Skip to main content

Sign up for our newsletter.

Quality journalism. Progressive values. Direct to your inbox.

An oil refinery in Port Arthur, Texas. (Photo: IIP Photo Archive/flickr/cc)

US Failing Dismally on Sustainable Development, Despite Vast Wealth

First-of-its-kind report rated 83 countries on UN's sustainable development goals and found US "seriously far from achievement"

Nika Knight

The United States is far behind other wealthy countries when it comes to sustainable development, a new report found this week, meaning the country is "seriously far" from achieving the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) ratified by United Nations member states in September 2015.

"We've long been the richest big economy in the world, but it's pretty clear that something's really gone off the rails in our country."
—Jeffrey Sachs, Sustainable Development Solutions Network

Rampant poverty, mass incarceration, a too-high murder rate and too little renewable energy were a few of the reasons for the poor ranking given to the U.S., according to the Washington Post.

"What we've done in this report is a first scan of about 150 countries," said Jeffrey Sachs, head of Columbia University's Earth Institute as well as the UN's Sustainable Development Solutions Network (SDSN), which created the report, to the Washington Post. "It's the first time anybody has taken a look across the world."

As the Post writes, the sustainable development goals are "a global agenda to fix climate change, stop hunger, end poverty, extend health and access to jobs, and vastly more—all by 2030":

The goals comprise no less than 17 separate items and 169 "targets" within them. And this isn't just an airy exercise—the targets are quite specific ("By 2030, progressively achieve and sustain income growth of the bottom 40 per cent of the population at a rate higher than the national average"). That means that at least in many cases, countries can actually be measured on how they’re faring in meeting these goals, based on a large range of sociological, economic and other indicators.

And while some on the left have critiqued the UN's highly-touted goals for focusing too much on economic development and argued that achieving sustainability requires a more radical shift away from Western capitalist thinking, many progressives have also praised the goals' call for a renewed international focus on social responsibility and environmental sustainability.

On those counts, the U.S. is failing dismally, says the report put together by SDSN alongside the German foundation Bertelsmann Stiftung. The wealthiest country in the world is ranked 25th out of 83 on sustainability and social goals, falling behind Hungary, Slovenia, Belarus, Canada, and the U.K.

The Post reported:

[...] the U.S. scored in the red, meaning "seriously far from achievement as of 2015," for 12 out of 17 of the sustainable development goals. Those goals were "no poverty," "zero hunger," "gender equality," "affordable and clean energy," "decent work and economic growth," "reduced inequalities," "responsible consumption and production," "climate action," "life below water," "life on land," "peace, justice and strong institutions," and "partnerships for the goals" (which involves establishing transnational collaborations to achieve them).

Many of the lowest-ranked countries—including Botswana, Paraguay, and Algeria—are impoverished, the report notes, with rich Scandinavian nations topping the list. However, it is "possible to be rich," the report authors write, "but with significant inequality and unsustainable environmental practices."

"That pretty much seems to sum up the U.S.," the Post observes.

Yet the U.S. would benefit immensely from these goals, Sachs argued in a recent op-ed in the Boston Globe, if the country would only consider them:

Americans could be among the world's biggest beneficiaries of the new Sustainable Development Goals, though the concept has hardly been discussed in the American media. While other countries have been holding forums to discuss the SDGs, the United States has largely ignored them except on campuses, in some city governments, and in many companies. Yet this is a case where the United States has a lot to learn, and benefit, from other countries.

The SDGs work for the United States because they address the core problems that ail our society. Since 1980, America has become much richer, with national income per person up by 80 percent. Yet America is now vastly more divided between rich and poor; more vulnerable to droughts, floods, and extreme storms; and less confident in its future. An astounding 73 percent of Americans believe that the country is “on the wrong track.” In short, America has become much richer but much less fair and environmentally sustainable.

The Sustainable Development Goals pour scorn on the once-popular idea that "greed is good" by emphasizing that an American society (indeed any society) built to last must look beyond greed to honesty, solidarity, and sustainability.

"We've long been the richest big economy in the world, but it's pretty clear that something's really gone off the rails in our country, and it turns out that both the social indicators and the environmental indicators really show that that’s the case," Sachs told the Post. "The environment remains a challenge for everybody, which is why this basic question, can the world economy grow, and not destroy the planet, is still a question."

Our work is licensed under Creative Commons (CC BY-NC-ND 3.0). Feel free to republish and share widely.

This is the world we live in. This is the world we cover.

Because of people like you, another world is possible. There are many battles to be won, but we will battle them together—all of us. Common Dreams is not your normal news site. We don't survive on clicks. We don't want advertising dollars. We want the world to be a better place. But we can't do it alone. It doesn't work that way. We need you. If you can help today—because every gift of every size matters—please do. Without Your Support We Simply Don't Exist.

'Political Malpractice': House Democrats' Bill Wouldn't Add Dental to Medicare Until 2028

"I don't want to see it drawn out to as far as the House has proposed," Sen. Bernie Sanders said during a recent press call.

Jake Johnson ·

'How Many More Deaths Must It Take?' Barbados Leader Rips Rich Nations in Fierce UN Speech

"How many more variants of Covid-19 must arrive, how many more, before a worldwide plan for vaccinations will be implemented?"

Jake Johnson ·

To Avert Debt Ceiling Calamity, Democrats Urged to Finally Kill the Filibuster

"The solution is to blow up the filibuster at least for debt limit votes, just as Mitch blew it up to pack the Supreme Court for his big donors."

Jake Johnson ·

Biden Decries 'Outrageous' Treatment of Haitians at Border—But Keeps Deporting Them

"I'm glad to see President Biden speak out about the mistreatment of Haitian asylum-seekers. But his administration's use of Title 42 to deny them the right to make an asylum claim is a much bigger issue."

Jessica Corbett ·

Global Peace Activists Warn of Dangers of US-Led Anti-China Pacts

"No to military alliances and preparation for catastrophic wars," anti-war campaigners from over a dozen nations write in a letter decrying the new AUKUS agreement. "Yes to peace, disarmament, justice, and the climate."

Brett Wilkins ·

Support our work.

We are independent, non-profit, advertising-free and 100% reader supported.

Subscribe to our newsletter.

Quality journalism. Progressive values.
Direct to your inbox.

Subscribe to our Newsletter.

Common Dreams, Inc. Founded 1997. Registered 501(c3) Non-Profit | Privacy Policy
Common Dreams Logo