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Exploring Earth Day's Origins
April 22nd, 2012 by Chris
Growing together

Growing together.

Scientists estimate Earth to be about 4.5 billion years old and yet today (April 22, 2012) marks just the 42nd anniversary of Earth Day, which obviously means that we have a few billion years of neglect to overcome.

Rectifying such an oversight with an annual observance is a noble gesture, but it seems much of the general public has yet to totally embrace the concept.  In fact, most people know very little about Earth Day’s history or true purpose.

By American standards, Earth Day is certainly not a traditional holiday.  There’s no time-off from work or school, for one thing; and the typical excesses connected with such festivities seem counter-intuitive to appreciating our exhausted Earth.  Decorations, fireworks, holiday spending sprees, even feasts appear wildly inappropriate.

There’s also no jolly elf, magic bunny, winged cherub, or leprechaun to sell the story of Earth Day to our kids.  And, what exactly is the story of Earth Day?  Shouldn’t it have some sort of folk-tale or myth to explain its creation and convey its true meaning—something to build our traditions around?

The real story of Earth Day involves student activism in the 1960’s, the city of San Francisco, a maverick U.S. senator, and a “luminary with a major passion for peace, religion and science.” It also contains a small measure of controversy.

There are actually two dates officially recognized as “Earth Day.”  Two men are credited with creating separate Earth Days at approximately the same time, and their unique, competing visions of the same concern both shaped the sentiments and practices commonly associated with the event held today.

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John McConnell (1915- ) is an intriguing, American character—a New Age, Christian peacenik with traces of counter-culture bohemian marbling his earthy righteousness.  He developed a concern for ecology while working for an early plastics laboratory (1939).  During WWII, McConnell delivered religious services aboard Merchant Marine vessels, taking the position that “prayer and love could be more powerful than bombs.”  Since then, McConnell has dedicated his life to “relieving human suffering and promoting the common good.”

McConnell’s philanthropic activities, which included the highly successful “Meals for Millions” campaign, eventually led him to the 1969 National UNESCO conference in San Francisco.  It was in this historic city, named for St. Francis of Assisi, the patron saint of ecology, that McConnell unveiled his idea for an “Earth Day—to celebrate Earth’s life and beauty and to alert earthlings to the need for preserving and renewing the threatened ecological balances upon which all life on Earth depends.”

McConnell proposed Earth Day to the San Francisco Board of Supervisors which eventually issued an “Earth Day Proclamation.”  McConnell drafted his own Earth Day Proclamation for worldwide use which quickly gained the support of the United Nations, and the initial event was celebrated in San Francisco (and other cities) on March 21, 1970.

If there is a spiritual element to how we view or celebrate Earth Day, it most certainly originates from McConnell.  In his interesting (and visionary) essay, 77 Theses, McConnell outlines a path toward a utopian global village where citizens serve as “Trustees of the Earth.”  He combines religious sensibilities with an idealistic faith in humanity’s ability to liberate itself from its seemingly unenlightened existence.  While acknowledging tremendous challenges, he suggests a possibility for redemption by embracing an “inner point of unity”—a collective concern for the Earth and each other.  “The greatest challenge in history,” he writes, “is the present challenge of destiny involving all humanity; a challenge to reclaim the Earth for all peoples and to free them from the fear of war and want.”

Clearly, Earth Day’s overriding sense of community, inclusiveness and shared responsibility for the well-being of the planet comes largely from McConnell’s passionate vision, but what about the other guy?

Gaylord Nelson was known as The Man from Clear Lake.  He was a U.S. senator from Wisconsin at a time (1963-81) when being a Democrat with liberal leanings wasn’t considered such a bad thing.  Born in 1916, he fought in WW II and served as the 35th governor of his home state before becoming a senator.  He was largely responsible for side-effect warnings on birth control pills (“Nelson Pill Hearings”), in addition to being a strong advocate for small business and, of course, initiating his own Earth Day.

He was said to have been motivated to create an “environmental teach-in at university campuses” after witnessing the devastating effects of a 1969 oil spill in Santa Barbara, Calif.  The original concept was shaped in a large part by the protest movement blazing across college campuses throughout the turbulent 60’s.  Nelson, considered a conservation activist, envisioned an event similar to the highly effective Vietnam War teach-ins going on at that time.

“I am convinced,” he said, “that all we need to do to bring an overwhelming insistence of the new generation that we stem the tide of environmental disaster is to present the facts clearly and dramatically.”

Nelson announced his intentions at a couple of 1969 speeches including a meeting of the United Auto Workers (which donated $2000 to the cause!).  He invited Republican representative, Pete McCloskey, to serve as the co-chair of a non-profit organization, Environmental Teach-In, Inc., and a front-page article in the New York Times (September 29, 1969) declared, “Rising concern about the ‘environmental crisis’ is sweeping the nation’s campuses with an intensity that may be on its way to eclipsing student discontent over the war in Vietnam.”

Nelson recruited a Harvard graduate student, Denis Hayes, to organize their first Earth Day (April 22, 1970) on a nationwide scale.  Nelson claims the name “Earth Day” was suggested by “a number of people,” but whether intentionally lifted from McConnell or not, the mass media preferred it to “Environmental Teach-In Day.”  Hayes, who became an influential leader in the environmental movement, did an excellent job as approximately 20 million Americans participated in this first Earth Day, and it has been called “the beginning of the modern environmental movement.”

Nelson receives credit for using his government muscle to increase Earth Day’s visibility across the United States.  He made public education, awareness and youth involvement key elements in the Earth Day Movement.  Nelson’s outline for Earth Day also suggests a 60’s-style “stick it to the man” kind of militant edge,  or a “We’re not going to take it!” reaction to environmental concerns.  His Earth Day certainly contains a solid streak of social activism.

Both of these pioneering environmentalists contributed equal measures toward the establishment of not just an Earth Day, but an Earth Day Movement; and both should be simultaneously acknowledged for their efforts.  Nelson’s approach, strongly rooted to democratic principles of free speech and public assembly, compliments nicely with McConnell’s ideas about mankind’s collective discovery of the inner point of unity.

So, what’s the deal with the dates?  Nelson carefully selected his date to maximize collegiate involvement.  With spring break, Easter and any other holidays out of the way, most universities would be in session.  McConnell chose his date to coincide with the March Equinox, calling it “nature’s special day of equilibrium.”  His motivation was once again a unification of public interest and concern.  By choosing the vernal Equinox, when the length of night and day is equal in all parts of the Earth, McConnell hoped to show “no statement of the truth or superiority of one way of life over another.”

While McConnell’s choice undoubtedly makes more sense symbolically, Nelson’s political clout made the April date stick.  Many still prefer to observe the more metaphysically-aligned “Equinox Earth Day” instead.

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So, now that we know the story, have we gained a better understanding of what comprises a proper Earth Day?  Should we go all “Age of Aquarius” and act like we’re in the Broadway musical Hair?  Should we attend a protest march or a lecture?  Perhaps we should think more practically and organize a nature walk with neighborhood kids, or maybe a clean-up crew?

Whether it’s March 21 or April 22, we’re still talking about spring, and that’s the traditional time to bust out the dust-brooms, shake off the winter lethargy and start cleaning things up.  Lunchsense would like to mark the occasion by reminding everyone that “Reduce” comes first, even before “Reuse” and “Recycle,” so how about celebrating Earth Day by clearing out some of your old, unused stuff?  Why not spend the afternoon making your own little part of Earth a cleaner, happier place?  Simplify your life and for the good of the planet, keep only what you need.  Start becoming an environmental activist in your own home.

Here’s Walter Cronkite’s 1970 commentary on the event … Happy Earth Day!


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