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Environment: Timeline of the Environmental Movement

Important Figures in the Environmental Movement

Environmental Teach-in, Inc. was hired by Senator Gaylord Nelson to organize the first Earth Day.
Photo: Michigan in the World/University of Michigan History Department

Jacques Cousteau -- explorer, author, filmmaker, inventor of scuba gear, and host of The Undersea Life of Jacques Cousteau (1966-1976)

Rachel Carson, author of Silent Spring (1962)
In History of Science Collection

Marjory Stoneman Douglas, journalist and author of The Everglades: River of Grass.

President Theodore Roosevelt and naturalist John Muir in Yosemite Valley, CA (1903)

Senator Gaylord Anton Nelson (WI), founder of Earth Day.
Photo: Wisconsin Historical Society

Earth Day Pioneer Denis Hayes


Denis Hayes was a graduate student when he organized the first Earth Day event in 1970.  Read his reflections on that pivotal day, and on the movement.

U.S. Environmentalism Through the Decades

  • 1864: George Perkins Marsh, considered by some to be America’s first environmentalist, publishes Man and Nature; or, Physical Geography as Modified by Human Action.

  • 1872: President Ulysses Grant signs a law establishing Yellowstone as America's first national park.

  • 1892: The Sierra Club is founded by adventurer and conservationist John Muir. Today the club has 3.5 million members and is one of the most influential environmental organizations in the United States.

  • 1906: President Theodore Roosevelt signs the Antiquities Act, "the first general legal protection of cultural and natural resources in the United States".

  • 1927: World human population reaches 2 billion.

  • 1947: Writer and conservationist Marjory Stoneman Douglas publishes The Everglades: River of Grass, and leads a campaign to establish the Everglades National Park in Florida.

  • 1962: Rachel Carson publishes Silent Spring; it becomes a New York Times bestseller, selling over 500,000 copies in 24 countries. 

  • 1969: The National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), often called the "Magna Carta" of environmental laws, is drafted. NEPA requires federal agencies to evaluate the environmental consequences of their policies and outlines how environmental impact assessments should be carried out.  Since becoming a law in 1970, NEPA has served as a model for similar policies in over 100 countries. Senator Gaylord Nelson (D-WI) proposes the idea for a “national teach-in on the environment”.

  • 1970: The U.S. Congress passes the Clean Air Act of 1970, authorizing the government to control emissions from both stationary (industrial) sources and mobile sources.  President Richard Nixon signs legislation creating the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

Following Sen. Nelson's proposal, the first U.S. "Earth Day" (also called International Mother Earth Day) is celebrated on April 22.  Recognized as the birth of the modern environmental movement; over 20 million Americans from all walks of life participate in rallies.

Our goal is not just an environment of clean air and water and scenic beauty. The objective is an environment of decency, quality and mutual respect for all other human beings and all other living creatures. Earth Day Speech Notes by Nelson in Denver, April 22, 1970

  • 1972: The insecticide DDT is banned from usage in the United States.  Congress reorganizes the Federal Water Pollution Control Act into the Clean Water Act and passes it into law.  The act limits pollutants in rivers, lakes and streams.  The "Don't Make a Wave Committee" -- first formed in 1969 in Vancouver, Canada -- rebrands itself as Greenpeace.  The sometimes-controversial organization supports research, lobbying and protest actions on a wide variety of environmental issues.

  • 1973: Congress passes the Endangered Species Act, providing protection for threatened and endangered plants and animals and their habitats.  

  • 1974: The EPA begins a phaseout of lead from gasoline.  Congress passes the Safe Drinking Water Act.

  • 1975: Geologist Wallace Broecker introduces the term "global warming" in his Science article Climatic Change: Are We on the Brink of a Pronounced Global Warming?
  • 1987: The Montreal Protocol is adopted by over 100 countries. Later amendments focus on a total elimination of ozone-depleting chemicals, including chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs).
  • 1990: Earth Day becomes a global event, with observances scheduled in over 140 countries.  President George W. Bush signs the Clean Air Amendments into law.

"High quality water is more than the dream of the conservationists, ...high quality water, in the right quantity at the right place at the right time, is essential to health, recreation, and economic growth".  Former Senator Edmund S. Muskie (ME), who introduced the Clean Water Bill in 1971
  • 1992:  The Energy Star program is launched.  To date, the program has saved companies and consumers over $450 billion in energy costs. 

  • 1995: Senator Gaylord Nelson receives the Presidential Medal of Freedom, twenty-five years after helping organize the first Earth Day celebration.

  • 1997: Toyota begins selling the Prius, the first mass-produced hybrid-fuel automobile. (The new car will not become available in the US until 2000.)

  • 2000: 184 countries help celebrate the 30th anniversary of Earth Day, focusing on “clean energy".

  • 2005: The Kyoto Protocol, proposed in 1997, takes effect.  192 countries ratify the agreement, which commits them to reduce greenhouse gas emissions over a five-year period, 2008-2012.

  • 2006: Former Vice President Al Gore's documentary An Inconvenient Truth brings attention to the negative effects of climate change on the environment.

  • 2010: The Earth Day Network organizes a 40th anniversary Climate Rally at the National Mall in Washington, D.C.; 250,000 people attend. The 2010 theme is "New Energy for a New Era".

“Water and air, the two essential fluids on which all life depends, have become global garbage cans.”  Marine explorer Jacques-Yves Cousteau 
  • 2011: World human population reaches 7 billion.

  • 2016: The Paris Agreement on Climate Change is signed by over 120 countries, including the United States.  Participants agree to plan and implement changes that will mitigate global warming, including reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

  • 2017: The United States announces its withdrawal from the Paris Accord as of November 4, 2020.  Volume I of the 4th National Climate Assessment, the Climate Science Special Report, is released.  The U.S. Climate Action Plan (2013) is terminated.

  • 2018: Volume II of the NCA is released, warning of increasingly negative impacts of climate change.  Preliminary US data shows 2018 as the 14th warmest year on record; globally, it was the 4th warmest year based on measurements of both land- and sea-recorded temperatures.

  • 2019: Senate bill S.47, the John D. Dingell Jr. Conservation, Management, and Recreation Act, becomes law.  Provisions include making the Land and Water Conservation Fund permanent, permanently giving all fourth-graders free access to national parks, and more.

“It is horrifying that we have to fight our own government to save the environment.”   Photographer and conservation advocate Ansel Adams (1983)

LHL Resources from The Timeline

Rachel Carson:

The sea around us  
Call number: GC21 .C3 1961
Under the sea-wind; a naturalist's picture of ocean life [1952] 
Call number: QH92 .C3

Jacques-Yves Cousteau:

The silent world [1953] 
Call number: QH91 .C6

Life and death in a coral sea 
Call number: QH541.5.C7 C62 1971

Marjory Stoneman Douglas:

Call number: QC945 .D6 1958

The Everglades : river of grass
Call number: F317.E9 D6 octavo (In History of Science collection)

George Perkins Marsh:

Man and nature, or, Physical geography as modified by human action 
Call number: GF31 .M35 1864 ESL (In History of Science Collection)

Senator Gaylord Nelson:

America's last chance 
Call number: TD174 .N4 1970

Beyond Earth Day : fulfilling the promise 
Call number: GE195 .N447 2002