By Donella Meadows
–December 8, 1988–
Throughout the past campaign the United States was Number One, the Envy of the World, the Strongest Nation on Earth. The candidates would have been stopped in mid-rhetoric if anyone had asked: In what sense are we Number One? Exactly what about us do others envy?
Now it’s transition time, a fleeting period when harmony rules the land and some truth can be told. Even the most cursory look at world statistics challenges our Number One status. The picture is decidedly mixed; it shows much to be proud of and much for a new administration to do.
In income (as measured by GNP per capita) the U.S. is second in the world just now, behind Switzerland. A few years ago we were tenth, behind several Middle Eastern states and Norway, Sweden, and Switzerland. Our rank goes up and down as oil prices and currency values rise and fall.
In population we are the fourth largest country (behind China, India, and the USSR). In land area we’re also fourth (way behind the USSR and Canada, and behind China by a nose), but we are the custodians of more fertile, temperate, and well-watered land than any other people on earth.
Our children are by no means the world’s healthiest — 16 nations have lower infant mortality rates than we do. For every 1000 babies born in the United States, 9.8 do not survive to their first birthday. Japan has the lowest infant mortality rate — 5.5 deaths per thousand live births. Our poor record in child health is related to the fact that of all industrial countries the U.S. has the highest proportion of children living in poverty.
We are 17th in newspaper circulation (269 papers per 1000 inhabitants — the Japanese buy twice that many). Believe it or not, we’re only second in television sets per thousand inhabitants (646 to Guam’s 736), and third in telephones (we have 760 per thousand inhabitants, to Switzerland’s 766 and Monaco’s 1150).
We have recently become the world’s biggest debtor; our foreign debt is greater than those of all Third World nations combined.
We rank 20th out of 21 western democracies in voter participation.
We are second to last among the western nations and way behind several Middle Eastern oil states in the percent of our GNP we give to economic development in the Third World. Only Austria is more niggardly than we are.
We are Absolute Tops in garbage generated per person — no one else is even close. We are third in energy consumption per person (behind Canada and Norway, both of which squander their cheap hydropower). We have more nuclear power plants than any other nation (112, the USSR is second with 48).
We are the world’s biggest emitters of nitrogen oxide pollution per person, we are second to Canada in carbon monoxide pollution, and third to Canada and Spain in per capita emissions of sulfur dioxide. We are the world’s greatest contributor to the greenhouse effect.
We are Number One in nuclear weapons. We can explode more than 16,000 nuclear weapons on the USSR. They can explode 11,000 on us. Together with our NATO allies we have 31,000 nuclear weapons altogether; the Soviet Union and its allies have 25,000.
Our endless complaints notwithstanding, we are 17th out of 19 industrial nations in the fraction of our income that goes to the federal government — 24.5% of our GNP. Only Switzerland (18.6%) and Japan (17.4%) have lower federal taxes. Among the nations with higher ones are Belgium (56.7% of GNP spent by government), the Netherlands (56.6%), Sweden (44.1%), and West Germany (29.9%). It’s interesting to note that in none of these countries has private investment ground to a halt or the economy collapsed.
Our teenage birth rate is twice as high as that of any other industrialized country.
We’re not Number One in Olympic medals, not when the USSR and East Germany are in the competition. But we are far and away the leader in Nobel Prizes — 50 have been awarded to Americans in the past 10 years; the next closest competitors are Germany and Great Britain with nine each.
If we could look objectively at our record as a nation, we’d have to admit wealth and wastefulness, creativity and irresponsibility, industriousness and apathy, a remarkable lack of compassion, and a totally unwarranted arrogance.
An admission like that during campaign time would call one’s patriotism into question. Perhaps during transition time we can see that it’s all right to live in and love a country that is not unambiguously Number One — after all, the citizens of every other nation somehow do. Real love, of a person or a country, means seeing the whole, telling the truth, celebrating strengths, and working with understanding, patience, and humility to correct weaknesses.
Copyright Sustainability Institute 1988