Unfinished Business

12/09/2011 11:26 am ET | Updated Feb 08, 2012

The term, "American Exceptionalism" is an obligatory rallying cry of 2012 presidential campaign rhetoric, and woe to any politician perceived to give it short shrift.

But while the many great attributes of our country are indisputable, the expression "American Exceptionalism" warrants some qualification. Although the candidates may not dwell on it, we have a lot of unfinished business as a nation.

Who should know this better than Gus Speth, former head of the United Nations Development Programme, a key advisor to President Carter, ex Dean of the Yale University School of Forestry, and the founder of a pioneering national environmental organization.

Speth reels off some statistics that should temper any nationalistic euphoria on our part. He points out that among 20 major industrialized countries, the United States has:
--Along with Belgium, the lowest score on the World Economic Forum's Environmental Performance Index as well as the largest ecological footprint per capita (except for Belgium and Denmark).
--The highest carbon emissions and water consumption per capita.
--The lowest spending on international development and humanitarian assistance as a percentage of gross domestic product (GDP).

And that is just in the environmental arena. Speth notes that the World Economic Forum assigns our nation the highest infant mortality rate, highest poverty rate, highest prevalence of mental health problems, and highest homicide rate.

Speth and the World Economic forum are not alone. The International Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) produced a Sustainability Index in which the United States was rated last environmentally among 30 industrialized nations. OECD statisticians justified the low ranking on the grounds we had the highest paper consumption and waste volume, ratified fewest environmental treaties, recorded the lowest environmental taxes, and brought up the rear in the amount of discharged greenhouse gas emissions and percentage of resources devoted to environmental research.

Then there is the Global Green Economy Index. It is a survey of perceptions and actual environmental performance of 27 of the world's leading nations (excluding Russia but including China and India). The authors' sobering conclusion is that our country's image is far better than reality dictates.

Dual Citizen, a U.S.-based consulting firm, recently compiled the index by querying more than 5000 non-governmental green energy experts from the 27 countries to name the top ten nations in several categories. Data on the nations' actual performances were derived from studies primarily conducted by the private sector and several think tanks.

The United States was ranked fourth by the respondents in terms of its overall "green" reputation, thereby demonstrating how our environmental protection infrastructure was perceived. In actual performance, however, we didn't even make the top ten in environmental sensibility. First place went to New Zealand, with Britain rounding out the list at tenth.

In terms of "green leadership", the experts rated us tenth (which in itself was quite a blow to the most fervent proclaimers of "American Exceptionalism"). Again, in actual performance, we were nowhere to be found among the top ten, an enormous comedown from the 1970s' when we were recognized as the undisputed global pioneer in environmental protection.

The index is supposed to provide an evaluation of investment opportunities throughout the world in green technology. Our country was ranked fourth by the Index's respondents, but statistically, it rated tenth. The first three places were filled by Denmark, Germany, and Sweden.

Where does this leave us in the big picture? Again, until "American Exceptionalism" also encompasses an acknowledgement of our shortcomings and reflects a more active effort to set things straight, the term's full connotation is not matched by reality.