The History of Earth Day

earth-dayThe recent Earth Day celebration (Sunday April 22, 2012) begs the question: how did Earth Day come about? Earth Day emerged out of no one person or idea, but out of the ethos of the budding environmental movement of the 1960’s and 1970’s. Now, Earth Day is an annual observance honoring the earth and the natural environment. Some complain that Earth Day should be everyday, and that the awareness and appreciation the event promotes should be lifelong and constant. While this is true, it does not hurt to commemorate the goodness done and the progress made in the name of preservation, conservation, and ecological understanding. While the modern environmental movement faces many a challenge, it is still important to salute those who have made positive, sustainable environmental impacts since that initial Earth Day that took place in 1970. A few different founders lay claim to the initial creation of Earth Day and while it is unclear who exactly established the holiday, all are equally interesting.

Similar to the environmental movement itself, Earth Day was created out of disgust for industrial polluters and environmental degradation. Peace activist John McConnell is credited with the naming and founding of Earth Day. He first became transfixed by environmental causes in 1939, notably before such trends became common. His interest in the environment was spurred by his employment in a plastic factory, at which time he realized how degrading plastic production is to the environment. During the 1960’s McConnell’s environmental convictions only grew, and so did his religious ones. As a deeply devout Christian he believed he had an obligation to be a steward of the earth. When McConnell saw the highly influential and iconic image of the Earth as viewed from space on the cover of Life magazine he was so moved that he decided to make that image the symbol of the Earth Day flag. The “Whole Earth Catalogue” was first to feature the flag that he designed.

The story begins at the 1969 United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) National Conference, which took place in San Francisco. McConnell proposed that a holiday be founded to celebrate the Earth and he proposed the date of March 21, because that is the first day of spring in the northern hemisphere. He intended Earth Day to promote awareness about Earth’s threatened ecological balances and how life as we know it depends on that balance. The City of San Francisco then issued an Earth Day Proclamation after his proposal won strong support. The Proclamation soon went global and was signed by the UN Secretary General at the time, U Thant.

Separate from John McConnell’s creation of Earth Day is the founding of Earth Day by Senator Gaylord Nelson.  The Wisconsin Senator was prompted to plan an environmental teach-in after witnessing the massively disastrous effects of the 1969 oil spill in Santa Barbara, CA. The teach-in was scheduled for April 22, 1970 and Senator Nelson intended to harness the enthusiasm behind the anti-war movement in order to inspire similar passion for environmental causes like air and water pollution. More so, Senator Nelson hoped the foundation of Earth Day would move environmental protection onto the national agenda. On April 22, 1970 twenty-two million Americans across the nation demonstrated in the streets in support of a healthy, sustainable environment. The central aims of the nationwide protests focused on concerns such as oil spills, polluting factories and power plants, raw sewage, toxic dumps, pesticides, freeways, the loss of wilderness, and the extinction of wildlife. The creation of Earth Day is thought to have led to the creation of the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the passing of the Clean Air and Clean Water and Endangered Species Acts. Denis Hayes was recruited as the co-chair and national coordinator of the Earth Day foundation committee.

In 1990 Denis Hayes organized another large campaign; he made Earth Day a global celebration. Hayes founded the Earth Day Network, expanding Earth Day to over 180 countries. The Earth Day Network obviously credits Senator Nelson with founding the movement, but Earth Day is beyond any individual. Earth Day represents the entire environmental movement.

There is yet another person to have claimed to have founded Earth Day. Bizarrely, that person is Ira Einhorn, the “Unicorn Killer.” His claims have been proven fraudulent and because of his notoriety are not only dismissed, but considered to taint the reputation of the movement.

John McDonnell currently lives in Denver, CO and at the age of 97 he still believes in protecting the environment. To watch a recent interview with him check out this link from Denver’s local news station, 9 News.

The Earth Day Network does more than just facilitating annual Earth Day events all over the world. During the rest of the year they work on many environmental projects including educational campaigns, service projects, community outreach, and so on. To learn more about Earth Day Network’s work in your community or to donate to the cause check out their website.

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