more harmful than others. A ton of gravel is not as harmful as a pound of dioxin. But
the total effect of population and consumption in the United States today is not sustainable. To
become sustainable, we need to stabilize our numbers and to change the aspects of our
consumption that threaten environmental harm.
Stabilizing the population without changing consumption and waste production patterns would
not be enough; neither would action on consumption and waste without efforts to stabilize
population. Each is necessary; neither is sufficient.
WHAT MUST BE DONE
To move toward sustainability, the quality and composition of economic activity must change.
Environmentally benign activities should continue and expand; environmentally harmful ones
should be abandoned. All goods and services must be produced with more efficiency in energy
and materials use, so that the least energy and materials are required to accomplish a given end-
use. Waste must be considered a resource and be put to use so that industrial plants approach
zero emissions and operate in a closed loop.
| Products must be designed for durability,
energy efficiency, ease of repair, and for
recycling or composting. Technological innovations drive these kinds of
changes with better and smarter ways of meeting the needs that were met
inefficiently and wastefully in the past-new ways that are good for the
environment, the economy, people, and their communities.Sustainability also requires a stable human population. If numbers keep
growing it will take ever more change in the quality and composition of
economic activity to accomplish a given end. Continued population
growth forever raises the stakes for achieving sustainability.
To move toward sustainability in the future will require managing
numbers, resources, and wastes so that the total impact of activities in
the United States is within the bounds of sustainability.
These are the reasons why population and consumption matter in the
United States today, why it is necessary to address population and
consumption together to create a sustainable United States, and why the Population and
Consumption Task Force of the President's Council on Sustainable Development was created
and undertook its work.
SCOPE OF THE ISSUES
Population and consumption in the United States are driven by complex
social, economic, political, demographic, and cultural conditions. Those
conditions in turn alter the impact of U.S. population and consumption on
the environment, the economy, and society. Considering the
entire picture at once is daunting and confusing.
FACTORS CONTRIBUTING TO IMPACTS
It is possible to start, however, with a simplification used by natural scientists to unpack and
illustrate the aggregate environmental impact of human activities. Scientists Paul Ehrlich and
John Holdren have popularized the following formula:
I = PAT, or Impact = Population x Affluence
Using this formula, the physical, aggregate Impact of a country on
the global environment can be described as the product of the numbers of
people (Population), consumption of goods and services per capita
(a measure of the scale of resource use, termed Affluence for
brevity, and convenience), and Technology (a measure of the degree to
which inefficient and environmentally unsafe methods are used to produce
and consume goods and service).
Obviously, a high number in any one of the terms--population, affluence,
or technology--produce a large impact. A small population can have a
large impact if it consumes a great deal per capita or if it consumes
modestly but produces goods with inefficient or dangerous
technologies. Modest consumption per capita or efficient and safe
technologies can lessen the
impact of a large population, And a large population with high per capita
consumption level inefficient and polluting technologies has the greatest
impact of all.
Although U.S. technology is cleaner and more efficient than that of less
such as China, it is generally less so when compared to technologies in Europe and Japan;
U.S. population is large and growing; and U.S. per capita consumption levels are the highest
earth. Thus, the environmental impact of the United States is great.
The I = PAT formula also helps explain the interaction of population, affluence, and technology
in the effort to move toward sustainability. Continued population
growth can cancel efforts to
improve the efficiency and cleanliness of technologies and to stabilize per capita consumption
levels. Similarly, continuing to rely on inefficient and polluting technologies can keep
environmental impact high, even if population and per capita consumption are stable. And rising
per capita consumption can cancel the results of improved technology
and a stable population.
The precise effects depend on the numbers involved. The United States experiences a total
population growth of 1.0 percent a year, growth that automatically cancels 1.0 percent of any
improvement in either per capita consumption or technology. Over a decade's time, U.S.
population growth would cancel a 10 percent gain in efficiency or productivity, without taking
into account the compounding effect of growth. Similarly, absent technological change,
continued population growth means that per capita consumption of
natural resources would need
to fall by half in 50 years' time just to keep environmental impact from worsening-again,
without considering the compounding effect of continued growth. Also, population growth at
today's rate would cancel the environmental benefit of a 1.0 percent improvement in energy
efficiency by increasing the total amount of energy used, even with consumption per capita
A few examples illustrate the dynamic. Between 1980 and 1993, per
capita energy consumption
in the United States fell slightly, while total energy consumption rose by 10 percent. Population
growth of 32 million people, or 14 percent, during the period drove total consumption up despite
the decline in per capita use.
In recent decades, population growth has been the only force driving
up total use of most
resources in the United States. Important exceptions are paper and plastic, where per capita
increases have also played a role. Between 1970 and 1989, the total increase in per capita paper
use in the United States averaged about 1.0 percent on an annual basis. This rise in per capita
consumption would overwhelm technological changes improving efficiency in paper use by 1.
percent a year. It also multiplies the effect of population growth.
Limitations of the "PAT" Formula
The I = PAT formulation is a simplification and does not capture all the elements that affect
human impact on the environment. It says nothing, for example, about the distribution of
resources that lies behind total consumption.
Packed invisibly into the "affluence" factor in the United States today are the millions of people
far from affluence, such as the poor, who need better nutrition and health care; the illiterate and
functionally illiterate, who need additional education; and the unemployed and underemployed,
who need jobs and job training-people who need to increase their consumption of goods and
services. The statement, based on the formula, that reducing the
consumption factor would reduce environmental impact is not meant to imply that everyone in
the population should reduce consumption equally, or even
proportionally, and no such implication is intended in this report.
The I = PAT formula also does not weigh the social, political, and
cultural arrangements that give rise to a particular population, level
of consumption, or technology. All these arrangements can mediate
the impact of the three factors on the environment. Elements,
the extent of democracy and equality of access to resources and
political power, can mean a great deal to the stability and durability
of a society, to environmental impact, and thus to
Other formulas attempt to capture these elements. For example, the POET model adds to population, environment, and technology an
element for human organization (0) in order to capture this feature. The PISTOL model adds
space (S), information-nation (I), and standard of living (L).
Even with its limitations, the I = PAT formulation shows that the driving forces of aggregate
human impact on the environment are complex, interactive, and dynamic. It reveals the necessity
of looking at all components simultaneously, lest failure to make changes in one cancel out
efforts on others. Indeed, it is possible to consider that continued population growth and rising
per capita consumption, where they occur, forever raise the stakes, so that technology must
achieve ever greater improvements to reduce environmental impact.
"PAT" and Sustainability
It is impossible to know the precise population size, given a particular level of aggregate
resource use and kind of technology, at which the United States would be sustainable. Nor is it
possible to know with confidence the exact sustainable level of resource consumption and kind
of technology, given the current and projected U.S. population. And neither population,
consumption patterns, nor technology is infinitely malleable, given the starting places today.
Continuing current population and consumption patterns with today's technology is clearly not
environmentally sustainable, however. The U.S. population today overuses resources or
generates wastes that contaminate the natural resource base from which economic resources
derive. Both overuse and contamination diminish nature's productive capacity and will, in time,
diminish actual production.
Our activities also harm the ability of the Earth's natural systems to absorb waste and perform
the other functions with which we have evolved and on which everything we do depends-the
way that water, air, forests, and other "commons" generate the clear water, blue sky, healthy soil
and vegetation, and biological diversity that are the foundation of life on earth.
More than 20 percent of U.S. cropland is seriously damaged from soil erosion. Underground
water tables are dropping in many places. Less than half of America's original wetlands remain,
and important U.S. fisheries have collapsed from overharvesting and habitat destruction. In the
last two centuries, the country has lost 90 percent of its northwestern old-
growth forests, 99 percent of its tailgrass prairie, and hundreds
of documented species of native plants and animals alone.
The United States is the world's top producer of garbage and the
generator of toxic and hazardous substances. And this nation, the
third largest, is the only major industrialized country in the world
experiencing population growth on a significant scale.
As the world's largest economy, the United States is the world's largest single consumer of natural resources and the greatest producer of wastes of
all kinds. These are not the conditions on which to build a durable future or to provide an
example for the rest of the world.
Thus, the PCSD Task Force on Population and Consumption believes that the two most
important steps the United States must take toward sustainability-both equally essential-are:
(1) working to stabilize U.S. population promptly, through universal access to voluntary
reproductive health and family planning services and the empowerment of women; and (2)
moving simultaneously, through design and technological innovation, to greater materials and
energy efficiency in the production and use of goods and services and the creation and disposal
POPULATION AND REPRODUCTIVE HEALTH
The U.S. population today grows by two million people a year from the excess of births over
deaths ("natural increase"). This occurs despite an average family size of two children, slightly
under the so-called replacement-level fertility that just replaces
Natural increase continues because the large baby-boom generation produces a large total
number of babies, even though individual families are relatively small. The older generations
producing most deaths are small compared with the parenting generation, and they are living
longer than past generations. All this adds up to a wide gap between births and deaths and
significant population growth.
Fortunately, it is possible to move toward population stabilization simply by meeting the
reproductive health needs of Americans, and the Task Force recommends policies that will help
achieve this. American women today have more children than they wish to: 57 percent of
pregnancies are either mistimed or unwanted; among births, 30 percent are mistimed, and 10
percent are unwanted. Working to eliminate unintended pregnancies and births through the
provision of contraceptive services, information, and related education, and work on the poverty
and barriers to opportunity for women that contribute to unintended pregnancies, can move the
country toward two mutually reinforcing goals: meeting women's reproductive health needs and
progressing toward population stabilization. The American public strongly supports enabling
parents to have the number of children they want when they want them, as it supports
comprehensive reproductive health care services that will prevent unwanted pregnancies and
Voluntarism Is Key
The Task Force's emphasis on preventing unintended pregnancies reflects the strongly-held and
unchallenged conviction that voluntarism lies at the heart of all American family planning
programs. This is true because family planning programs are both a medical enterprise, where
the tradition and legal need of voluntary, informed consent is strong, and a social enterprise,
where freedom and choice are essential. Voluntarism also must be the foundation for promoting
population stabilization, and underlies our recommendations in this area.
IMMIGRATION AND U.S. POPULATION GROWTH
U.S. population also grows because of net immigration. Whereas natural increase supplies two-
thirds of U.S. population growth annually, one-third comes from immigration.
As a matter of public debate, immigration is a sensitive and explosive issue, and both legal and
illegal immigration must be addressed with great sensitivity and care in order to advance the
debate. We acknowledge these impediments to easy and informal dialogue, and we urge that
participants take appropriate care so that a reasoned discussion of immigration and the American
future can begin.
We believe that reducing current immigration levels is a necessary part
of working toward sustainability in the United States. The Task Force
calls on the immigration component of U.S. population growth to make a fair contribution to overall efforts to stabilize U.S. population as work
progresses simultaneously to reduce fertility. Any action on immigration
must be undertaken with respect and concern for the civil and human
rights of the individuals involved-foreign-born U.S. citizens and legal
residents, as well as new immigrants. The Task Force also believes
strongly in working to ease conditions around the world that force people
to leave home, with appropriate economic development and related
policies and programs. All these things taken together, the Task Force
believes, balance concerns for U.S. sustainability with reasonable concerns for the lives of
people outside the United States.
CONSUMPTION IS A MAJOR FACTOR
It is impossible to move meaningfully toward sustainability in the United States with population
policies alone. Resource use must also change if the total environmental impact of the United
States is to be reduced. Population and consumption are inextricably linked; working on one
without working on the other means that efforts on one will be eaten up or overwhelmed by the
other-as if we were trying to walk up a down escalator.
Stabilization or reduction in population size is possible only on a time scale of several decades.
Yet even if the U.S. population were stabilized tomorrow, degradation of the environment would
continue because of the increasing amounts of materials consumed and the amounts and toxicity
of the wastes produced. Fortunately, in contrast to the long time lag involved with population
policies, appropriate incentives and other policy tools, including education, can promptly change
the efficiency with which materials and energy are used, accomplish significant changes in
resource use, and achieve real reductions in environmental impact.
DEFINITIONS OF CONSUMPTION|
In everyday usage, "consumption" means the use of
goods by individuals in households. It doesn't include the raw materials
that went into making those goods-their "ingredients" -- or the wastes and
other byproducts generated in the course of making, using, and disposing
of those goods.
In the context of sustainability, "consumption" means end-products,
their ingredients and byproducts, and all wastes generated
throughout the life of a product, from raw materials extraction through
disposal. It also means resource use by all kinds of consumers-
industrtries, commercial firms, governments, nongovernmental organizations,
and individuals. This is the definition intended when the term consumption
is used in this report.
As used by economists, "consumption' means the use of goods
and services by consumers to meet current needs, in contrast to savings
The extent to which energy and materials are used in the course
of consumption, as defined by economists, depends on the resource
intensiveness of the production and use of goods and services-how
many resources are used to make a final product. Thus technically, to
economists, the use of the term consumption in the context of
sustainability is more properly expressed as the "resource intensiveness of
RECOMMENDATIONS MAY OVERLAP
Other Task Forces of the President's Council on Sustainable Development are ably addressing
significant pieces of the consumption issue. Indeed, nearly all the Population and Consumption
Task Force's recommendations on consumption overlap at least in part with those of other Task
Forces. For example, the Eco-Efficiency Task Force has made recommendations related to
extended product responsibility, more efficient and less wasteful products and manufacturing
processes, and economic indicators that take the environment into account.
The Energy and Transportation Task Force has drafted recommendations related to the
development of energy-efficient and renewable energy technologies and to other aspects of
transportation. The Sustainable Communities Task Force is considering urban sprawl and
environmentally sound community organization. The Natural Resources Task Force and
Sustainable Agriculture Task Force are dealing with the sustainable
use of natural systems--including forests, watersheds, soils,
and agriculture--and with economic indicators that capture environmental
The Population and Consumption Task Force welcomes and endorses these and other
recommendations and believes all are essential to the development of sustainable consumption
patterns. We add our voice to supplement their work rather than to provide alternatives to it
we welcome the validation that their recommendations provide to
ours, which deal with macroeconomic policies for encouraging efficiency,
providing public education, dealing with solid waste, and encouraging
APPROACH OF THE TASK FORCE
The Population and Consumption Task Force decided to approach the enormous range
of issues on its agenda by focusing first on individual choice
and responsibility, and then on the larger social, economic, and cultural
conditions that shape and constrain those choices and responsibilities.
THE APPROACH TO POPULATION
In the population arena, the Population and Consumption Task Force looked first at
whether adults and adolescents have the information, services, and
opportunities necessary to make informed and responsible childbearing
choices. The extent of unintended pregnancies and unwanted births suggested that the answer is no.
The Task Force then asked what services, information, and opportunities could assist
all ages in making informed and responsible childbearing choices. We
focused on family planning services and information and, for adolescents
specifically, on broader programs for building self-esteem and responsibility in the fertility context.
The Task Force then considered the larger-scale social, economic, and
cultural conditions that affect individual choices and asked which ones
are most likely to create conditions that enable individuals to make
informed and responsible choices.
We focused on poverty and the social conditions that constrain women, in keeping with the
agenda framed at the International Conference on Population and Development (ICPD) held in
Cairo in 1994, and described in greater detail in Chapter 1.
THE APPROACH TO CONSUMPTION
The Task Force also organized its treatment of consumption issues around individual choice and
responsibility, on one hand, and the larger conditions that affect individual actions, on the other.
The Task Force specifically considered the need to create large-scale economic conditions that
make it easy for educated consumers to exercise their choices responsibly, and the need to
educate consumers about the environmental impacts of their actions.
The Task Force believes that if most people had readily available, easily understandable
information, they would choose a less environmentally harmful product or service over a more
harmful one. Yet it is often difficult and time consuming, and usually takes technical
understanding that only a small percentage of consumers have, to decide which of several goods
or services is the wiser environmental choice. The Task Force has, therefore, focused on
environmental labeling and certification, government procurement, and public education as ways
to help people make wise consumption choices.
Educating Americans about the environmental effects of their purchases is an uphill battle when
prices of goods and services send perverse signals by failing to reflect environmental costs. If
environmentally harmful goods were to cost more than environmentally benign goods, prices
would educate people automatically and powerfully. Thus, the Task Force also looked at
macroeconomic conditions that affect consumer choices so strongly.
The Task Force has also examined three important features of waste
municipal garbage fees, and household toxic materials--and the need to
encourage technological change to promote sustainability.