Vanderbilt Law Review

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The United States is an exceptional place in many ways, not least in its consumption. The United States consumes a disproportionate share of the world's energy and resources, with a correspondingly large environmental footprint. At present, although we have been successful in creating economic wealth, well-being has lagged behind. Could the United States shift to a more sustainable path? Would that require an unacceptable sacrifice of social welfare? This Article argues that a shift really is possible, and that many of the steps to sustainability would actually make people better off even apart from their environmental benefits.

At present, we are not on a sustainable pathway. U.S. consumption looms large globally. With less than one-twentieth of the world's population, the United States consumes four times its share of resources, including roughly a fifth of the world's fossil fuels, a fifth of the copper, and a quarter of the aluminum. During the twentieth century, the U.S. population tripled, while U.S. use of raw materials multiplied seventeen times. Or to put it differently, the average person's use of raw materials quadrupled.

The United States is also responsible for a disproportionate amount of greenhouse gases, in part because of its resource use. Resource production entails heavy energy use and accompanying C02 emissions-for instance, three tons of carbon dioxide are emitted for every ton of copper produced and up to fifteen are emitted for every ton of aluminum Altogether, the United States produces almost a quarter of global carbon dioxide. Finally, the United States "imported" additional carbon tonnage in the form of emissions connected with the production of goods in China and elsewhere. According to one estimate, this embedded carbon amounted to over 500 million tons of carbon dioxide in 2008. Thus, current U.S. consumption of resources and energy is hazardous to the planet.

This Article explores the opportunities for making forward strides on energy sustainability on the consumption side. In a free society, it is preferable to change individual lifestyles by creating sustainable infrastructure, informing individuals, and providing incentives, not by coercing individuals into choices that society prefers them to make. Changes in legal rules can reduce barriers to sustainable consumption and give more people the opportunity for sustainable, satisfying lives. Sustainable consumption and green communities are large-scale goals that will not be easy to achieve. But they are not utopian, and lawmakers can take significant steps in the near term. Indeed, recent evidence suggests that even before the financial crisis, some developed countries may have reached "peak stuff'-that is, that per capita use of energy and resources may have stabilized or even begun to decline.