Can America Win The 21st Century With Sustainability As Its Grand Strategy?

By leading the planet on a global transition to cleaner, less resource-intensive living, can America save the world from the dangers of a growing population demanding more and more?

Can America Win The 21st Century With Sustainability As Its Grand Strategy?

Listen to Washington’s strategists talk about mortal threats over the last decade and it’s likely you would have heard some combination of “rogue state” (insert name), “emerging super-power,” and terrorism/cyberwar/nuclear weapons. Patrick Doherty sees it slightly differently. With 3 billion people set to join the middle class in 20 years, he says the most serious issues are resource conflicts and ecosystem collapse. And, as such, the U.S.’s primary strategy shouldn’t be more of the same (economically, militarily), but leading a “global transition to sustainability.”


Doherty–who is director of the Smart Strategy Initiative at the New America Foundation–describes four interconnected challenges:

  • “economic inclusion”: those 3 billion raising commodity prices, and states increasingly intervening “to gain or preserve access” to resources
  • “ecosystem depletion”: fundamental man-made impacts on the atmosphere and water supplies, and the loss of vital natural “services
  • “contained depression”: the lack of aggregate demand in the domestic economy, and the increasingly fruitless use of stimulus and monetary gimmicks
  • “resilience deficit”: the fragility of global supply chains, and the under-investment in bridges, roads, railways, schools, ports, and airports.

Doherty says the U.S. is currently on a “downward spiral of economic prosperity, sustainability, and security at the same time,” and that it needs a new “grand strategy” that aligns its “economic engine” with domestic and national security policy. Doherty wants a return to the high-thinking of World War II, when the U.S. harnessed its industrial machine (the “Arsenal of Democracy”), and the Cold War, when economic success was built around three pools of demand: suburban housing, consumer goods, and reconstruction materials for Europe and Japan.

The beauty of the post-war period, Doherty says, was that the type of lifestyle people wanted–a single family house on the edge of town, a nice big car, and plenty of new appliances (and so on)–suited larger objectives. As he puts it in a piece for Foreign Policy, “by living the American Dream, Americans helped stop Soviet advances.” The problem today is that lifestyle choices have changed and demand pools have shifted. And yet government policy hasn’t caught up. America, in a sense, is in a time warp.

“It’s essential the economic engine is where the demand is in the 21st century, and that we don’t try to mind the sources of demand as they were in 1946 or 1947,” he told Co.Exist.

Doherty cites surveys showing that a majority of people now want a “five-minute lifestyle” (work, school, transit, and so on within a five-minute walk), and that three-quarters of “Millennials” who grew up in suburbs never want to go back. People want a “new American dream” focused around walkability, but legacy policies in housing and transportation are holding them back, he says. For example, an estimated $450 billion in direct or indirect subsidies for single-family homes encourage “driving til you qualify” (living further and further out), which wastes a lot of resources. Suburban communities use 30% more energy and water than walkable ones, Doherty says.

There are two other sustainability-focused pools of demand. One: meeting a massive projected appetite for food. Doherty says “regenerative agriculture“–which limits inputs, while restoring soils and cleaning waterways–would be a boon to U.S. farmers who are currently benefiting from higher commodity prices, but face growing risks from drought, environmental damage, and increasing input prices.


And lastly: in providing goods and services that reduce energy and resource intensity. “It’s the modern, easier lifestyle with a lot less resources and it’s essentially a bottomless market, because behind those first 3 billion there are another 3 billion waiting to come in,” Doherty says.

The New America Foundation is currently working with the World Business Council for Sustainable Development (a high-level group of CEOs at major companies) to build a consensus around the thesis. Doherty wants to encourage companies to take some of their currently enormous cash horde and invest it in the agenda. “There is tremendous capital sitting on the sidelines. What we need is an economic strategy that allows that demand to be met with that capital,” he says.

More broadly, he sees sustainability–backed by new domestic and foreign policies–as key to dealing with the four mega-challenges. “The interplay of housing, agriculture, and research productivity creates an economic engine that allows us to contain depression, confront a period of high input prices through innovation, not strategic competition, and dramatically improves our environmental footprint.”


About the author

Ben Schiller is a New York staff writer for Fast Company. Previously, he edited a European management magazine and was a reporter in San Francisco, Prague, and Brussels.