How the Environment Has Changed Since the First Earth Day

When the first Earth Day was held in 1970, pesticides were killing bald eagles, and soot was darkening the sky. Now, habitat loss and climate change are imperiling the planet.

Ash spews from a coal-fueled power plant.

When Earth Day was first created in 1970, it rode the coattails of a decade filled with social activism. Voting rights were strengthened, civil rights were outlined, and women were demanding equal treatment.

But there was no Environmental Protection Agency, no Clean Air Act, or Clean Water Act.

Fast forward 48 years and what started as a grassroots movement has exploded into an international day of attention and activism dedicated to preserving the environment. Officially, the United Nations recognizes this upcoming April 22 as International Mother Earth Day.

Across the globe, millions of people take part in Earth Day. According to the Earth Day Network, one of the largest activist bodies organizing Earth Day events, people celebrate by holding marches, planting trees, meeting with local representatives, and cleaning up their local environments.

In the Beginning

A series of critical environmental issues helped birth the modern environmental movement. Rachel Carson's book Silent Spring published in 1962. It brought to light the dangerous use of a pesticide called DDT that was polluting rivers and destroying the eggs of birds of prey like bald eagles.

When the modern environmental movement was at its genesis, pollution was in plain sight. White birds turned black from soot. Smog was thick. Recycling was nascent.

Then, in 1969, a large oil spill struck the coast of Santa Barbara, California. It moved then-Senator Gaylord Nelson from Wisconsin to put Earth Day on the national stage. More than 20 million people turned out.

It spurred a movement that pushed then-President Nixon to create the Environmental Protection Agency. In the 48 years since the first Earth Day, there have been more than 48 major environmental wins. Protections have been put in place on everything from clean water to endangered species.

The EPA also works to protect human health. For example, lead and asbestos, once common in homes and offices, have been largely phased out of many common products.


The theme of 2018's Earth Day celebration is plastics—specifically how to decrease their unwanted impacts on our environment. What was perhaps set in place in the mid-20th century when plastic was manufactured on a large scale has come back to haunt us.

Plastic refuse is everywhere. It's bigger than Texas in the Pacific garbage patch, and it's as small as the micro plastics getting eaten by fish and churned out on our dinner plates.

Some environmental groups are leading grassroots movements to cut back on the use of common plastics like straws; the U.K. even recently proposed passing a law to ban them. It's one incremental way to cut back on the whopping 91 percent of plastic that isn't recycled.


A startling sunset reddens the Lemaire Channel, off the west coast of the Antarctic Peninsula. The continent’s coastal ice is crumbling as the sea and air around it warm. This photo originally published in “The Larsen C Ice Shelf Collapse Is Just the Beginning—Antarctica Is Melting.”


A California sea lion hunts for fish on a kelp paddy at Cortes Bank, a seamount off San Diego. It’s a trove of marine life that deserves protection, conservationists say. This photo originally published in “Why It’s Important to Save Our Seas’ Pristine Places.”


Inspired by images on Instagram, Jonathan Farrar and Marty Castro ventured outside and discovered a love for nature and camping. They drove up the West Coast, visiting national parks, including Crater Lake in Oregon, the country’s deepest lake. This photo originally published in “Can the Selfie Generation Unplug and Get Into Parks?


Furrows of artificial light lend an otherworldly aura to Westland, the greenhouse capital of the Netherlands. Climate-controlled farms such as these grow crops around the clock and in every kind of weather. This photo originally published in “This Tiny Country Feeds the World.”


Utah’s Bonneville Salt Flats comprise some 46 square miles of hard, white crust west of Great Salt Lake. The flats and the lake are remnants of Pleistocene-epoch Lake Bonneville. This photo originally published in “Some of the World's Biggest Lakes Are Drying Up. Here's Why.


Complex, ever changing patterns of water and land support the bountiful wildlife and vegetation of Botswana’s Okavango Delta. By opening trails that become channels, elephants add to the dynamism. This photo originally published in “Inside the Mission to Save Africa’s Okavango Delta.”


The trademark of moorland is heather, a perennial that blooms in shades of pink and white as well as purple. This expanse unfurls down to the Dee River at Mar Lodge Estate in Aberdeenshire. Now owned by the National Trust for Scotland, Mar Lodge is pursuing a program of forest restoration. This photo originally published in “What Will Become of Scotland's Moors?


In Gasa, Bhutan, monks play a volleyball match against the local police. This photo originally published in “World's Happiest Country Also Has No Carbon Emissions.”


Cemeteries and camps of Afari nomads sit amidst lava flows partially buried in clay near the Awash River Delta in Ethiopia. This photo originally published in “A Photographer's Eye From the Sky.”


During a geomagnetic storm, a neon green ribbon of aurora australis danced over Earth in this 2010 photograph taken by an astronaut on the International Space Station. This photo originally published in “20 Stunning Shots of Earth From Space.”

Tap images for captions

And it's not just plastic imperiling the Earth. Today's worst environmental issues are seemingly a culmination of all the groundwork laid over the past two hundred years.

“The two most pressing issues we face today are habitat loss and climate change, and these issues are interrelated,” says Jonathan Baillie, chief scientist of the National Geographic Society.

Climate change has been called a threat to biodiversity and national security. Studies have linked it to the destruction of the Great Barrier Reef and abnormal weather.

Unlike the first Earth Day, 2018's celebration exists in a world with a more robust regulatory framework to enact environmental policy and regulate our impact.

Whether that framework will stay intact is now a matter of debate. ( See a running list of how the Trump administration is changing the environment.)

Baillie noted that addressing these issues requires fundamental changes.

“First, we need to place greater value on the natural world,” he says.

Then, we need to commit to protecting regions like the Amazon and Congo that house critical environments. Lastly, he notes, we need to innovate more rapidly. Producing protein for consumption more efficiently and cultivating renewable energy resources will help reduce the impacts of what he sees as the Earth's greatest threats.

“One of our biggest obstacles is our mindset: we need people to emotionally connect to the natural world, understand how it works and our dependence on it,” Baillie says. “Fundamentally, if we care about the natural world, we will value and protect it and make decisions that ensure the future of species and ecosystems.” 


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