The Union Oil Company’s oil spill in February 1969—which covered 800 square miles of ocean and shore in Santa Barbara, California, in crude oil—was widely televised, and it inspired then-Senator Gaylord Nelson of Wisconsin to organize the first Earth Day in 1970. That same year, the National Environmental Policy Act of 1969 went into effect, requiring every major decision of the federal government to be evaluated for its impact on the environment.
The Union Oil Company’s oil spill in February 1969—which covered 800 square miles of ocean and shore in Santa Barbara, California, in crude oil—was widely televised, and it inspired then-Senator Gaylord Nelson of Wisconsin to organize the first Earth Day in 1970. That same year, the National Environmental Policy Act of 1969 went into effect, requiring every major decision of the federal government to be evaluated for its impact on the environment.
Photo by Vernon Merritt III, The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images

50 years of environmental victories, in photos

On the 50th anniversary of Earth Day, we look at conservation milestones since the first official day celebrating our planet in 1970.

On the first Earth Day 50 years ago in 1970, an estimated 20 million people across the United States took to the streets on behalf of the environment. Spurred by the mass mobilization, within five years Congress had created some of the most consequential environmental legislation to date: the establishment of Environmental Protection Agency (1970), the Clean Air Act (1970), the Clean Water Act (1972), the Marine Mammal Protection Act (1972), and the Safe Drinking Water Act (1974).

Since that early push, momentum behind environmental conservation has ebbed and flowed, but each year has brought environmental wins—both locally and globally.

We’ve assembled 50 environmental accomplishments—one to celebrate every year since the first Earth Day—to reflect on progress made and ground left to cover.

To mark this year’s anniversary, we highlighted the youth-led climate movement spearheaded by 17-year-old Greta Thunberg and other young leaders around the world. Thunberg has spotlighted a global movement led by young people, but it was well in motion before she came on the scene. (Read about other young activists fighting to save our world.)

On this occasion marking 50 years of advocacy to protect the earth on a special day, let's remember what all of our efforts have won.

Read This Next

First great apes at U.S. zoo receive COVID-19 vaccine made for animals

The priceless primate fossils found in a garbage dump

Buried for 4,000 years, this ancient culture could expand the 'Cradle of Civilization'

Go Further

Subscriber Exclusive Content

Why are people so dang obsessed with Mars?

How viruses shape our world

The era of greyhound racing in the U.S. is coming to an end

See how people have imagined life on Mars through history

See how NASA’s new Mars rover will explore the red planet

Why are people so dang obsessed with Mars?

How viruses shape our world

The era of greyhound racing in the U.S. is coming to an end

See how people have imagined life on Mars through history

See how NASA’s new Mars rover will explore the red planet

Why are people so dang obsessed with Mars?

How viruses shape our world

The era of greyhound racing in the U.S. is coming to an end

See how people have imagined life on Mars through history

See how NASA’s new Mars rover will explore the red planet