The 20th Century Environmental Movement in the US

The environmental movement involved the passage of several laws that attempted to tackle the major issues caused by industrialization.

Nov 7, 2022By Amy Hayes, BA History w/ English minor
colorado earth day environmental movement
Student environmental activists marching on Earth Day in Colorado by Rocky Mountain News, 1970, via Denver Public Library


Prior to the 1940s, environmental regulations were largely nonexistent. The federal government didn’t have much control over releasing harmful pollutants into the Earth’s atmosphere and waterways. Natural resources became heavily exploited due to the booming coal and oil industry that emerged during the Industrial Revolution. Environmental disasters that spurred across the nation as a result of urbanization and industrialization caused the public to take a stand for conservation and address environmental issues. The environmental movement emerged in the 1960s. The movement called for a new dialogue about how the Earth should be treated and what would happen if signs of environmental deterioration were ignored.


Events That Encouraged the Environmental Movement

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Thick smog covering New York City by Walter Albertin, 1953, via Library of Congress, Washington DC


Some of the earliest plans for land and wildlife preservation were established by President Theodore Roosevelt in the early 20th century. As a conservationist, President Roosevelt used all of his presidential resources to ensure that land and wildlife preservation laws and programs were created. He established five national parks and 150 national forests, along with a federal bird preserve and several national monuments while in office. These efforts led to the preservation of more than 230 million acres of land. President Roosevelt showed great appreciation for nature and all that its wonders had to offer.


Despite President Roosevelt’s attempt to preserve land and wildlife, the effects of the Industrial Revolution posed a considerable threat to the environment. Air and water pollution created smog-filled industrial cities and contaminated major waterways. People fell ill as a result of breathing in thick smog, and many people died due to environmental disasters that occurred as a result of industrialization. Big cities like New York and Los Angeles experienced smog problems that irritated residents’ eyes and led to respiratory illnesses or even death. In November 1953, New York City suffered from an increase in concentrations of sulfur dioxide. The incident lasted for six days and killed up to 260 people. New York City and other industrial cities suffered from events like this multiple times over the next few decades.


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Photo of firefighters putting out a fire on the Cuyahoga River in 1952, via Cuyahoga River Restoration


Two environmental disasters in 1969 caused the public to become more alarmed with the current state of the environment. The first event was an oil spill in the waters near Santa Barbara, California. An oil well experienced a blowout, causing oil to gush into the water for 11 days straight. The well blowout caused other issues that led to smaller amounts of oil and gas being released for an entire year. It’s estimated that up to 4.2 million gallons of crude oil were released into the water due to the well blowout and its aftermath.

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The second event took place in the Cuyahoga River in Ohio. Known as one of the most polluted rivers in the mid-20th century, the Cuyahoga River caught fire in June 1969 that boasted flames up to five stories high. The river contained built-up oily debris believed to be ignited by sparks from a passing train. It was the thirteenth time the river caught fire, and it would be the last for quite some time until August 2020. The Santa Barbara oil spill and Cuyahoga River Fire encouraged the federal government to pass legislation to further reduce negative environmental impacts as a result of human activities.


Environmental Legislation to Reduce Pollution

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View of pollution in Detroit, Michigan by Joe Clark, 1973, via National Archives Catalog


One of the first pieces of legislation directed toward water pollution was the Federal Water Pollution Control Act (FWPCA). It was passed by Congress in June 1948 and became the start of a series of environmental legislation that made its way through Congress over the next few decades. Within the same year, sulfur dioxide smog blanketed Donora, Pennsylvania, leading to 20 deaths and several hundred people falling ill and being taken to the hospital. The United States Technical Conference on Air Pollution was held two years later, in 1950, to discuss atmospheric pollution issues from a scientific and legal standpoint.


To address air pollution issues, the Air Pollution Control Act was passed by Congress in July 1955. However, the legislation was loosely created and allowed the states to decide upon their own regulations for atmospheric pollution. The federal government did gain further control over environmental health a year later when the FWPCA was amended. It allowed the federal government to step in if it felt a state’s health was in danger.


The Clean Air Act was the next big step in addressing air pollution. It was passed by Congress in December 1963 and was given a large fund of $95 million dedicated to cleaning up air and water pollution and studying more efficient ways to do so. It also gave the federal government more control over implementing pollution regulations.


The Water Quality Act and Motor Vehicle Air Pollution Act were both passed in 1965 as the environmental movement was in full swing. The federal government set water quality standards and regulations for automobile emission standards. Water quality standards were changed again upon implementing the Clean Water Act in 1972, which was an amendment to the FWPCA. It became the new water pollution control law.


Laws Enacted to Protect Land & Wildlife

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Pollution from the Atlas Chemical Company plant that was known for covering surrounding areas in black soot by Marc St. Gil, 1972, via National Archives Catalog


The main focus in the first half of the environmental movement was air and water pollution. As this type of legislation became more solid, the focus on preserving the Earth’s resources, land, and wildlife became forefront issues. Legislation regarding endangered species was first introduced in 1966. The Secretary of the Interior was tasked with creating a list of endangered species, with the first being released in 1967.


In an effort to protect the species listed, a $15 million fund was created. New legislation was created years later, in 1973, with the passing of the Endangered Species Act (ESA). The US Fish and Wildlife Service and the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) set forth regulations to prevent endangered species from becoming extinct in the US. Trails and rivers across the US were protected under the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act and the National Trail Systems Act.


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The Middle Branch of Baltimore Harbor littered with trash and old tires by Jim Pickerell, 1973, via National Archives Catalog


One of the biggest pieces of legislation passed by Congress during the environmental movement was the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA). It was passed in January 1970 as a result of the Santa Barbara oil spill and the Cuyahoga River Fire. It required federal agencies to consider possible environmental impacts when receiving proposals for various actions before approving them. The NEPA led to the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), established by President Nixon and passed by Congress in July 1970. The EPA became a huge bearer of responsibilities in researching, studying, monitoring, and implementing plans that compromise human interests and environmental health.


The health of the oceans became the United States’ next priority in the ‘70s. The NOAA was established in October 1970. It was responsible for overseeing the health of the oceans and coming up with solutions to keep marine life and ecosystems healthy. Two years later, the Marine Mammal Protection Act was passed to further protect oceanic wildlife from being harmed by human activity.


The First Earth Day

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The New York Times newspaper headline covering the events of Earth Day, 1970, via The New York Times


The largest demonstration of the entire environmental movement and one of the largest in American history was the day that became known as Earth Day. A plan was set forth by US Senator Gaylord Nelson from Wisconsin to educate students on college campuses about environmental issues. Nelson recruited young environmental advocate Denis Hayes to conduct student teach-ins. Nelson, Hayes, and others began formulating a plan to organize a mass demonstration to protest human activities that harmed the environment and to influence new environmental legislation.


The date for the first Earth Day was set for April 22, 1970. A staff of 85 personnel was recruited to help organize the event. Several environmental organizations supported the idea, including the Sierra Club, Friends of the Earth, and the Wilderness Society. The outcome of the mass demonstration was a huge success. It drew support from anti-war, social justice, civil rights, and environmental activists. It became one of the largest peaceful demonstrations, with 20 million supporters who gathered throughout the nation, and influenced the creation of the EPA and several pieces of environmental legislation that tackle air and water pollution issues and restrictions against the use of harmful chemicals. Earth Day continues to be celebrated annually and has grown to gain more than one billion participants each year.


Successes & Downfalls of the Environmental Movement

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Environmental activists protesting water pollution at the Huron Riverwalk, 1970, via University of Michigan


The environmental movement set a precedent for how the federal, state, and local governments could work together with the people of the nation to protect the environment. The series of environmental laws passed throughout the movement helped decrease the deterioration of the Earth. Restructuring the legislation was a constant need as technological innovations posed more environmental risks. However, as technology progressed, new solutions for renewable energy sources and more sustainable practices appeared.


Although the efforts and legislation of the environmental movement were truly impactful, some of the regulations created to protect the environment weren’t followed, and some programs were defunded significantly. For example, the Federal Solar Energy Research Institute (SERI) had a significant budget cut by the Reagan Administration just two years after its creation. It was established to research the current energy system the US had in order to come up with more energy-efficient solutions, including solar technology research. Several programs, laws, and organizations have remained vital in combating the effects of human activity, and researchers continue to work towards new sustainable solutions.

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By Amy HayesBA History w/ English minorAmy is a contributing writer with a passion for historical research and the written word. She holds a BA in history from Old Dominion University with a concentration in English. Amy grew up in the historic state of Virginia and quickly became fascinated by the intricate details of how people, places, and things came to be. She specializes in topics on American history, Ancient and Medieval England, law, and the environment.