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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 Beauchamp

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."

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