SAN JOSE, Calif., April 22, 2016 – Earth Day(s) is considered one of the most celebrated days throughout the world, but not many people realize that there is, in fact, more than one “Earth Day.” One of the initial Earth Days was founded by John McConnell, who passed away in 2012, but as the impetus behind the celebratory holiday, when he passed away, the impetus died as well. That Earth Day coincided with the vernal equinox, and was celebrated in March. Since 2012, it has taken a back seat to the Earth Day that is celebrated on April 22.
The Earth Day that is celebrated today was founded by former U.S. Sen. and Wisconsin Gov. Gaylord Nelson, the man who gets the lion’s share of the credit for founding such a day. However, it is not completely clear whether Nelson may have “borrowed” the idea from a well established California Democratic Party power broker named Fred Dutton.
Not to generate confusion or anything, but a third version, “International Mother Earth Day,” is also a legitimate holiday established by the United Nations in 2009. This day was introduced by the delegates from Bolivia and was endorsed by 50 other nations.
John McConnell is credited as the originator of the March Earth Day and as the one who introduced the idea at a 1969 UNESCO Conference on the environment. The “equinoctial” Earth Day had been normally celebrated on the vernal equinox, or March 20/21, of each year while McConnell was living.
John McConnell, moved by the first published picture of Earth from space in Life Magazine in 1968, created the Earth Day flag from that extraterrestrial picture. As a Christian, John McConnell’s intent in creating Earth Day was to have “an annual event to deepen reverence and care for life on our planet.”
McConnell wanted Earth Day to be a global holiday for all people around the world. It was important to him to go global, and that is why he presented his idea at the UNESCO conference. He also explained that he considered the exact day very carefully: “[He] “thought long and hard about the day on which it should fall… One that might be accepted universally for all of humankind… When the Vernal Equinox dawned on me, I immediately knew it was right… What could be more appropriate than the first moment of Spring, when day and night are equal around the world and hearts and minds can join together with thoughts of harmony and Earth’s rejuvenation. Just as a single prayer can be significant, how much more so when hundreds, thousands, millions of people throughout the world join in peaceful thoughts and prayers to nurture neighbor and nature.”
McConnell also pitched the idea to the San Francisco Board of Supervisors. They received it with enthusiasm, and San Francisco Mayor Joseph Alioto issued the first Earth Day proclamation on March 21, 1970.
While John McConnell was a visionary and peace activist and someone who believed in the value of religion and science, Gaylord Nelson, the Wisconsin politician, claims that his motivation for Earth Day was primarily political. Nelson’s intent behind creating his version of Earth Day was to propel the environmental issues into the political arena because he had been troubled after years of seeing that “the critical matter of the state of our environment was, simply, a non-issue in the politics of our country.”
Nelson seriously believed the idea behind Earth Day to be a political issue, and it needed to be addressed in that realm. However, according to him, “the puzzling challenge was to think up some dramatic event that would focus attention on the environment.” He developed it from the concept of the anti-war teach-ins during the late 1960s after an unsuccessful effort involving John F. Kennedy.
The story goes that, although Nelson ultimately got most of the publicity for Earth Day in the United States, and is solely named as the creator of the celebration of Earth Day on the EPA website, the original idea was supposedly contained in a memo to President John Kennedy from California Democrat Fred Dutton, who served as presidential assistant to Kennedy from 1961 to 1962. However, Kennedy was not too enthused about Dutton’s memo concerning promoting conservation or environmental issues. Nelson was not too impressed either, as it was a “top down” type of effort, and Nelson was thinking of more of a widespread, grass-roots effort.
Additionally, Nelson’s first conception regarding the promotion of the environmental issues attempted to capitalize on Kennedy’s youth and tie it into a Teddy Roosevelt-like type of effort, but ended as an unsuccessful measure. Although he was able to persuade Kennedy to embark upon a nationwide conservation tour in 1963, and Kennedy did speak in several states on the need to conserve the country’s natural resources, the media did not pay too much attention. Sadly, the mainstream media was much more interested in what President Kennedy was doing by having our military in Vietnam, and Nelson’s more extensive environmental agenda was put on the shelf until 1969.
Despite the two separate founders, and these two Earth Days, the U.N. today does work with the organizers of the Earth Day Network that was founded by Denis Hayes, the coordinator Nelson chose to do all of the organizing of the Earth Day’s activities held on April 22, 1970.
In addition, Bolivia’s resolution to create yet another Earth Day was established in 2009. The International Mother Earth Day is also celebrated on April 22. Apparently, the concept of the Mother Earth was introduced as it “reflects the “reflects the interdependence that exists among human beings, other living species and the planet we all inhabit.” This Earth Day coincides with the American version, and there now seems to be some degree of harmony with respect to the various creations, which is fitting since International Mother Earth Day is intended “to promote harmony with nature and the Earth.”
While the early founders McConnell and Nelson went to their graves without reconciling the two separate dates into one universal celebration, others had the sense to see the confusion and contradictions. Today, April 22 is the date that seems to have won greatest international favor.
Yet, on Feb. 26, 1971, the secretary general of the U.N. signed a proclamation supporting McConnell’s global focus when he wrote: “May there be only peaceful and cheerful Earth Days to come to our beautiful Spaceship Earth as it continues to spin and circle in frigid space with its warm and fragile cargo of animate life.”
Regardless of the date or founder, Earth Day seems to have been an idea whose time had come. The vision of both original founders eventually reached a point of incredible success with Denis Hayes’ efforts, along with the other original coordinators from Earth Day in 1970. Now it is truly more of an international event, as the global proliferation of the ideas and efforts will hopefully lead the citizens of the world to become better custodians of our planet. Ideally, such long term efforts will be much more educational and much less political. That may prove difficult, but it may lead to a much healthier planet.