The President's Council on Sustainable Development (PCSD) was created in June 1993 to develop recommendations to help move the United States toward sustainable development--simultaneous economic, social, and environmental progress that enables current generations to attain a high quality of life without compromising the ability of future generations to do so. To complete its work, the PCSD created eight Task Forces, including the Population and Consumption Task Force, which developed this report.
The size of our population and the scale of our consumption are essential determinants of whether or not the United States will be able to achieve sustainability. U.S. population and consumption trends demonstrate that a great deal of work needs to be done.
The U.S. population is 263 million, growing among the highest rates of any industrialized country (one percent per year). Unparalleled anywhere, is U.S. consumption--which includes goods as well as services, waste products, and raw materials; in short, the total mass of materials and energy sources that make its way through our economy. For America's future, the United States must strive to manage its resources, reduce waste products, and stabilize population so that the total impact of its activity is sustainable.
Since America embarked on serious efforts to protect the environment 30 years ago, tremendous progress has been made in reducing pollution and enhancing efficiency. Nonetheless, with the world's largest economy, the United States consumes enormous amounts of resources and still generates more wastes of all kinds. In addition, steady population growth has been a major force driving up the use of many resources. These factors make the job of protecting the environment, maintaining jobs and economic progress, and achieving greater equity extremely difficult, and explains, in part, the enormous challenges America faces as we approach the 21st century.
The Task Force believes that the two most important steps the United States must take toward sustainability are: 1) to stabilize U.S. population promptly; and 2) to move toward greater material and energy efficiency in all production and use of goods and services.
STABILIZING U.S. POPULATIONAmerica's population now grows by three million each year--the equivalent of another Connecticut each year, or a California each decade. U.S. population is likely to reach 350 million by the year 2030; a level that would place even greater strain on our ability to increase prosperity, clean up pollution, alleviate congestion, manage sprawl, and reduce the overall consumption of resources. Fortunately, the United States can stabilize its population by addressing the determinants of growth with the sensitivity and forthrightness these issues deserve.
Every year, almost 60 percent of all pregnancies and 40 percent of all births in the United States are either mistimed or unwanted. Some 30 million American women are estimated to be at risk for an unintended pregnancy. One third of these women do not use contraceptives, and the unhappy consequence is that half of all unintended pregnancies occur to these women. Most vulnerable are sexually active teens. More than 80 percent of the one million teen pregnancies every year are unintended.
The consequences of unintended pregnancy can be tragic-including such health challenges as low birthweight and infant mortality, as well as social concerns such as poverty and the high incidence of abortion. Mistimed births are highest among young women, and unwanted births are highest among older women. Poor women have the highest percentage of both.
If all pregnancies were planned, America would be able to lower its infant mortality rate, enhance economic hope and make the demand for abortion scant indeed.
Meeting Americans' reproductive health needs will go a long way toward reducing unintended pregnancies and slowing population growth towards the point of population stabilization. This significant challenge for American health care can be met through provision of education, information and voluntary reproductive health services; contraceptive research and development; by attacking poverty and promoting personal responsibility; and by addressing the remaining obstacles to women's full economic and social opportunity. Special attention and sensitivity must also be given to addressing the needs of adolescents--emphasizing abstinence and, as a precautionary measure, providing education and services that enable young people to behave responsibly.
Americans are of two minds about sex and sexuality: they are reluctant to discuss the issues; and yet media images are laden with sex, especially sex without consequences. Encouraging personal and social responsibility and fostering educational efforts are essential for America's future.
Finally, one-third of U.S. population growth comes from legal and illegal immigration, now at an all-time high. This is a sensitive issue, but reducing immigration levels is a necessary part of population stabilization and the drive toward sustainability.
POPULATION POLICY RECOMMENDATIONS
CURBING U.S. CONSUMPTIONU.S. consumption is not usually seen as a problem but rather as a model for the world. However, without a change in U.S. consumption habits, stabilizing population will not have the desired effect of moving the country toward a sustainable economy.
In the late 1980s, the world's industrialized nations had 20 percent of the global population but consumed 85 percent of all aluminum and synthetic chemicals; 80 percent of paper, iron, and steel; 75 percent of timber and energy; 65 percent of meat, fertilizer, and cement; half the world's fish and grain; and 40 percent of the fresh water. The United States is the world's largest single consumer and the greatest producer of wastes.
U.S. per capita consumption is not rising except in plastic and paper, but because of population growth, its total resource consumption is still increasing. Yet studies show that U.S. quality of life is not keeping pace.
Appropriate incentives and policy tools can change the efficiency with which Americans use materials and energy. One way is to raise the price of natural resource use and waste generation to reflect their true environmental costs - by imposing charges and reducing subsidies for harmful practices.
At the moment, federal and state tax codes encourage a number of environmentally damaging activities and discourage beneficial ones. The Task Force recommends shifting these burdens, with care for broad public involvement and for descriptions and analyses, so as to avoid misun- understanding about "winners" and "losers."
Another way toward sustainable consumption is a comprehensive program to educate consumers, both individual and institutional, in the environmental consequences of their consumption choices. Polls find consumers eager to help make a difference for the environment with their own actions, and increasingly concerned with the concept of global stewardship. However, even experts have a hard time making informed choices in a clamorous marketplace.
The Task Force focused on environmental labeling and certification, government procurement policy, and public education as ways to help people make wise consumption decisions.
Education should take six forms: formal education (in the schools), media messages (in television story lines and movie plots), advertising (in guidelines for accuracy), education for financial literacy (to encourage savings and personal economic stability), community-based education (on local issues), and development of a stewardship ethic (that raises concern for future generations' welfare).
A third approach to redirecting consumption patterns is to move toward a new materials economy that reduces the total volume handled, cuts reliance on virgin resources, and uses both raw and secondary materials more effectively, while recycling materials already used.
Each American now produces 4.5 pounds of trash per day, by far the world's highest level. Each year, 180 million gallons of motor oil are improperly sent to landfills or poured down U.S. drains - an amount equal to 16 Exxon Valdez oil spills.
Citizens understand the problems of packaging, garbage, and household toxics, and show concern about these issues in polls. The Task Force recommends programs to streamline packaging, to implement weight-based municipal fees for collecting garbage, and to spur proper handling of household toxics.
At the same time, technological innovation should be encouraged to boost efficiency of material and energy production and to prevent pollution in the first place. If polluting technologies are priced in accord with their environmental costs, clean technologies will be able to compete more effectively.
CONSUMPTION POLICY RECOMMENDATIONS
CONCLUSIONThe Population and Consumption Task Force, with an agenda of "everything under the sun," sought to strike a balance between individual and government actions, between action at the federal and local levels, between providing individuals with information for making sustainable decisions and creating conditions that make those decisions good sense, and between actions that affect our numbers and actions that affect our resource use and waste production.
We did this in an effort to create a better balance between our population and consumption on the one hand, and the environment, economy, and society on which we depend, on the other.
The Population and Consumption Task Force urges readers of this report to join with us in the challenging task of striking this new balance and of creating a sustainable way of life in the United States.
Population and Consumption
Population and Consumption: Endnotes
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