Wednesday, April 22, 2015

The twisted history of Earth Day

They say it’s your Earthday.

On your Day Planner (printed on partially recycled paper one would hope) you may notice that  April 22nd is officially called Earth Day.

You’d figure there would be a pretty straightforward explanation of the origins of Earth Day but noooooooooooo.

Earth the planet may have one mother but a lot of people are claiming paternity for Earth the Day. The two leading folks are former Senator Gaylord Nelson and a chap named John McConnell, founder of the Earth Society.

Back in 1962 Senator Nelson claims he persuaded JFK to go on an unheard of environmental tour of the country (in his gas guzzling, smog-belching stretch Cadillac no doubt.)  He claims that he wanted to make the environment a political issue. To quote Nelly:

Six years would pass before the idea that became Earth Day occurred to me while on a conservation speaking tour out West in the summer of 1969

In 1969 he watched anti-war demonstrations and noticed that campus teach-ins were an effective way to educate and organize American youth. He thought the same could be done for the environment. And thus in his words:

At a conference in Seattle in September 1969, I announced that in the spring of 1970 there would be a nationwide grassroots demonstration on behalf of the environment and invited everyone to participate.

On Oct 3rd 1969 a scant week or two after Gaylord’s speech and a few hundred miles south in San Francisco -- the other paternity suspect John McConnell got the Mayor of San Francisco to read a proclamation penned by McConnell that introduced the notion and the precise words “Earth Day”:

Here’s the proclamation:

 As Earthians we need a day to celebrate our global unity and
 destiny, and
 The observance of EARTH DAY will alert concern and interest for
 our planet -- with its precious treasure of living things, and
 EARTH DAY is to remind each person of his right, and the equal
 right of every other person, to the use of this global home and
 at the same time the equal responsibility of each person to
 preserve and improve the Earth and the quality of life thereon,
 That in the City and County of San Francisco March 21st (Vernal
 Equinox) be the designated EARTH DAY - a special day to remember
 Earth's tender seedlings of life and people; a day for planting
 trees and grass and flowers, for cleaning streams and wooded
 glens. That to further these purposes a Silent Hour For Peace (a
 time for quiet reflection or prayer) be observed on Earth Day at
 19:00 G.M.T. (11:00 a.m. P.S.T.). That on EARTH DAY the EARTH
 FLAG, which portrays in its center our "Beautiful Blue Planet;"
 be flown to encourage mutual respect for Earth and all its

There are a few interesting nuggets in there if you Earthians look closely enough. One of which is that Earth Day was to be celebrated on the Vernal Equinox, not as it is today on April 22nd.  Aside from the fact that symbolically the Vernal Equinox has always been a welcome home Mother Nature type celebration, the date itself was something the entire planet earth could synchronize its calendar to.

The April 22nd date came from the Gaylord faction, they had the Washington Beltway clout to declare a National Environmental Day. That particular date was chosen because it happened to be convenient for organizing.  Aside from that – the March date could still be rather chilly in the East and Midwest. April promised nicer weather for folks planning on going out into nature.  Some right wing wackos (but I repeat myself) claim the April 22nd date was chosen because it is also Lenin’s birthday. (I thought Lenin was a member of the Red Party not the Green Party.) Somehow in their DDT addled brains, being a friend of the environment makes you an enemy of democracy.  I can hear them now –“Karl Marx was a tree-hugger. Saddam Hussein recycles!” They’d be shocked to learn it was Richard Nixon who started the Environmental Protection Agency.

The other interesting nugget is the mention of an “Earth Flag” flying above City Hall.  How was there an Earth Flag before there was an Earth Day? This is where it becomes clearer that McConnell may have been the first Earthian.

For those of you too young to remember, or not yet a gleam in a parent’s eye, 1969 was one wacko year in one very disturbing decade.

JFK was assassinated in 63, Malcolm X in 65, MLK in 68, RFK in 68. There was rioting in the streets. The Days of Rage in Chicago, the Long Hot Summers with Newark and Detroit burning in July of 1967.

The war was raging in Vietnam. The nightly news had footage of American troops using napalm and Agent Orange to defoliate the jungles. The skyline of most major cities couldn’t be seen through the smog, America’s great rivers oozed with mercury.

69 was the culmination. There was the Woodstock Festival and the My Lai massacre.  And Man actually walked on the moon. Some claimed the lunar landing threw the universe out of orbit (which would explain how the ‘69 Mets won the World Series.)

The moon thing was key though. Before the lunar landing we had unmanned missions to orbit the moon. Those missions sent back pictures of the earth as well as the moon. It’s hard to explain to people nowadays how shocking it was to see a real-time picture of Earth from space. The Earth looked blue and beautiful and delicate and small. Small enough to break.

That sight had an effect on Mc Connell:

When the first photo of Earth appeared in Life (magazine) in 1969, I was deeply stirred -- as were many other people -- by what I saw. … In viewing the first photo from space, thereby sharing in part the experience of the astronauts, we experienced in a deep and emotional way a new awareness of our planet. As I looked at the Life photo it occurred to me that an Earth flag could symbolize and encourage our new world view and that the Earth as seen from space was the best possible symbol for this purpose.

NASA sent him a transparency of the photo used in Lifeand he copyrighted the Earth Flag in 1969. 

McConnell again:
Our first 500 flags were produced in a hurry, in order to use them at the "Moon Watch" at Central Park in New York City. This was the big event where we watched and celebrated the first landing on the Moon on 20 July 1969.

10,000 gather in Central Park to watch the moon landing.

The key thing is he had copyrighted the name and produced the flag months before Sen. Gaylord’s Seattle Conference or had officially introduced the idea of a global holiday called Earth Day at a UNESCO Conference on the Environment.

So McConnell looks like the real Earth Day daddy.

Of course, the advent of Earth Day itself was the culmination of a long series of events.

The true mother of the modern environmental movement would have to be Rachel Carson author of the seminal work “Silent Spring”. Published in 1962 it foretold a day when there were no songbirds in spring.

Another notable year on the environmental timeline would be 1967 --a group of volunteers on Long Island halted the spraying of DDT and formed a group called The Environmental Defense Fund. They would eventually get the FDA to ban the use of DDT in 1969.

Earth Day itself went from being a local celebration in San Francisco in March of 1970, to a national celebration in April of 1970. It was celebrated all over the earth on March 21, 1971 when Secretary General U Thant proclaimed the first worldwide Earth Day.

Earth Day was celebrated by most of the Earth last month. Wha?
Yep, San Francisco, Berkeley and Denver also celebrated the original Vernal Equinox date.

Here in the rest of the U.S. this is officially Earth Week and Wednesday is Earth Day. I don’t think the world really cares when we Americans celebrate Earth Day. But, it’s fairly important to our fellow earthlings that we do contemplate the environment. After all, we Americans make up only 4% of the world’s population; yet consume 25% of its resources.

By the way, you might be surprised to learn that in relation to the rest of the country you New Yorkers who live in this concrete jungle are comparatively Green. This is mainly due to the fact that Gothamites are walkers, who don’t own cars or lawns, nor require lawn mowers, pesticides nor fertilizer. And the city grows vertically instead of sprawling horizontally.

So my tender seedlings of life, I exhort you to put on your Earth Shoes and get out and spend some time with your mother this weekend. You haven’t communed with her in a while, have you?

Your Fellow Earthian,


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