But is there a limit to how much growth can -- and should -- be sustained? In many communities across America, citizens' groups find themselves resisting proposed land developments for fear their quality of life will deteriorate. Is growth worthwhile, they ask, if it brings overcrowded highways, air pollution, and overburdened schools? How much pollution is tolerable? How much open space must be sacrificed in the drive to create new jobs? Similar concerns occur on the global level. How can nations deal with environmental challenges such as climate change, ozone depletion, deforestation, and marine pollution? Will countries be able to constrain coal-burning power plants and gasoline-powered automobiles enough to limit emissions of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases that are believed to cause global warming?
Because of the huge size of its economy, the United States necessarily will be a major actor in such matters. But its affluence also complicates its role. What right does the United States, which has achieved a high standard of living, have to demand that other countries join in efforts to take actions that might constrain growth in order to protect the environment?
There are no easy answers. But to the extent that America and other nations meet their fundamental economic challenges, these questions will become increasingly important. They remind us that while a strong economy may be a prerequisite to social progress, it is not the ultimate goal.
In numerous ways -- the tradition of public education, environmental regulations, rules prohibiting discrimination, and government programs like Social Security and Medicare, to name just a few -- Americans have always recognized this principle. As the late U.S. Senator Robert Kennedy, the brother of President John F. Kennedy, explained in 1968, economic matters are important, but gross national product "does not include the beauty of our poetry or the strength of our marriages; the intelligence of our public debate or the integrity of our public officials. It measures neither our wit nor our courage; neither our wisdom nor our learning; neither our compassion nor our devotion to our country; it measures everything, in short, except that which makes life worthwhile. And it can tell us everything about America except why we are proud to be Americans."
This article is adapted from the book "Outline of the U.S. Economy" by Conte and Carr and has been adapted with permission from the U.S. Department of State.