50 Years On, Earth Day’s Legal Legacy Looms Large

Fifty years ago, it wasn’t unusual for rivers to catch fire, for overflowing landfills to seep toxic gases, or for smog-filled skies to dominate our landscapes. While we still have a long way to go toward a healthy, sustainable planet for all, we’ve also come a long way since the first Earth Day brought 20 million Americans into the streets, effectively jumpstarting the modern environmental movement.   

Five decades of groundbreaking legislation and the persistence of determined activists and policymakers has led to a decrease in pollution, the protection of wild spaces and endangered species, and the beginning of the clean energy revolution.

Much of this progress was made possible by the creation or passing of:

  • The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (1970)
  • National Environmental Protection Act (1970)
  • Clean Air Act (1970)
  • Clean Water Act (1972)
  • Endangered Species Act (1973)
  • Toxic Substances Control Act (1976)
More than 1,200 students assembled a five-story globe on the National Mall in Washington D.C., to mark the 25th anniversary of Earth Day in 1995. JOYCE NALTCHAYAN / AFP VIA GETTY IMAGES

For Earthjustice—a non-profit public interest environmental law organization—these bedrock laws have become fundamental tools of the trade. Since 1971, Earthjustice has been the legal backbone for the environmental movement, all while representing their clients free of charge.  With over 140 lawyers across the country, no one is better positioned to wield the power of the law and the strength of partnership to protect people’s health, to preserve magnificent places and wildlife, to advance clean energy and to combat climate change. 

Today, progress is threatened by new challenges. Climate change is our new normal. Our federal government is controlled by those intent on taking us backward, propping up fossil fuels and dismantling foundational environmental laws. This year, as we celebrate 50 years of Earth Day and all the achievements of the past, we must look toward the next 50 years that will be crucial for the future of our planet. 

We invite you to join us in honoring Earth Day’s 50th anniversary by learning more about the rules that protect public health and the environment. 

Click here to read more about each of these key laws, and how Earthjustice utilizes these laws as tools for change.