Earth Day to school strikes: A timeline of the American environmental movement

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April 6, 2020
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Earth Day to school strikes: A timeline of the American environmental movement

It's impossible to pinpoint the exact start of American environmentalism, but the movement grew its roots in the writings of 19th-century naturalists. Since then, the grassroots campaign has grown to the political and often radical actions of today, such as the 2019 Global Climate Strike.

Some date the modern environmental movement back to Rachel Carson's publication of "Silent Spring" in 1962. Others cite the Santa Barbara Oil Spill of 1969 as a major influence. Many, however, place the modern start date around 1970, with the first celebration of Earth Day. Regardless, the movement has grown and transformed in the past several decades; Earth Day, for example, started in the U.S. with millions of people and has grown to a worldwide event with over 1 billion participants each year.

The movement has also become more political since its early days. In the 1970s, environmentalism focused on fixing pollution, and support for such actions was generally bipartisan. Now, Republicans and Democrats clash on core issues like climate change, and protesters have even sued the government for their alleged knowing role in contributing to it.

Activists have adopted numerous strategies to address environmental issues like pollution, logging, oil drilling, and climate change. Today, protesters take inspiration from the Civil Rights era with actions like sit-ins and school strikes. Advocating for legislation is also a major component of the movement, as it always has been. Naturalists and scientists educate the public by publishing scientific research and writing books. People of color have also created an environmental justice movement that combines concern for the environment with racial and economic justice.

Stacker compiled a timeline of 30 crucial moments in the American environmental movement from news, academic, and government reports. Read on to discover the influences of environmentalism in the U.S. and how activists are driving forward these efforts today.

[Pictured: Earth Day, New York City, 1970s.]

August 1854: Henry David Thoreau publishes 'Walden'

After living in a cabin in the woods for two years, naturalist Henry David Thoreau published “Walden,” a book reflecting on his experiences in nature. Though he died in 1862, before the American environmental movement began, environmentalists have since drawn inspiration from his writings about environmental stewardship.

[Pictured: Walden Pond, Concord, Massachusetts.]

March 1872: Yellowstone becomes the first U.S. national park

Saving Yellowstone from private development, President Ulysses S. Grant signed the Yellowstone National Park Protection Act into law on March 1, 1872, making it the first national park—not just in the U.S., but in the world. Spanning almost 3,500 miles of geysers and rivers and mountains in Wyoming, Yellowstone started a national tradition of preserving natural land for future generations.

[Pictured: Heart Spring, Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming.]

May 1892: John Muir co-founds the Sierra Club

John Muir, one of the most famous naturalists in U.S. history, established the Sierra Club on May 28, 1892. He was elected as its first president and served until his death in 1914. The Sierra Club continues to fight for the protection of the environment, such as by supporting climate change solutions.

[Pictured: Theodore Roosevelt and John Muir in Yosemite National Park, c. 1906.]

May 1900: Lacey Act protects wildlife

The Lacey Act was the first U.S. law to protect wildlife. The law originally helped states protect native animals hunted as game. It has since expanded to outlaw the international transport or trade of illegally caught or possessed animals and plants, cutting down on, for example, the illegal logging trade.

[Pictured: Illegal rosewood stockpiles in Antalaha, Madagascar.]

August 1916: Woodrow Wilson forms the National Park Service

On Aug. 15, 1916, President Woodrow Wilson created the National Park Service to unify and oversee the rapidly expanding U.S. National Park System. The park service is in charge of conserving these public lands to allow for future enjoyment. It now protects over 84 million acres in all 50 states.

[Pictured: Capitol Reef National Park, Utah]

July 1918: Migratory Bird Treaty Act protects native birds

In the 1800s, with little to no regulations in place, hunters killed many U.S. birds and drove several species to extinction. Congress passed the Migratory Bird Species Act of 1918 to protect nearly all native U.S. birds, including their nests and eggs. However, the Trump Administration plans to revise the Act so that companies would no longer be held responsible for accidentally killing birds, a move environmentalists say would threaten millions of birds.

[Pictured: Northern Pintails in flight, Bear River Migratory Bird Refuge, Utah.]

April 1933: The Civilian Conservation Corps is born

Just a month into his presidency, President Franklin D. Roosevelt created the Civilian Conservation Corps as part of his New Deal to spur recovery from the Great Depression. The corps employed three million men over nine years to plant millions of trees, remove invasive plants, and fight tree-killing insects. The New Deal is one source of inspiration for the Green New Deal, a progressive plan for addressing climate change.

[Pictured: Civilian Conservation Corps men using Pulaski axes.]

July 1955: Air Pollution Control Act is passed

Air pollution caught public attention in the 1940s when smog in Los Angeles stung people’s eyes and cut visibility down to three city blocks. After years of federal resistance to air pollution legislation, President Dwight Eisenhower signed the Air Pollution Control Act of 1955, which was the first federal legislation to address air pollution. It provided funds for research and paved the way for later air pollution control legislation.

[Pictured: Los Angeles, California, 1940s.]

September 1962: Rachel Carson publishes 'Silent Spring'

Despite the challenges of being a woman scientist and writer in the 20th century, marine biologist Rachel Carson published the landmark book “Silent Spring” in 1962. The book detailed the harm pesticides like DDT reap on the environment for a popular audience. Carson’s work led the government to ban DDT in 1972 and chemists to investigate the effect of human actions on the environment.

[Pictured: Rachel Carson.]

February 1968: Workers start Memphis Sanitation Strike

On Feb. 11, 1968, 1,300 sanitation workers went on strike to protest the city's abuse of Black employees in the industry. The strike was one of the founding acts of the environmental justice movement, in which people of color began demanding attention to the disproportionate amount of pollution they faced.

[Pictured: Sanitation Workers Strike, Memphis, Tennessee, 1968.]

December 1968: NASA Astronaut snaps iconic 'Earthrise' photograph

NASA astronaut William Anders took the first photograph of the full view of Earth by a human from deep space. The Apollo 8 image showed how unique, alone, and difficult-to-replace the Earth is. The environmental movement used this image as an icon, and some even claim it sparked the U.S. environmental movement.

[Pictured: Photo of Earth taken from space, 1968.]

January 1969: Santa Barbara Oil Spill captures the world’s attention

The Santa Barbara Oil Spill released over 4 million gallons of oil onto California coast, killing thousands of birds and sea animals. The worst oil spill at that point in time; it drew global attention and prompted people to consider humans’ moral obligation to conserve the environment. In the following years, state and federal powers placed a moratorium on new offshore drilling off of California.

[Pictured: Oil spill in Santa Barbara, California, 1968.]

June 1969: Ohio’s Cuyahoga River catches fire

Just months after the Santa Barbara Oil Spill of 1969, Ohio’s Cuyahoga River caught fire. In fact, the river was almost always covered in oil slicks and had caught fire at least nine times before. But on June 22, 1969, the fire caught the world’s attention and became a symbol of the American environmental movement.

[Pictured: Firemen stand on a bridge over the Cuyahoga River to spray water on the tugboat Arizona in 1952.] 

April 1970: Activists celebrate the first Earth Day

On April 22, 1970, 20 million people celebrated the first Earth Day. The event forced the issue of the environment, previously absent from most media and political discussions, into the national agenda. The gathering provided the first opportunity for activists to demonstrate their environmentalist beliefs and eventually led to legislation like the Clean Water Act.

[Pictured: Children use push brooms to sweep a city park during Earth Day, New York City, 1970s.] 

December 1970: President Nixon establishes the Environmental Protection Agency

In the early 1970s, as a response to recent landmarks in the early environmental movement, President Richard Nixon proposed several measures to address environmental concerns. On Dec. 2, with bipartisan support, he created the Environmental Protection Agency to consolidate many federal environmental actions. However, President Donald Trump's proposed budget for fiscal 2021 would cut funding to the agency by 26%.

[Pictured: The EPA flag.]

August 1971: Dr. Seuss publishes 'The Lorax'

Children’s book author and illustrator Dr. Seuss’s “The Lorax” tells the tale of how capitalism threatens biodiversity. The book was Seuss’s most controversial work, and a school district in California banned it for its negative portrayal of the logging industry. “The Lorax” has continued to be iconic in the environmental movement and was adapted into a movie in 2012.

[Pictured: "The Lorax" by Dr. Seuss.]

October 1972: Clean Water Act is passed

The Federal Water Pollution Control Act, known commonly as the Clean Water Act, is the major federal legislation maintaining water quality and protecting U.S. waterways from pollution. Its creation was influenced by the inaugural Earth Day in 1970, and it was the first law to address water pollution.

[Pictured: Hudson River, New York.]

December 1973: Endangered Species Act protects threatened species

In 1973, 80 nations met in Washington D.C. to sign a treaty regulating the international trade of endangered species. To protect animals and plants at home, the U.S. government created the Endangered Species Act of 1973, the foundational conservation law protecting plants and animals in the U.S. from extinction. 

[Pictured: Siberian tigers.]

April 1987: United Church of Christ publishes toxic waste study

The United Church of Christ’s Commission for Racial Justice published a crucial report for the environmental justice movement called “Toxic Waste and Race.” It was the first study to investigate the intersections of race, class, and the environment at the national level. The research found that the racial makeup of a community is the best predictor of whether there is a toxic waste site in a neighborhood.

[Pictured: Toxic waste barrel.]

June 1990: Indigenous Environmental Network is formed

The Indigenous Environmental Network, now consisting of indigenous people from around the world, was founded in the U.S. in 1990. The goal of the network is to build the capacity for indigenous communities to protect their sacred lands, natural resources, health, and economies.

[Pictured: Forward On Climate Rally in Washington DC.]

October 1991: First People of Color Environmental Leadership Summit

From Oct. 24 to 27, 300 people of color, including international participants and people from all 50 states, met in Washington D.C. to draft and adopt 17 principles of environmental justice. The principles not only address the destruction of the environment but also colonization and oppression. The principles have been considered a defining document in the environmental justice movement.

[Pictured: Steps of the Capitol building.]

November 1998: U.S. signs the Kyoto Protocol

On Dec. 11, 1997, over 150 countries signed the Kyoto Protocol, an international agreement to lower greenhouse gas emissions to below 1990 levels. The United States joined their ranks on Nov. 12, 1998, but later backed out of the agreement. The success of the protocol has been limited, in part because international powers like the U.S. refused to ratify it.

[Pictured: Power plant, Apollo Beach, Florida.]

April 2010: Environmentalists protest BP after Deepwater Horizon oil spill

When BP’s Deepwater Horizon oil platform exploded in waters offshore Louisiana, it caused the worst oil spill in U.S. history. Having suffered long-lasting damage, nearby ecosystems may never fully recover. In the oil spill's aftermath, over 300,000 people joined a Facebook group dedicated to protesting BP.

[Pictured: Fire engulfing off shore oil rig Deepwater Horizon in the Gulf of Mexico near New Orleans, Louisiana.]

April 2014: Activists protest Flint Water Crisis

On April 25, 2014, officials in Flint, Michigan switched the city’s water source to the Flint River, which was contaminated with lead from old pipes. Even before research proved that the water was unsafe, city members began protesting the switch because their tap water looked, smelled, and tasted unusual. Community members eventually sued the state and filed an emergency motion, and they eventually obtained door-to-door water bottle delivery.

[Pictured: National March In Flint To End Water Crisis, Flint, Michigan.]

September 2015: Youth file climate change lawsuit against federal government

From across the U.S., 21 youth filed a lawsuit against the federal government in 2015 for its alleged knowing role in causing climate change. The case, Juliana v. United States, was dismissed by a federal court in 2020. Counsel for the youth plaintiffs hasn't given up, however, and in 2021, asked the district court for permission to amend their complaint.

[Pictured: Plaintiff Kelsey Juliana.]

September 2016: President Obama formally joins Paris Agreement

On Sept. 3, 2016, President Obama officially signed the United States into the Paris Agreement on the same day as China. The most ambitious agreement to address climate change in history, its goal is to limit warming in this century to two degrees Celsius. The United States withdrew in November 2020, the only nation to do so.

[Pictured: Barack Obama, Hangzhou, China.]

February 2017: Standing Rock activists protest Dakota Access Pipeline

The Dakota Access pipeline, running 1,712 miles from North Dakota to Illinois, was slated to cross the Missouri River just north of the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation. The tribe sued the Army Corp of Engineers responsible for the pipeline on Aug. 4, 2016. Thousands of Native Americans and allies protested the pipeline at Standing Rock for months, even when faced with freezing temperatures and violence from law enforcement. The pipeline was constructed in 2017, but there have been ongoing efforts to shut down operations

[Pictured: Dakota Access Pipeline Protest, Standing Rock, North Dakota.]

April 2017: Sunrise Movement is launched

The Sunrise Movement, led by young people in their 20s, uses Civil Rights-era protest techniques to fight against climate change and push for the Green New Deal. The group includes more than 80,000 activists that have participated in indirect action, like sending emails and 15,000 who have engaged in direct action like sit-ins and school strikes.

[Pictured: Chicago Sunrise Movement, Chicago, Illinois.]

February 2019: Representative Ocasio-Cortez introduces Green New Deal

The Green New Deal was originally drafted in 2006 by the Green Party and has since gone through many iterations. Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez introduced her version to the House of Representatives on Feb. 7, 2019. The goal of the proposal is to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to limit the worst-case scenarios of climate change while simultaneously addressing racial and economic injustice.

[Pictured: Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez in Washington D.C.]

September 2019: Youth activists lead Global Climate Strike

Internationally, four million people demonstrated during the Global Climate Strike on Sept. 20, 2019. Greta Thunberg, a 16-year-old Swedish climate activist who ignited the school climate strike movement, spoke in New York City, where up to 250,000 people demonstrated. Youth from all over the continued to strike on Fridays as part of the Fridays for Future campaign, which Thunberg inspired. Protests continued despite the pandemic.

[Pictured: Greta Thunberg at the 2020 Fridays For Future Climate Demonstration, Hamburg, Germany.]

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