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Lessons From American Environmental Policy

By: Grant Walters

Even since the establishment of the Sierra Club, an environmental activist organization that still persists today, by John Muir in 1892, federal government environmental policy has depended upon activist efforts. During the 1890s, there was little to no policy that prevented the environment from being harmed, with large corporations ruthlessly exploiting natural resources to expand their industry. It can be deduced that the efforts of John Muir widened both the general population and the federal government’s perspective concerning the importance that the environment holds for everyone. This can be seen through President Theodore Roosevelt’s Square Deal, which emphasized the importance of the environment and sought to allot particular apportionments of land that couldn’t be used for the extraction of natural resources, establishing a great number of national parks. Roosevelt’s commitment to protect the environment marked the start of American environmentalism.











(John Muir and Theodore Roosevelt at Yosemite National Park)


Between 1900 and 1960, insufficient amounts of environmental policy were enacted; however, in the 1960s, the environmentalist ideals, spurred by Roosevelt and Muir, saw an uptick. With the release of “Silent Spring” by environmental activist Rachel Carson in 1962, which emphasized the profound impact that DDT, an infamous pesticide, insidiously had on the environment. Carson’s publication, similar to the efforts of John Muir, directly led to the federal government addressing the environment through policy. Specifically, DDT was banned in 1972, but Carson’s efforts coupled with the continued push for environmental policy by the Sierra Club efforts also led to far-reaching initiatives, like the passing of the Clean Water Act in 1972, the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency in 1971, and even America’s first Earth Day celebration in 1970. 



(Preparation for the first Earth Day in 1970)

The beginning of the 21st Century has also seen America remain committed to protecting the environment, especially on an international scale. This is directly due to the pressure placed upon the federal government by American citizens, as seen by the 21 youth that ambitiously filed a lawsuit against the federal government for knowing its role in terms of causing climate change and not taking action to mend this issue. However, after this lawsuit was introduced and publicly known, the federal government began to act in order to stall climate change, as seen through President Barack Obama formally joining the Paris Agreement in 2016. This got America involved in a global effort to act against climate change. Although America briefly left the Paris Agreement in 2020, one of current President Joe Biden’s first executive actions was rejoining the Paris Agreement. 


These policy initiatives over the past century are most definitely a step in the right direction, but there is undoubtedly still work to be done by America to protect the environment both domestically and globally. As seen through history, activism was the primary method used to get the federal government to act in favor of the environment; without it, it’s unclear whether all these initiatives would have been enacted in the first place. With this in mind, it’s evident that we need to take up the mantle of responsibility and be activists for the environment, so that enough actions are taken to prevent the Earth as well as us from being inevitably doomed. 


Information Citations:

  1. “Environmental Policy in the United States.” Ballotpedia. Accessed April 21, 2022. 

  2. Santora, Tara. “Earth Day to School Strikes: A Timeline of the American Environmental Movement.” Stacker, April 6, 2020. 

Image Citations

  1. Underwood & Underwood. Theodore Roosevelt and John Muir. 1906. Wikimedia Commons. 

  2. Getty Images

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