Earth Day: From 1971 to Today

5 min read

|By Amy Hackney Blackwell|

This Earth Day, it’s worth thinking about some of the things the environmental movement has accomplished over the past 52 years.

Earth Day was born out of frustration. In the 1960s, the United States had no legislation preventing industry from discharging pollutants into the air or water, with predictable results. In April 1970, on the first Earth Day, millions of Americans joined demonstrations across the country to protest the national government’s foot-dragging on environmental issues. And the first Earth Day got results. By December, Congress had voted to create the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and passed the Clean Air Act, the first law addressing air pollution.

Though some thought it would be a one-time event, Earth Day kept happening. In 1971, EPA administrator William Ruckelshaus made an Earth Day speech in which he pointed out that Americans were moving from awareness to action. Concern for the environment was no longer seen a fad but as a problem that transcended partisan politics and national boundaries. Ruckeslhaus invoked the pollution of Lake Baikal in Siberia; the air pollution eating away at ancient statues in Rome; the Tokyo traffic police officers breathing from oxygen tanks while they worked; and the rapid urbanization of South Korea, Taiwan, and Turkey. He thought that protecting the environment offered the United States and the rest of the world their best opportunities for future success.

As Earth Days came and went, successes did pile up. In 1972, the EPA banned the pesticide DDT, which had been implicated in the endangerment of wild raptors such as the bald eagle. Twenty-five years later, ospreys, peregrine falcons, and bald eagles were all rebounding.

In 1974, Congress tackled water and air pollution. The Safe Drinking Water Act established national standards for acceptable levels of pollutants in drinking water. Congress set the first national standards for automobile emissions, under the authority of the Clean Air Act. These regulations produced results that we can see today. In the United States, by 2020, overall concentrations of air pollutants were significantly lower than they were in 1990.

States began (slowly) to phase out leaded gasoline. Lead, which used to be in water and air everywhere, has dropped to very low levels. Sulfur dioxide is also at much lower levels. Even particulate matter is lower than it was, although the American population has grown and people drive more than they did 30 years ago.

The Endangered Species Act was passed in 1973. For the first time, property owners had to consider the impact of building and development on endangered animals. In 1977, the act added plants, recognizing the vital role they play in ecosystem services.

Earth Day celebrations over the years created more awareness of environmental issues and popular support for laws and regulations that protected the environment. In 1980, Congress created the Superfund program, the first national legislation that required industry to clean up land polluted by their activities. During the 1980s, millions of acres of wildland were protected under the Wilderness Act.

In 1990, Earth Day went international, and it has since grown into a global celebration of the natural world. It is now a day of education and activism in countries around the world.

The results are global. The United Nations Paris Agreement was signed on Earth Day 2016, when 175 world leaders joined the pledge to reduce carbon emissions. Numerous countries now have strict emissions standards, with the result that in many places, air quality today is better than it was 50 years ago. Appliances are much more efficient than they were in the late 1900s. Environmental science and environmental law are taught in schools and universities. These subjects barely existed at the time of the first Earth Day, half a century ago.

Environmentalism is no longer a fringe issue. People everywhere are aware of the need to recycle, maintain wilderness, and prevent pollution. Sustainable living, upcycling, green building, eco-conscious travel, and conscious consumption are normal topics of conversation today. Before the first Earth Day, only hippies would have thought about a circular economy. Today anyone can both discuss it in public and try to implement it in their own lives.

To be sure, problems remain. Air quality in numerous parts of the world is appallingly bad and seems to be getting worse. Lake Baikal is still polluted, as is Rome. Urbanization has claimed more land than anyone in 1970 might have imagined it could. Landfills are crammed with single-use items, many of which have never even been used, a tremendous waste of natural resources and energy. The list could go on.

But in a time when everything seems to be going wrong and all the world’s problems appear to be getting worse, it is important to remember that many things have improved since the first Earth Day. Politicians from different parties have come together numerous times to work on bipartisan environmental legislation. This has created measurable improvements.

Ruckelhaus’s words at the end of his 1971 Earth Day speech: “Behind the issue of environmental protection we can unite every American, with no man as an adversary and no man as an antagonist. If every one of us will adopt the simple truth that ‘I can save the earth,’ we will realize how much we can achieve together.”

You can read Ruckelhaus’s full speech here:

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About the Author

Amy Hackney Blackwell’s research areas include plant conservation, historic botany, and the international legal regime governing the ownership of genetic resources. She lives in South Carolina with her family and several cats. In her free time, she enjoys kayaking in Texas, hiking in the Alps, and ballroom dancing.

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