SAN JOSE, April 22, 2012 – Earth Day is one of the most celebrated days throughout the world, but not too many people realize that there are in fact, two Earth Days.
There is also some confusion, if not controversy, regarding the original idea and impetus behind the founding of Earth Day. There are more than one that claim Earth Day as their idea.
Usually, the man who gets the lion’s share of the credit is the former U.S. Senator and Wisconsin Governor, Gaylord Nelson though he may have “borrowed” the idea from a well established California Democratic Party power broker named Fred Dutton.
The story goes that although Gaylord Nelson ultimately got most of the publicity 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 Dutton who served as Presidential Assistant to Kennedy from 1961 to 1962.
Kennedy was not too enthused about Fred Dutton’s memo about promoting conservation or environmental issues. Gaylord 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. In addition, Nelson’s first conception regarding the promotion of the environmental issues ended up as an unsuccessful measure. He was able to convince Kennedy to embark upon a nationwide conservation tour in 1963.
Unfortunately, while Kennedy did speak in several states on the need to conserve the country’s natural resources, the media did not pay too much attention and Nelson’s more extensive environmental agenda was put on the shelf until 1969.
John McConnell is credited as the originator of the March Earth Day and he introduced the idea at a 1969 UNESCO Conference on the environment and the “equinoctial” Earth Day is normally celebrated on the vernal equinox, or March 20/21, of each year.
John McConnell was moved by the first published picture of Earth from space in Life Magazine in 1968 creating the Earth Day flag from that picture. As a Christian, his intent in creating Earth Day was to have “an annual event to deepen reverence and care for life on our planet…”
He wanted it to be a global holiday for all people around the world. This 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:
“…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 which they received with enthusiasm and then San Francisco Mayor, Joseph Alioto, issued the first Earth Day proclamation on March 21, 1970.
Two other individuals claim credit for founding Earth Day; one credible and one not so credible.
Some quarters credit Morton S. Hilbert as a co-founder of Earth Day. Among other positions, he was the chair of the Department of Environmental Health and Industrial Health at the University of Michigan. In conjunction with the U.S. Public Health Service, he organized the Human Ecology Symposium in 1968.
Although it is a bit vague how he was actually connected to either Gaylord Nelson or John McConnell, he is mentioned on more than one University of Michigan web site as a co-founder of the original Earth Day.
While Gaylord Nelson, the Wisconsin politician claims that his motivation for Earth Day was primarily political, McConnell was a visionary and peace activist and someone who believed in the value of religion and science.
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 it 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 not from the concept of the anti-war teach ins during the late 1960s after an unsuccessful effort involving John F. Kennedy.
Nelson and McConnell went to their graves without reconciling the two separate dates into one universal celebration.
Today, April 22nd is the date that seems to have most U.S. favor, the day of celebration on the equinox. On February 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.”
Despite the separate days, the U.N. today does work with the organizers of the Earth Day Network which 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.
Regardless of the date, or founder, Earth Day seems to have been an idea whose time had come. It seems that the vision of both founders has reached a point of incredible success as Denis Hayes efforts, along with the other original coordinators from Earth Day in 1970, have provided the global proliferation of the ideas and efforts for the citizens of the world to become better custodians of our planet.
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