IN JUNE 1993, when President Clinton created the President's Council on Sustainable Development, he asked us to find ways "to bring people together to meet the needs of the present without jeopardizing the future." He gave us a task that required us to think about the future and about the consequences of the choices this generation makes on the lives of future generations. It is a task that has caused each of us to think about human needs, economic prosperity, and human interactions with nature differently than we had before.
No one can predict the future--how people will live, or what exactly they will need--but it is possible to foresee the likely effects of some of today's decisions and to make choices that honor the interests of present and future generations. In the nearly three years of the Council's work, in our meetings across the country, we heard concern that despite America's great wealth, power, and technological prowess, Americans cannot assume that the future of their children's lives will be better than the present. Those who met with us see, as we do, trends that lead in troubling directions and opportunities that must soon be seized or lost.
We view this challenge with considerable optimism because the potential benefits of knowledge are essentially inexhaustible; because global attention to developing sustainably is growing; and because many communities, companies, and individuals are independently taking first steps toward responding to the need for change.
But optimism is not complacency. Opportunities for change and anecdotes of progress do not by themselves redirect global trends. There are substantial obstacles to overcome that require conscious and concerted action, sometimes by government, sometimes by the private sector, or sometimes by citizens in communities or as individuals--but often, all sectors need to be actively involved. The recommendations in this report are not only for government, but also for the private sector and citizens since government by itself cannot overcome apathy, spur innovation, or inspire new values
New Challenges for AmericansThese are remarkable times. This is an era of rapid and often bewildering alterations in the forces and conditions that shape human life. This is evident both in the altered nature of geopolitics in the post-Cold War era and in the growing understanding of the relationship between human beings and the natural world.
The end of the Cold War has been accompanied by the swift advance of democracy in places where it was previously unknown and an even more rapid spread of market-based economies. The authority of central governments is eroding, and power has begun to shift to local governments and private institutions. In some countries, freedom and opportunity are flourishing, while in others these changes have unleashed the violence of old conflicts and new ambitions.
Internationally, trade, investment, information, and even people flow across borders largely outside of governmental control. Domestically, deregulation and the shift of responsibilities from federal to state and local governments are changing the relationships among levels of government and between government and the private sector.
Communications technology has enhanced people's ability to receive information and influence events that affect them. This has sparked explosive growth in the number of organizations, associations, and networks formed by citizens, businesses, and communities seeking a greater voice for their interests. As a result, society outside of government--civil society--is demanding a greater role in governmental decisions, while at the same time impatiently seeking solutions outside government's power to decide.
But technological innovation is changing much more than communication. It is changing the ways in which Americans live, work, produce, and consume. Knowledge has become the economy's most important and dynamic resource. It has rapidly improved efficiency as those who create and sell goods and services substitute information and innovation for raw materials. During the past 20 years, the amount of energy and natural resources the U.S. economy uses to produce each constant dollar of output has steadily declined, as have many forms of pollution. When U.S. laws first required industry to control pollution, the response was to install cleanup equipment. The shift to a knowledge-driven economy has emphasized the positive connection among efficiency, profits, and environmental protection and helped launch a trend in profitable pollution prevention. More Americans now know that pollution is waste, waste is inefficient, and inefficiency is expensive.
Even as their access to information and to means of communication have increased, citizens of wealthy industrialized nations are becoming cynical about, and frustrated with, traditional political arrangements that no longer seem responsive to their needs. The confidence of many Americans in the large institutions that affect their lives--such as business; government; the media; and environmental, labor, and civic organizations--is eroding. Individual citizens have lost faith in their ability to influence events and have surrendered to apathy, or, worse, to anger. We saw striking contrasts between communities struggling with disaffection and despair, and communities where energized and optimistic citizens have become engaged in shaping their own future.
Bringing about positive change is the challenge that the United States, and we as a Council, face. We believe that significant change is both necessary and inevitable. American society has been characterized by its capacity to embrace and profit from change. But how can communities be mobilized to leave future generations a cleaner, more resilient environment; a more prosperous nation; a more equitable society; and a more productive and efficient economy--one that is competitive internationally? The situation is especially difficult because the pace and extent of today's changes are unprecedented, reflecting the local consequences of the interaction of economic, social, and environmental forces at the global level.
Global Changes That Affect Us AllSince the end of World War II, the world's economic output has increased substantially, allowing widespread improvements in health, education, and opportunity, but also creating growing disparities between rich and poor. Even within wealthy nations, including the United States, the gap between rich and poor is widening.
Tomorrow's world will be shaped by the aspirations of a much larger global population. The number of people living on Earth has doubled in the last 50 years; the equivalent of the population of the United States was added to the world total during the course of this Council's work.
Growing populations demand more food, goods, services, and space. Where there is scarcity, population increase aggravates it. Where there is conflict, rising demand for land and natural resources exacerbates it. Struggling to survive in places that can no longer sustain them, growing populations overfish, overharvest, and overgraze.
Economic growth and innovations in agricultural technology allow many of the world's people to improve their lives as global population increases, but growth and improvement are not without consequences to the Earth's natural systems. Some of the resources used, such as minerals and fossil fuels, while plentiful, are finite; once used, they are exhausted and cannot be renewed. Living resources--plants, animals, and fish--are renewable, but can be destroyed. Human ingenuity has developed alternatives for scarce resources, but that does not mean that depletion of resources has been--or will be--free of serious human and natural consequences. In fact, the demands of a growing human population and an expanding global economy are placing increasing stresses on natural systems.
And while the exhaustion of finite resources may result in human and economic dislocation, the destruction of renewable resources often has far broader ramifications because they are part of a dynamic and interdependent natural system. When a forest is destroyed, species lose their habitat and disappear. The resulting erosion affects river and coastal resources, and, in many cases, rainfall patterns change.
In the late 20th century, the effects of human activity on natural systems are not only visible, they are observable from year to year. In the 130 years from 1850 to 1980, about 15 percent of the world's forests disappeared. During the next 10 years, another 6 percent--an area larger than California, Texas, New York, and Montana combined--was cut and not replanted. The expansion of human population and the destruction of forests, grasslands, wetlands, and river systems bring an accelerated loss of species diversity. This diversity is the source not only of a wide range of human benefits--25 percent of new medicines, for example--but also the key to the ecosystem's resilience in the face of change. The pressures on natural resources are myriad. For example, pollution, coastal development, and intense fishing reduce ocean fish stocks. While the number and size of fishing fleets are increasing worldwide, fish harvests are falling. Human activity, primarily the burning of coal, oil, and gas, releases pollutants that are changing the chemistry of the Earth's atmosphere--changes that may eventually affect the Earth's climate.
Economic growth has often been accompanied by pollution, affecting both human health and the environment. Even though many wealthy nations have made remarkable progress in reducing pollution, the focus of industrial expansion has shifted to developing nations where environmental protection sometimes may not be regarded as affordable. Even though pollution controls and efficiency in developed nations have started to offset some of the global effects of growth, global pollution is increasing.
Because global economic, social, and environmental trends are connected, Americans' hopes for the future are linked to the rest of the world. Americans compete in a global economy shaped by global trends. American power and interests are global in nature, and the lives of Americans are affected by global environmental changes. The United States, with its high standard of living, is the largest producer and consumer of goods and services, and the largest producer of wastes on Earth. What Americans do affects the lives of people in every nation, and changes in their lives eventually affect Americans.
The U.S. economy, although still the world's largest, is no longer dominant; it is part of a global marketplace. U.S. enterprises can no longer thrive by looking only to domestic markets and domestic competitors. The fastest growing markets are not in the industrialized countries, but in those countries whose economies are in the process of becoming industrialized. Banks and private investors create huge international capital flows, seeking opportunities wherever they occur. Exports represent 7.3 percent of the U.S. gross domestic product. Imports are 9.5 percent of U.S. consumption. Burgeoning international trade now exceeds $4 trillion per year. International currency trading exceeds $1 trillion per day.
The paradoxical challenge that the United States and the world face at the end of the 20th century is to generate individual economic opportunities and national wealth necessary for economically healthy societies while, at the same time, lessening the environmental risks and social inequities that have accompanied past economic development. Both in the world and in the United States, there will be more people and they will aspire to better lives. Responding to those aspirations, particularly if prevalent patterns of consumption continue, will require the production of more goods and services. The challenge of sustainable development is to find ways to meet those needs without destroying the resources upon which future progress depends.
Pursuit of Common GoalsProsperity, fairness, and a healthy environment are interrelated elements of the human dream of a better future. Sustainable development is a way to pursue that dream through choice and policy. Work, wealth, community, and the environment are interwoven into the fabric of everyday life and the life of the nation. Sustainable development is the framework that integrates economic, environmental, and social goals in discourse and policies that enhance the prospects of human aspirations.
The Council had hard and frequent debates about the term economic growth, and heard it discussed by members of the public as well, at almost all of our meetings. In the end, we found agreement around the idea that to achieve our vision of sustainability some things must grow--jobs, productivity, wages, profits, capital and savings, information, knowledge, education--and others--pollution, waste, poverty, energy and material use per unit of output--must not. We agree on growth, and agree that it must be defined and measured with care. The issue is not whether the economy needs to grow but how and in what way.
An economy that creates good jobs and safeguards public health and the environment will be stronger and more resilient than one that does not. A country that protects its ecosystems and manages its natural resources wisely lays a far stronger base for future prosperity than one that carelessly uses its assets and destroys its natural capital. A society that invests in its children and communities, equitably providing education and opportunity, is far more likely to prosper than one that does not make such investments and allows the gap between rich and poor to widen.
By recognizing that economic, environmental, and social goals are integrally linked and by having policies that reflect that interrelationship, Americans can regain their sense that they are in control of their future and that the lives of each generation will be better than the last. Thinking narrowly about jobs, energy, transportation, housing, or ecosystems--as if they were not connected--creates new problems even as it attempts to solve old ones. Asking the wrong questions is a sure way to get misleading answers that result in short-term remedies for symptoms, instead of cures for long-term basic problems.
Seeing choices in terms of tradeoffs and balance reflects a history of confrontational politics. It pits vital necessities against each other in a false contest that inhibits exploration of the best solutions, those that link economic gain, ecological improvement, social equity, and well-being--solutions that build common purpose from shared goals.
The United States is a democracy with powerful traditions of individual liberty. What happens in American society ultimately depends on the values that guide the choices that individuals make--which is a function of their commitment and understanding. People act according to their perception of the intersection of their needs and wants, their values and conditions, and the events that affect them. But the narrow and immediate interests of individuals, organizations, or government officials do not necessarily coincide with the long-term interests of a larger community at home or abroad. Although people can act in the interests of the larger community, they rarely do so alone. Because each fears losing separately, all lose together.
How can more than 261 million individual Americans define and reconcile their
needs and aspirations with community values and the needs of the future? Our
most important finding is the potential power of and growing desire for decision
processes that promote direct and meaningful interaction involving people in decisions
that affect them. Americans want to take back control of
their lives. Communities throughout the country are
demonstrating that it is possible to shift from conflict to
collaboration when citizens find common values to guide
community action. Trust can be restored, hope can be
expanded, and people can find ways to lead prosperous
lives in harmony with the environment.
Throughout this report, there are recommendations to
create structures that will involve more people and a
broader range of interests in shaping community vision and
making public policy. These will improve decisions, mitigate conflict,
and begin to counteract the corrosive trends
of cynicism and civic disengagement that afflict society.