Beneath the surface, one country is dealing with growing pains, while the other is struggling with stasis. China is currently going through its own version of America's "Progressive Era" -- the Gilded Age of the past 20 years is continuing forward, with its astronomical income growth and alleviation of poverty, but the effects and "hangover" of economic growth are catching up. Megacities are pricing out the middle class, jobs and education are ultra-competitive, and inequality is staggering. These are all the effects of "hypergrowth", when a newly "prosperous" middle class has to deal with the rapid stress and worries of modern life, a la Japan in the 1970's and the 1980's. Meanwhile, America is going through its own slow transformation. The technology and financial revolutions of the 1980's and 1990's empowered a new capitalist/creative class, at the expense of the American worker. Factories are replaced by warehouses, data centers, and the hospital-industrial "care" complex. The government can no longer levy enough taxes from the wealthy, so it resorts to spending and borrowing. I imagine America as akin to turn-of-the-century Britain (Edwardian England), when England faced increased industrial competition from the U.S. and Germany, and its leadership became increasing isolationist after some uneventful foreign wars (Crimea, Boer). It's an anxious empire that feels like it has much to lose, even if the anxiety and fear is somewhat imagined, and emanating from within.
It's so interesting, then that this new mantra of "sustainable growth" has emerged in both countries, to combat the problems of hypergrowth or stasis. However, China and the U.S. enlists the culture "sustainability" for its own agenda, to solve their own unique problems. In the U.S. sustainability is almost a stand in for "freezing" and "maintaining" all that is good, in a way that looks back towards its glorious 20th century history, to simply "keep what we have". Overwhelmed by a cultural anxiety against an unknown future, potentially marred by terrorism, pandemics and climate change, sustainability becomes a way to "band-aid" around all that is unknown, a mantra that all at once feels "new", "safe", "low-tech" but also "retrospective". To be sustainable is to not change, to keep what we have, and don't try to rock the boat too much, to prepare for the worst. (Thus, a calculated, risk-free retreat from all that is new, because the Earth cannot handle it.)
In China, sustainability is a political and cultural "endpoint", demarcating where the state thinks society should ultimately, ideally develop into. It's almost like a form of positive propaganda, where sustainability is a glorious future where water is clean, the sky is blue, and cities are free of pollution. Compared to the U.S., sustainability is a form of "decelerated growth" that is forward-looking, technology-focused and optimistic. One day, the country will be technologically advanced enough that it can abandon its coal power plants and polluted streets -- and along with it, social inequality and poverty. Sustainability becomes a moving goalpost that becomes more ambitious with each passing year, towards its own idealized glorious 21st century (at least for real estate marketing purposes).
So, should "sustainable growth" be looking solely backwards, like in America, or be treated as a techno-utopian ideal, like in China? It's more productive to imagine that true "sustainable growth" requires a bit of both - some new imagination, and also some respect for what exists currently. Politically and culturally, the U.S. may already be a point where it can no longer imagine and build new infrastructure, at least in the public realm, even though it still should (at a great cost). But perhaps China can still learn and adopt some values of preservation and slowness, later in the future, as a way to achieve even higher development.