New Report Calls for Policy Innovations to Achieve Sustainable Prosperity in the U.S.

According to a new report, 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.

The report from the Worldwatch Institute, Creating Sustainable Prosperity in the United States: The Need for Innovation and Leadership, 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 United States 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 Environmental Protection Agency.

Yet U.S. leaders have lagged behind many other countries, including in Europe and Asia, in developing 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, 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,” said Robert Engelman, Executive Director of Worldwatch. “Americans benefited economically and in many other ways from these efforts. Today, 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.

The report concludes that creating a sustainable U.S. economy will require a thoughtful and strategic set of national, state, and local policies that essentially remake the economic playing field under a new set of principles:

  • Renewable resources cannot be consumed faster than they are regenerated.
  • Non-renewable resources must be reused or recycled to the greatest extent possible, creating a circular economy.
  • Ongoing development should focus less on ever-higher levels of consumption and more on increased quality of life.
  • A sense of fairness, especially around wealth distribution, is needed to generate social and economic stability across society.
  • Deceleration of population growth will make the creation of a sustainable economy far easier.

Increasing awareness of the environmental challenges facing our planet, as well as the focus on finding ways to bolster the American economy, present policymakers 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.

Creating Sustainable Prosperity in the United States is available for purchase on the Worldwatch Institute website.

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