June 30, 1948: The Postwar Period

The first piece of legislation to lay down federal regulation of water quality, the Federal Water Pollution Control Act, is passed by Congress. This act, known as the FWPCA , will go through amendments in 1956, 1965, and 1972 to broaden the government’s authority in water pollution control.

October 30-31, 1948

In Donora, PA, 20 people die and over 600 go to the hospital after sulfur dioxide emissions from a nearby steel and wire plant descend in the form of smog, made worse by a temperature inversion that trapped the sulfuric poison in the valley of the town. The incident will lead to the first U.S. conference on air pollution in 1950, sponsored by the Public Health Service.

DDT Spray
Public Domain

A worker sprays DDT to kill mosquitoes.
September 1949

Paul Ehrlich (future author of The Population Bomb) enters the University of Pennsylvania and studies zoology. He notes the disappearance of butterflies in New Jersey, which he attributes to the spraying of dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane (DDT) during the building of subdivisions. The shrinking population of butterflies leads Ehrlich to think about potential similar repercussions in the human population.

October 22, 1951

The Nature Conservancy is established in Washington, D.C. as a nonprofit organization with the mission to protect ecologically important lands and waters around the world. Over the next several decades, the Nature Conservancy will protect more than 119 million acres of land and 5,000 miles of rivers worldwide. It will grow to more than 1 million members, and operate more than 100 marine conservation projects.

November 1953

Heavy smog in New York City exacerbates asthma and other lung conditions, killing 170-260 people. More New Yorkers will die again in 1962 and 1966 with more “smog episodes.”

November 20, 1952

The Paley Commission releases Resources for Freedom which details the United States’ increasing dependence on foreign sources of natural resources and argues for the necessity to transition to renewable energy. This document was one of the first to argue both for the dire need for Americans to stop their reliance on oil and for the potential of solar energy to fulfill that chasm. William Paley, chair of the presidential commission, establishes Resources for the Future later in 1952, an organization dedicated to independent environmental research.

February 1953: A Growing Public Awareness

The Silent World by Jacques Cousteau introduces the world to underwater adventure, and ushers in a new global interest in oceanic life. In 1956, Cousteau’s documentary film of the same title will win the Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature.

January 1955

President Eisenhower speaks on the problem of air pollution in his State of the Union address, and in a Special Message to Congress he calls on the Public Health Service to study “effective methods of control.”

July 14, 1955

The Air Pollution Control Act passes Congress, becoming the first piece of legislation to address air pollution. Despite its declaration to combat air contamination, the act puts regulation largely in the hands of individual states and gives no means of enforcement to the federal government.

The Sierra Club
Public Domain

Sierra Club membership reaches 10,000 in 1956.
April 1956

The Sierra Club gains national recognition for protesting construction of the Echo Park Dam in Dinosaur National Monument in Utah. After effective lobbying, Congress removed the Echo Park Dam from the Colorado River project.

July 9, 1956

An amendment to the Federal Water Pollution Control Act of 1948 strengthens the government’s ability to enforce regulations and gives the Federal government control over individual states’ consent where health is endangered.


Worldwide levels of carbon dioxide will climb above 300 parts per million.


Congress amends the Air Pollution Control Act of 1955 to fund a study conducted by the U.S. Surgeon General to investigate the health effects caused by automobile exhaust. In the United States alone, there are 74 million cars on the road.

Rachel Carson
Getty Images

Rachel Carson, author of Silent Spring.
June 1962: "Silent Spring"

Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring is published. Acclaimed as the catalyst of the modern environmental movement, Silent Spring condemns the overuse of pesticides. Between 1950-1962 the amount of DDT found in human tissue had tripled.

After the chemical industry denounces Carson’s book as a “gross distortion of actual facts,” President John F. Kennedy charges his Science Advisory Committee to review the book’s claims. The Committee reports that the conclusions in Silent Spring are generally correct, and by 1972 DDT will be banned in the U.S.


83 million Americans own personal automobiles. In response to increased evidence of a link between smog and car emissions, California mandated crankcase blowby devices that return unburned gases to the combustion chambers in all cars in 1961. California has begun its reign as a leader in emissions standards, as this requirement was the first such imperative in the country.

November 1963

Secretary of the Interior Stewart Udall publishes The Quiet Crisis, an early call to arms on environmental pollution with an introduction by President Kennedy. Udall will go on to become a pioneer for environmental legislation.

December 1963

The Clear Air Act passes, allocating $95 million for the study and cleanup of air and water pollution. The act gives the federal government authority to reduce interstate air pollution, regulate emission standards for stationary pollution sources, and invest in technologies that will remove sulfur from coal and oil.

October 2, 1965

The Water Quality Act passes, enhancing Federal control over water quality initially set by the Federal Water Pollution Control Act of 1948. These federal standards will become the baseline for statewide water quality levels.

October 20, 1965

The Motor Vehicle Air Pollution Control Act sets the first federal automobile emission standards.

American Bald Eagle
Public Domain

The American Bald Eagle.
October 15 1966

The first legislation regarding Endangered Species passes, authorizing the Secretary of the Interior to list endangered domestic fish and wildlife and allotting $15 million a year in the protection of such species.

The first list of Endangered Species – released in 1967 – will include the United States’ national symbol, the American Bald Eagle.

August 1968: Changing Perspectives

In The Population Bomb, Paul Ehrlich argues that the world’s environmental problems are caused by overpopulation. At 3.5 billion people, the population of the world had more than doubled in the past half century. Despite the fact that his dire predictions of catastrophe will never come to pass, Ehrlich’s apocalyptic warnings play a pivotal role in bringing the issues of family planning, contraception and legalized abortion to the forefront of domestic and international politics.

Fall 1968

Stewart Brand publishes The Whole Earth Catalog , which lists a variety of products helpful for self-sustainable living.

Stewart Brand will help lead a “back-to-the-land” movement that encourages people to return to organic living. “Rural communes” spring up, consisting largely of liberal, educated college students who try to live independently off the land. While the communes ultimately will not last, the experiment reflects an emerging recognition of environmental issues in the popular culture.

October 2, 1968

The Wild and Scenic Rivers Act provides a system that identifies and adds rivers across the United States to a protected list. By 1989, over 1,385 miles of rivers will be protected in Alaska alone.

On this same day, Congress passes the National Trails System Act, authorizing a similar set of proceedings to protect U.S. trails.


December 24, 1968

The crew of Apollo 8 takes the first photograph of the Earth from space. The photograph, named “Earthrise,” will become the iconic image of the environmental movement.

January 28, 1969

The Santa Barbara oil well blowout spills over 200,000 gallons of oil into the ocean for 11 days straight. Due to the destruction and extreme pollution of the California coastline, the spill leads directly to reforms in the energy industry.

June 22, 1969

Ohio’s Cuyahoga River appears to burst into flames when oil and chemicals floating on the surface alight and cause flames over five stories high.

Denis Hayes
AP Images

Denis Hayes in the Earth Day office.
December 1969

Gaylord Nelson, a U.S. Senator from Wisconsin, hires 25-year-old Denis Hayes to direct a national “teach-in” about environmental issues. Hayes recruits a handful of young college graduates to come to Washington, D.C. and begins planning what will become the first Earth Day.

January 1, 1970

Congress passes the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA), requiring every federal agency to prepare an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) for any legislation.

The Act’s passage is due in large part to the public outcry that resulted from the Santa Barbara oil spill the year before.

January 14, 1970

General Motors' president Edward Cole promises “pollution free” cars by 1980, citing the removal of lead from gasoline and the addition of catalytic converters as means to stop deadly emissions.

January 22, 1970

In recognition of the growing media attention given to the approaching Earth Day, President Richard Nixon stresses the importance of environmental issues in his State of the Union Address.

January - March 1970

In the months leading up to Earth Day, advertisements amplify the direness of the environmental problems facing the world, reading: “It can be the beginning of the end of pollution. Or the beginning of the end.”

Some opponents condemn the movement to organize a national Earth Day as an unpatriotic deflection from the war in Vietnam. Others point out the fact that April 22, 1970 is the 100th anniversary of the birth of Vladimir Lenin, and warn Americans that Earth Day could be a clever communist plot.

Earth Day, 1970
AP Images

Earth Day, 1970
April 22, 1970: Earth Day

The first national Earth Day. Co-chaired by Congressman Pete McCloskey and coordinated by Denis Hayes, the first Earth Day takes the form of a nationwide protest against environmental ignorance. An estimated 20 million people participate across the country, in what will ultimately be the largest demonstration ever in American history.

June 1970

The Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) is established to provide citizens with the tools to draft environmental laws and lobby for their passage.

July 9, 1970

President Nixon works with Congress to establish the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), a new Federal agency primarily responsible for United States environmental policy. In its first year of operation, the agency will employ over 4,000 Americans.

The EPA will be responsible for the passage of environmental legislation, ecological programs, and research.

NOAA logo
Public Domain

NOAA, established 1970.
October 2, 1970

The National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) is created to monitor and improve the conditions of the oceans. NOAA enforces the sustainable use of resources of coastal and marine ecosystems and supplies environmental information to the public.

November 1970

During the election cycle after Earth Day, Denis Hayes organizes a movement to unseat “The Dirty Dozen” - a list of 12 members of Congress with infamous records on environmental policy. The movement will successfully remove seven of the incumbents, and earn the environmental movement significant political clout in the legislature.

October 18, 1972: A Wave of Legislation

The Clean Water Act (CWA) becomes the primary legislation governing water pollution in the country. The goal of the CWA is to eliminate toxic substances in water and to uphold surface water to a national standard of cleanliness. The act, an amendment to the Federal Water Pollution Control Act of 1948, bestows enforcement authority on the EPA and restructures previous water quality regulations.

October 21, 1972

The Marine Mammal Protection Act (MMPA) protects all marine mammals from importation, exportation, hunting, capture, or any form of harassment, thus encouraging natural resource management in the United States.

Two days later, on October 23, the Marine Mammal Protection Act (MMPA) protects all marine mammals from importation, exportation, hunting, capture, or any form of harassment, thus encouraging natural resource management in the United States.

October 27, 1972

The Coastal Zone Management Act mandates coastal states to develop management plans to offset the negative impact of humans on coastal areas.

October 31, 1972

Dennis Meadows co-authors The Limits to Growth, a study of the interaction between population, industrial growth, food production and ecosystem limits. In the book, Meadows demonstrates with clear diagrams and linear models that Earth’s resources are being steadily used up, and as these resources drop, human population is expanding exponentially. The Limits to Growth predicts that by the middle of the 21st century, Earth’s population will no longer be sustainable and the ecosystem will completely collapse.

December 31, 1972

DDT is banned in the United States, the result of nearly 10 years of legislative battles. Since Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring first brought DDT into the spotlight in 1962, the government formed investigative panels and committees to substantiate the danger of the pesticide. With the ban, the Administrator of the EPA , William D. Ruckelshaus, stated his conviction that “the continued massive use of DDT posed unacceptable risks to the environment and potential harm to human health.”

Cars line up at a gas station
Public Domain

Cars line up at a gas station during the Arab Oil Embargo.
October 1973 - March 1974

During the Arab Oil Embargo, energy demands exceed supplies in the United States for first time. The fuel shortage results from the suspension of oil shipments to the U.S., with gas prices skyrocketing and the price of a barrel increasing 400% from $3 to $12 a barrel. The energy crisis fuels immediate research into alternative energy and creates a new dialogue about energy security for the United States.

December 28, 1973

Congress passes the Endangered Species Act in order to prevent the extinction of animals in the United States. This act restructured the 1966 legislation regarding endangered species and directed the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the NOAA to carry out its stipulations.

June 26, 1974

President Nixon signs the Energy Supply and Environmental Coordination Act, the first attempt to balance the nation’s energy demands with appropriate environmental regulations.

June 28, 1974

Chemists Frank Sherwood Rowland and Mario Molina claim that Chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) can destroy ozone molecules and may erode the Earth’s protective ozone layer.

A report released two years later by the U.S. Academy of Sciences will provide further scientific evidence to support the hypothesis of ozone depletion. In 1978 the United States will ban the use of CFCs in aerosol cans, but is not until the early 1990s that CFCs will begin to be phased out of product production.

August 17, 1974

The Forest and Rangeland Renewable Resources Planning Act of 1974 (RPA) is enacted in an effort to monitor forest resources in the United States. The RPA mandates comprehensive assessments in order to supervise forest supply.

December 12, 1974

The EPA is charged with settling and monitoring water quality standards with the Safe Drinking Water Act (SDWA), covering every public water system across the country.

January 3, 1975

The Eastern Wilderness Areas Act protects over 200,000 acres of National Forests. This legislation is the first to protect lands that were once logged or previously inhabited.

October 11, 1976

The Toxic Substances Control Act mandates the EPA to control all new and existing chemical substances being used in the United States. The act controls polychlorinated biphenyl (PCB) and other toxic products, although the management of existing chemicals are grandfathered and untouched by the act.

October 21, 1976

The EPA is given complete control over hazardous waste in the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act, which mandates the agency manage all aspects of toxic waste management.

The following day, National Forest Management Act requires the Secretary of Agriculture to monitor forestlands and to develop a standard to manage each unit of the National Forest System.

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