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By Gary Gardner and Jenna Banning

Crossposted from the Worldwatch Institute.

Entire sets of assumptions, beliefs, and practices will need to be overturned if the United States is to build a sustainable economy in the decades ahead, according to a new report from the Worldwatch Institute, Creating Sustainable Prosperity in the United States: The Need for Innovation and Leadership. The report assesses the country’s environmental record and calls for a broad range of policy innovations in the areas of renewable and non-renewable resource use, waste and pollution, and population growth that would help boost the sustainability of the U.S. economy while maintaining people’s overall well-being and quality of life.

The report notes that the country has a long tradition of environmental leadership, dating back to President Theodore Roosevelt, who established the U.S. National Park Service in 1916. During the 1960s and 1970s, the U.S. became a world leader in environmental policy, establishing a series of progressive laws and institutions, including the Clean Water and Clean Air Acts and the United States Environmental Protection Agency.

Yet U.S. leaders have lagged behind many other countries, including in Europe and Asia, in developing a more sustainable economic processes and energy infrastructure, according to the report. Although the technological and policy tools needed to create sustainable economic activity have advanced rapidly around the world, U.S. output continues to be bolstered by unsustainable practices such as closed loop recycling (recycling waste from one product to make another), heavy dependence on fossil fuels, disregard for renewable resources, and resource use that is strongly connected to economic growth.

“The United States once set the world standard in confronting its environmental problems—protecting wild lands, establishing an environmental protection agency, and acting assertively to limit pollution of all types,” noted Robert Engelman, Executive Director of Worldwatch. “Americans benefited economically and in many other ways from these efforts. Yet today the country’s government plays no role in global efforts to create sustainable societies. We need a powerful citizens’ movement to help policymakers see that any efforts to make the United States enduringly prosperous are doomed to fail so long as we forget that we are living on a finite planet and cannot change the laws of physics and biology to suit our ambitions.”

The report outlines a series of cogent and practicable policy measures that can be instituted today to put the United States on a more sustainable path. These include shifting from an income tax to a progressive consumption tax, creating more standard eco-labeling for products, encouraging more producer “take-back” opportunities, and promoting a more feasible renewable energy market. A deceleration of population growth will also make the creation of a sustainable economy far easier, the report notes.

Rising awareness of the environmental challenges facing our planet, as well as the focus on finding ways to bolster the American economy, presents policy makers with the opportunity to make important and far-reaching decisions. The question is whether the United States builds sustainable prosperity through prudent choices now, or declines into sustained impoverishment because it failed to steward its assets when it had the choice.

What do you think is the most important step governments can take to support sustainable economies?

Gary Gardner is a Senior Fellow at the Worldwatch Institute. Jenna Banning is a research intern with the Nourishing the Planet project of the Worldwatch Institute.

For more on the importance of developing a green economy, see “Officials cite sustainable agriculture as key to UN Green Economy Initiative,” “Worldwatch report focuses on China’s green future” and “Rio+20: Creating Green Economies to Eradicate Poverty.”

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