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. Many, however, place the modern start date around 1970, with the first celebration of Earth Day. 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. 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.]
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August 1854: Henry David Thoreau published '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 became 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-founded 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 formed 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]
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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 was 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 was 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 published '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 started 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.]2018 All rights reserved.