History of Environmental Sustainability & Environmental Laws in the USA

From the very beginnings of the USA as a country, concerned individuals, leaders, and the government had made and still continue making efforts to prevent environmental degradation and land, air, and water pollution. The country’s efforts over a few centuries have laid a strong foundation for present-day environmental sustainability practices that have been taking an increasingly firm grip on the world.

As far back as 1634, when the term “environmental sustainability” was still light years away from seeing the light of day, regulations on public sanitation were enacted in Massachusetts. To prevent water pollution, the city of Boston decreed that people ought not to leave garbage or fish near the bridge or mutual landing between two brooks.

About 3,500 sanitary/medical practitioners lived and worked in the colonies that existed in the USA back in the day. Some of the duties they often performed, included the following:

  • Supply of pure water and prevention of polluting substances from contaminated water
  • Enforcement of practices aimed at keeping the environment clean
  • Control of inconveniences from filth and trades that had the potential to harm physical or mental health
  • Drainage of swamps, low-lying wetland that had grassy vegetation, and stagnant small lakes or bodies of water
  • Disposal of wastes, trash, excrement, etc.

As the United States continued to enlarge its size westward in the nineteenth century (1800s), people freely used natural resources; on the other hand, they indiscriminately discharged all types of pollutants on the land and into the water and air.

But between the latter part of the nineteenth century and the early part of the twentieth century (1900s), people started realizing the need to use natural resources more sustainably and conserve them for future generations.

This mindset helped create the Conservation Movement (also known as Nature Conservation) which was an environmental, social, and political reform movement whose goal was to preserve natural features and resources (such as animal species, plant species, and their habitat) in ways that would leave the environment in a more sustainable or better condition for the benefit of future generations.

President Teddy Roosevelt stood out and became an exemplary American leader who knew that the country’s development depended a lot on preserving natural resources and taking good care of the environment.

Sensing that the country would be depleted of natural resources, especially trees, and that pollution would threaten human life, especially in big cities, Roosevelt sought after the protection of water and the promotion of effective and sustainable land development. Civic associations, The Sierra Club, and individuals such as John Muir agreed with Roosevelt’s initiatives and efforts.

Because of the dangerous environmental and living conditions that existed in cities and which people were exposed to, anti-pollution programs were established and made a considerable impact from around the end of the Civil War (in 1865) to 1915.

The governments that were in power during that period, took some actions that are still being practiced in present-day environmental sustainability programs: they protected water sources, constructed sewerage/sewer systems, cleaned the streets, gathered and got rid of solid waste, set up parks, and started regulating air pollutants.

Care for the environment continued receiving increasing attention to a point that environmental laws were being passed in the form of “Acts”. The “Rivers and Harbours Appropriation Act” was passed in 1899; it prohibits “the discharge of refuse matter of any kind into the navigable waters, or tributaries thereof, of the United States without permit”.

Congress passed another environmental law, the “Pure Food and Drug Act” in 1905, to protect consumers or people from adulterated or contaminated and harmful food and drug products. Subsequent amendments—such as the “Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act” of 1936—regulated the pesticides used in the environment and—the “Food Quality Protection Act” of 1996—guaranteed that standards for the pesticides applied to foods, were instituted and enforced.

The “Federal Insecticide, Fungicide, and Rodenticide Act” (FIFRA) Act was passed in 1947 to control the use or application of pesticides and ensure that, whenever they are applied, they won’t pose unreasonable risk to human health and the environment. The FIFRA was amended in 1972 and further amended in 1988 and 1996.

The “Atomic Energy Act” (AEA) was passed in 1954 to regulate the production and use of nuclear energy, nuclear power plants, and nuclear weapons facilities, and protect the health and safety of the public and environment.

Senator Gaylord Nelson created “Earth Day” on April 22, 1970, and about 20 million people throughout the USA showed their support for Earth Day and environmental protection after constantly seeing people living side by side with environmental pollutants. The first Earth Day in 1970 expressed people’s desire to see the general public take much better care of the environment and their own health and lives.

United States Congress passed the “National Environmental Policy Act” in 1969 to establish a broad structure and national policy for protecting the environment and preparing an environmental impact statement whenever the environment would have to be affected by certain actions or changes.

Programs were brought together from 15 different agencies and departments in order to create the “Environmental Protection Agency” (EPA) in 1970. And many additional environmental laws were passed in the form of Acts in order to protect people and the environment, at both federal and state levels.

To ensure sustainability was also applied to the coasts, an environmental law named “Coastal Zone Management Act” was passed in 1972 to permit the federal government and states to protect United States coastal areas from actions and overdevelopment activities that are regarded as “environmentally destructive”.

The “Marine Mammal Protection Act” was passed in 1972 to protect marine animals (such as sea lions, seals, dolphins, whales, manatees, seals, etc,) from becoming endangered. The “Endangered Species Act” was passed in 1973 to protect habitats that are havens for species of wildlife, fish, and plants that are becoming endangered in the United States. The “Fisheries Conservation and Management Act” was passed in 1976 to keep fish stock in a healthy state and prevent people from over-harvesting fish in the future.

The “Safe Drinking Water Act” was passed in 1974—and amended in 1986 and 1996—to establish drinking water standards and protect groundwater or underground environments that are saturated with water. And the “Federal Land Policy and Management Act” was passed in 1976 to protect federal lands that have ecological value.

The “Resource Conservation and Recovery Act” was passed in 1976 to establish standards for managing and properly disposing hazardous waste and preventing the creation of toxic waste dump sites in the environment. The “Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act” was passed in 1977 to ensure coal mining is regulated so it doesn’t degrade or destroy the environment and human and animal life.

The “Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act” was passed in 1980—and later underwent subsequent amendments—to ensure that sites contaminated by toxic wastes are cleaned up, even if the toxic wastes were placed there many years prior to the creation of such sites.

The “Emergency Planning and Community Right-to-Know Act” was passed in 1986 to ensure that industries or companies that produce toxic chemicals, inform communities or residential areas about the toxic chemicals they discharge on land and into the water and air.

The “Oil Pollution Act” was passed in 1990 to ensure that the organizations or people who pollute the environment through oil spills/spillage, take responsibility for any damage they cause to the environment or any natural resources.


Since each environmental law was passed or created by United States Congress, a lot of actions, scientific research, studies, environmental sustainability best practices, and programs have been pioneered throughout the country in order to promote sustainability and ensure that the environment is protected, and injuries and illnesses are prevented or abated.

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