46 Environmental Victories Since the First Earth Day

National Geographic
April 22, 2016
By: Brian Clark Howard


The first Earth Day, on April 22, 1970, was a milestone event for the planet. An estimated 20 million people took to the streets across the U.S. to raise awareness about the impacts of human activities on the environment.  

Since then, the annual tradition has grown to involve billions of people around the world. This year, Earth Day turns 46. To mark this anniversary and to show how much has changed since 1970, we assembled 46 of the most significant accomplishments of the environmental movement since the first Earth Day. (See stunning pictures of trees.)

Please share your own favorite environmental victories in the comments, and check out all of our Earth Day coverage here.

1. 1970 "Environmental Magna Carta"

The National Environmental Policy Act of 1969 went into effect the following year, becoming a landmark law that requires every major decision of the federal government to be evaluated for its impact on the environment. This began the era of requiring environmental impact statements for building dams, roads, and other major projects. It has been called the "environmental Magna Carta" for its wide impact and for the precedent it set in government, both in the U.S. and abroad.

2. 1972 Notorious Toxic Chemical Banned 

DDT (dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane) is a colorless, nearly odorless insecticide that was widely used in the post-war era to increase farm productivity and fight mosquitoes. Although a Nobel Prize was awarded for its discovery, scientists eventually realized that DDT was causing problems in the environment, including thinning the shells of birds. Rachel Carson popularized this research in the 1962 book Silent Spring). After DDT was banned, bald eagles, peregrine falcons and many other endangered bird species returned from the brink of extinction.

3. 1972Regulating Pesticides  

In 1972, the Federal Environmental Pesticide Control Act was passed, updating a 1910 law that had required truth in advertising for pesticides. The new law charged regulators with considering the impacts of pesticides on human and environmental health, which at the time was a relatively new concept. The Environmental Protection Agency was given more teeth to police the market and restrict and outlaw toxic chemicals. 

4. 1972 Cleaning Up Rivers

In 1972, the Clean Water Act passed, with the goal of making all rivers in the country swimmable and fishable again. In just a few years, the resulting efforts to restrict pollution led to rivers that no longer burst into flames.

5. 1972 Marine Sanctuaries Created

Although governments had been protecting land as wilderness areas for more than a century, the idea took longer to catch on for the ocean. In 1972, the Marine Protection, Research and Sanctuaries Act started the country's system of marine sanctuaries. These special places now protect priceless biological, historical, and cultural treasures, from the reefs of the Florida Keys to shipwrecks in the Great Lakes. The sanctuaries also become a boon to the tourism industry.

6. 1972 Saving Whales 

Whales, dolphins, seals, and manatees received strict protection from hunting and harassment in U.S. waters with the Marine Mammal Protection Act. As a result, their numbers began to slowly cover in the ensuing decades. A robust eco-tourism business followed in their wake.

7. 1973 Saving Species

The landmark Endangered Species Act resulted in substantial protections for listed plants and animals, including bans on harvesting and a framework that protects critical habitat. In some cases, captive breeding and reintroduction programs began in an effort to reverse decades of population declines caused by human activities. Species that showed significant recovery as a result range from the toothy American crocodile to the plucky Delmarva fox squirrel.  

8. 1975 Global Agreement on Endangered Species

The Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species was drafted for signatures in 1973 and went into effect in 1975. Signatory countries agree to ban or restrict trade in endangered species and their body parts. Although black markets arose for such products as tiger skins and elephant tusks, countries have also worked together to combat such trafficking.

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