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).

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).[1]

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.

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 society.

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 severity and 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.

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 waste production.

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.

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 human 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.


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.


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 xTechnology.

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 developed countries 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 unchanged.

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, such as 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 sustainability.

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 leading generator of toxic and hazardous substances. And this nation, the world's 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 of wastes.

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 parents.[2]

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 abortions.

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.

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.

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.

In everyday usage, "consumption" means the use of consumer 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 and investment.

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 consumption."

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 health.

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 technological advance.


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.

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 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 management--packaging, municipal garbage fees, and household toxic materials--and the need to encourage technological change to promote sustainability.

Table of Contents | Chapter 1: Population Issues