Top Five U.S. Events of the Last 40 Years

What events, ideas or developments have had the most significant impact in our lives since 1970?

Smithsonian magazine

Cellphones, homeland security, DVDs, iPods, a computer at every desk, space shuttles, HIV, "American Idol," ATMs, the Soviet Union's collapse, international terrorism, designer water, electric cars—on the whole, the world in which we live today is quite different from just 40 years ago, when Smithsonian first appeared.

As we begin to mark the magazine’s 40th anniversary, we would like to ask: If you were pressed to name the five most important events, ideas or developments in the past 40 years, what would they be?

To stimulate conversation, I offer the following list. Here goes, in chronological order:

1970: Passage of the Clean Air Act, sweeping legislation that for the first time created national, enforceable air-pollution limits for factories, motor vehicles and other emission sources. The regulations, approved by Congress months after the first Earth Day, were a "major and positive turning point in the national environmental protection effort," according to the late Paul G. Rogers, a U.S. representative who helped craft the legislation. Thanks largely to the act and its amendments, the air we breathe today is less polluted than it was in 1970, even though the United States since then has gained more than 100 million people and 120 million motor vehicles. EcoCenter Air »

1991: The emergence of the World Wide Web as an Internet service available to the public forever changed how people express themselves, shop, socialize, conduct politics, study, entertain themselves and create. The Web now links hundreds of millions of people—billions?—producing the first inklings of a true global culture. The Web's power as a communication device cannot be overstated. Hard to believe we didn't always have it.

2001: The September 11 terrorist attacks on the United States altered Americans' historic sense of invulnerability just as emphatically as the destruction of the World Trade Center towers altered the Manhattan skyline. Not counting the suicidal Al Qaeda assailants, 2,973 people were killed. Among the many consequences, the coordinated airline hijackings and assaults on New York City and the Pentagon and the thwarted attempt on Washington, D.C. that ended in a Pennsylvania field led to vast changes in government and spurred the nation to go to war in Iraq and Afghanistan.

2003: The final deciphering of virtually the whole human genome, parts of which had been described in previous years, opened a new chapter in humanity's comprehension of its nature. It was a monumental, multi-year, public-private feat spelling out the three billion chemical units or letters of DNA that encode the information held in the 20,000 to 30,000 genes entwined into the 23 pairs of human chromosomes. Practical exploitation of the genome in the form of new drugs or other disease treatments is still in the future. But these data now form the basis of our understanding of biological heredity, many diseases, dimensions of personality, growth and development, evolution and the deep history of the human race.

2008: Despite ups and downs in the president's public-approval ratings, the election of Barack Obama is a transforming event for a society founded on liberty but marred by the oppression of racial minorities, especially African-Americans. Whether or not Obama will be remembered as one of the great U.S. presidents remains to be seen, but the election of an African-American to the nation's highest office for the first time—and a resounding victory at that—was a galvanizing expression of American social progress unlike anything before.

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