06/22/2010 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

It's the Sustainable Economy

Today we celebrate the 40th anniversary of Earth Day, and later this year we will mark the 40th birthday of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and 40 years of the remarkably successful Clean Air Act. The suite of environmental protections that took shape in 1970, along with a sweeping Clean Water Act in 1972, remain some of the most effective policies in our history.

What is sometimes less noticed is that those actions were about more than environmental protection. They also represented an economic philosophy, a belief that American industries could continue to expand and innovate without jeopardizing our health and welfare. And it worked. Despite the overheated rhetoric we often hear today about runaway environmental regulations killing jobs, our history is one of healthier families, cleaner communities -- and, yes, job-creating innovation and a stronger America.

Forty years of environmental action have meant cleaner air in our cities and safe water in our homes. These changes have made our communities healthier, reducing exposure to pollution that causes cancer, heart disease and respiratory illness -- three of the top four deadliest conditions in our country. And they've made our economy stronger by giving cities and towns what they need to attract new residents and new jobs.

What also took place during those same four decades of environmental progress was the rise of a world-leading environmental technology industry. In 2007 environmental firms and small businesses in the US generated $282 billion in revenues and $40 billion in exports, and supported 1.6 million American jobs. That number doesn't include all the engineers and professional services firms that support those businesses.

This industry has also created cutting-edge innovations and technologies to meet new environmental and health standards. One powerful example is the catalytic converter. When EPA used the Clean Air Act to phase in unleaded gas and catalytic converters in the early seventies, major automakers fought it. The Chamber of Commerce claimed "entire industries might collapse" as a result. But today, lead pollution in our air is 92 percent lower than it was in 1980. Emissions of dangerous air pollutants that cause smog, acid rain, and more have been cut by more than half. And in the same period, our gross domestic product grew by 126 percent. Rather than hurting the economy, American innovators and entrepreneurs found ways to produce and sell more cars without increasing pollution that threatened our cities and caused costly and often deadly health problems for Americans.

At a time of historic economic difficulty, the Obama administration has sought out similar opportunities to improve our economy by protecting our environment. In a groundbreaking step in our work against climate change, President Obama formed an alliance with American automakers to set aggressive emissions standards for American cars and light trucks. The next generation of clean cars will protect our health and environment and keep almost a billion tons of carbon pollution out of our skies. At the same time, they will benefit American drivers and reduce our dependence on foreign oil by billions of dollars.

Notwithstanding periods of difficulty, the last 40 years have seen steady improvements in the health of both our environment and our economy. Progress on both fronts has been driven by smart environmental policies that keep us healthy, strengthen our communities, and foster industry innovation. Looking ahead to the next 40 years, it is clear we must continue on the same path. Sustainability and planetary stewardship must be part of the economic growth that is reaching more and more people around the world every day. Without protections for the water, air and land that communities depend on, our economic horizons are limited. Without innovations like clean energy and energy efficiency, the global economy will be running on empty within our lifetimes.

Our economy and our environment are inextricably linked. If we want forty more years of American leadership in the global marketplace, then there is no choosing one or the other. The first generation of Earth Day leaders understood that truth. Our generation can set in motion four more decades of prosperity by insisting today that our economic and environmental interests work hand in hand.