5 Themes for Sustainable Development
and Related Policy Topics


The U.S. system of environmental management, largely built since 1970, has dramatically improved our ability to protect public health and the natural environment. Today, our goal has broadened from environmental protection to the more encompassing concept of sustainable development, and as we move ahead we must build a New System for a New Century.

We have learned many lessons over the last 25 years. We now realize that we cannot address economic, environmental, and social problems in isolation. We now know that anticipating and preventing problems through planning and foresight is far more cost-effective than having to solve them later. We now understand that the adversarial nature of the current system stymies solutions that can be found when potential adversaries cooperate and collaborate. We see clearly that many of the most creative and lasting solutions arise from innovative communities. These perspectives help put us in a better position to make good decisions.

For the past 25 years, the government has relied primarily upon an "end-of-the-pipe" approach to protect the environment. While this traditional approach remains important, we have the opportunity to use a greater variety of tools as we make sustainable development a reality. The objective is to achieve a higher standard of environmental quality and protection, but more cost effectively and with more flexibility on how we achieve the standard.

Policy Topics:

  1. Development of a new environmental regulatory system based upon performance, flexibility, and accountability.
  2. Extended product stewardship.
  3. Harnessing of Market Forces to Improve Performance a) Tax Reform
    b) Subsidy Reform
    c) Market Incentives

  4. Strenthened Intergovernmental Partnerships
  5. Government Procurement Practices
  6. Strengthening of Democracies


Accurate information is at the heart of good decision making. With quality information, governments can tailor solutions to solve problems in the most efficient manner; businesses can make decisions that are good for the bottom line and good for the environment; and citizens can participate effectively in decisions that affect their communities. Better information lies at the heart of better choices. Much of what we think is important for sustainable development revolves around providing flexibility concerning choices and options to consumers, the private sector, and governments. Quality information is essential if this strategy is to succeed.

This importance of sound information extends from the needs of an individual shopping for the most environmentally friendly product, to communities that want to understand the environmental challenges facing their families, to policymakers who want to know how resource depletion affects or national economy. In each case, good information helps lead to good decisions.

Policy Topics:

  1. New Environmental Income Accounts
    a) National Income Accounts
    b) Private Sector Environmental Accounting

  2. Informed Choices in Personal Decision Making
  3. New National Indicators for Sustainable Development
  4. Consumer Information about the Environmental Consequences of Their Product Choices


It is within communities that sustainable or unsustainable development is most apparent. This is true of communities of place, such as neighborhoods or cities, and communities of interest, such as professional organizations, churches, and families. The Council found strong communities across the United States forging a vision of the future that included prosperity, fairness, opportunity, a healthy environment, and a connection to the beauty of nature because that is what people want for their children. A sustainable nation begins with these kinds of communities and these visions.

Most environmental, economic, and social policy decisions that relate to sustainability play out immediately in communities. Differing interests can best come together locally and power the change that will have long-term national and global ramifications. But they can do so only if the institutions of our society--federal and state governments, business, universities, and community organizations--support them. But this can happen only if citizens step forward to do the work and take responsibility.

Today, a trend of civic disengagement is moving through the United States. It is inimical to our collective hopes for a sustainable future, and we as a Council believe that the best antidote to this isolation, apathy, and despair is to give people greater power and responsibility to participate in decisions that will shape their lives and communities. As communities grow stronger, so do our chances for a stronger democracy, a vibrant economy, a healthy environment, and expanded opportunity for all citizens. By strengthening our communities, we strengthen our nation and set an example for the world.

Policy Topics:

  1. Participatory Decision Making and Civic Involvement
  2. Community Design and Antidote to Sprawl
  3. Create Sustainable Local Economies
  4. Maintaining Safe and Healthy Communities


Stewardship is looking after the property or valuables owned by someone else. To practice environmental stewardship, then, is to assume responsibility for the quality of air, water, soil, the fate of other living creatures, and needs for food and shelter. We are the environmental stewards of our fellow human beings throughout the world, and--importantly--for the generations yet to come.

Such stewardship is the essence of sustainable development. Without this commitment, without an ethic based on an understanding and acceptance of this obligation, every other effort will fail in time.

Environmental stewardship becomes more complex as a greater number of human beings, benefiting from active economies, create greater stress on the environment. From the environment, we demand even more: fertile soil; clean and abundant water; healthy air; safe food; and wood, fuel and building supplies. The limited and declining ability of the environment to absorb waste and toxins, and thereby permit humans to profit--in every sense of that term--from environmental systems will be under greater strain.

We are encountering more frequent conflicts between the needs of humans and the ability of the environment to meet those needs. Some conflicts stem from the thoughtless use of or harm to resources once thought inexhaustible. Witness decades of dumping wastes into rivers and oceans or the serious depletion of the continental forests. Others may arise from development decisions made when information was too sketchy to reveal the full consequences of the decisions. Years of indifference to the value of wetlands led to the loss of half of the nation's wetlands. Whatever the origin, these conflicts reveal the strength of the connection among human well-being, economic activity, and environmental health.

Environmental stewardship must begin with each person's recognition and acceptance of responsibility, but it is also a collective community undertaking. Collaborative and distinctly local approaches to environmental stewardship often are associated with frightful disasters, such as major floods or massive storms. Yet, whenever developers and citizens cooperate to create ways to meld economic and environmental activities and goals, stewardship is at work--as in Chattanooga, Tennessee, where environmental problems and economic woes are dramatically improved by the innovation created by a whole new economic base.

Stewardship's potential is reflected in the national commitment to manage all U.S. forest resources in accordance with the principles of sustainability by the turn of the century. The need for more environmental stewardship is revealed in the serious distress of once-abundant ocean fish stocks, the legacy today of lax management, which occurred despite scientists' warnings.

The human footprint on the environment grows even as evidence of environmental sensitivity increases. Major strides have been made in clean air, clean water, and soil conservation, but fish stock declines and other forms of resource degradation make self-congratulation premature and highlight the importance of basing environmental stewardship on local understanding and commitment.

How can we develop an ethic of environmental stewardship? People need to understand the environmental principles involved, the connection between environmental health and human and economic well-being, and the processes by which governmental actions at every level can create desired lifelong changes. Education is also important to developing such an ethic, as is confidence that citizen action can make a difference. People, bonded by a similar purpose, can work together to make sustainable development real.

The following policy recommendations and actions are examples of ways environmental stewardship can be used to move the nation toward sustainable development.

Policy Topics:

  1. Creating Partnerships for Conservation
  2. Replenishing and Protecting Fisheries
  3. Achieving Sustainable Forests
  4. Safeguarding Prime Farmland
  5. Enhancing Government's Role in Agriculture


With a population of more than 260 million, the United States is the third largest country in the world. At the current rate of 1 percent annual growth, the U.S. population is increasing by 3 million people each year--more than twice the annual growth rate in most of Europe. The U.S. Census Bureau projects that, if current demographic trends persist, the United States will have a population of 350 million by 2030 and almost 400 million by the middle of the next century. This growth is putting increasing stresses on the natural systems that sustain life and make prosperity possible.

While we do not know the exact mixture of population size, resource use, and technological innovation that would make the United States sustainable, we do know that current trends are not sustainable. Worse, over the next decade, U.S. population growth is projected to offset even a 10 percent gain in the efficiency with which we use resources. Similarly, continued population growth means that per capita consumption of natural resources would need to fall by half in the next 50 years just to keep environmental impacts at current levels. Population growth also challenges the nation's efforts to provide good, new jobs for all working-age Americans, and it impedes efforts to raise real wages in the nation.

Working to stabilize U.S. population voluntarily while increasing materials and energy efficiency in the production and use of all goods and services in the economy are mutually reinforcing processes. Both are equally necessary and essential steps in the move toward sustainability.

Policy Topics:

  1. Expanding Reproductive Health Services
  2. Improving Socio-Economic Conditions for Women
  3. Improving Immigration Strategies

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