Monday, April 21, 2008

The April 22 Earth Day

Growing Eco-activism before Earth Day 1970

The 1960s had been a very dynamic period for ecology in the US, in both theory and practice. It was in the mid-1960s that Congress passed the sweeping Wilderness Act, and Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas asked, "Who speaks for the trees?" Pre-1960 grassroots activism against DDT in Nassau County, NY, had inspired Rachel Carson to write her shocking bestseller Silent Spring (1962).

Earth Day 1970


Responding to widespread environmental degradation, Gaylord Nelson, a United States Senator from Wisconsin, called for an environmental teach-in, or Earth Day, to be held on April 22, 1970. Over 20 million people participated that year, and Earth Day is now observed each year on April 22 by more than 500 million people and national governments in 175 countries. Senator Nelson, an environmental activist, took a leading role in organizing the celebration, hoping to demonstrate popular political support for an environmental agenda. He modeled it on the highly effective Vietnam War protests of the time. The concept of Earth Day was first proposed in a memo to JFK written by Fred Dutton.

According to Santa Barbara, California Community Environmental Council:

The story goes that Earth Day was conceived by Senator Gaylord Nelson after a trip he took to Santa Barbara right after that horrific oil spill off our coast in 1969. He was so outraged by what he saw that he went back to Washington and passed a bill designating April 22 as a national day to celebrate the earth.

Senator Nelson selected Denis Hayes, a Harvard University graduate student, as the national coordinator of activities. Hayes said he wanted Earth Day to "bypass the traditional political process."[9] Garrett DuBell compiled and edited The Environmental Handbook the first guide to the Environmental Teach-In. Its symbol was a green Greek letter theta, "the dead theta".

The nationwide event included opposition to the Vietnam War on the agenda, but this was thought to detract for the environmental message. Pete Seeger was a keynote speaker and performer at the event held in Washington DC. Paul Newman and Ali McGraw attended the event held in New York City.

The most notable organization to protest the event was the Daughters of the American Revolution.

The Results of Earth Day 1970

Earth Day proved popular in the United States and around the world. The first Earth Day had participants and celebrants in two thousand colleges and universities, roughly ten thousand primary and secondary schools, and hundreds of communities across the United States. More importantly, it "brought 20 million Americans out into the spring sunshine for peaceful demonstrations in favor of environmental reform."

Senator Nelson stated that Earth Day "worked" because of the spontaneous response at the grassroots level. 20 million demonstrators and thousands of schools and local communities participated.[12] He directly credited the first Earth Day with persuading U.S. politicians that environmental legislation had a substantial, lasting constituency. Many important laws were passed by the Congress in the wake of the 1970 Earth Day, including the Clean Air Act, laws to protect drinking water, wild lands and the ocean, and the creation of the United States Environmental Protection Agency.

Now observed in 175 countries, and coordinated by the nonprofit Earth Day Network, according to whom Earth Day is now "the largest secular holiday in the world, celebrated by more than a half billion people every year." Environmental groups have sought to make Earth Day into a day of action which changes human behavior and provokes policy changes.

The significance of the date

  • April 22 was the birthday of actor Eddie Albert. Because of Eddie Albert's early work with environmental causes and groups, when International Earth Day was created, it was decided it must be held on April 22 because that is his birthday.
  • April 21 was the birthday of John Muir, who founded the Sierra Club. This is not lost on organizers who thought that April 22 was Muir's birthday.
  • April 22, 1970 was the 100th birthday of Vladimir Lenin. Time reported that some suspected the date was not a coincidence, but a clue that the event was "a Communist trick," and quoted a member of the Daughters of the American Revolution saying, "Subversive elements plan to make American children live in an environment that is good for them."[9] J. Edgar Hoover, director of the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation, may have found the Lenin connection intriguing; it was alleged the FBI conducted surveillance at the 1970 demonstrations.[16] The idea that the date was chosen to celebrate Lenin's centenary still persists in some quarters, although Lenin was never noted as an environmentalist.
  • April 22 is also the birthday of Julius Sterling Morton, the founder of Arbor Day, a national tree-planting holiday started in 1872. Arbor Day became a legal holiday in Nebraska in 1885, to be permanently observed on April 22. According to the National Arbor Day Foundation "the most common day for the state observances is the last Friday in April . . . but a number of state Arbor Days are at other times to coincide with the best tree planting weather." It has since been largely eclipsed by the more widely observed Earth Day, except in Nebraska, where it originated.

Earth Week

Many cities extend the Earth Day celebration to be an entire week, usually starting on April 16, and ending on Earth Day, April 22nd.

Earth Day Ecology Flag

Ecology Flag with theta
Ecology Flag with theta

According to Flags of the World, the Ecology Flag was created by cartoonist Ron Cobb, and was published for the first time in October 25, 1969. The flag was patterned after the flag of the United States, and had thirteen stripes alternating green and white. Its canton was green with a yellow Theta. It originally had a symbol that was a combination of the letters "E" and "O" taken from the words "Environment" and "Organism", respectively. Later flags used either a Theta because of its historic use as a warning symbol, or the Peace Symbol. Theta would later become associated with Earth Day.

As a 16 year old high school student, Betsy Vogel, an environmental advocate and social activist that enjoyed sewing costumes and unique gifts, made a 4 x 6-foot (1.8 m) green and white "theta" ecology flag to commemorate the first Earth Day. Initially denied permission to fly the flag at C.E. Byrd High School in Shreveport, Louisiana. Vogel sought and received authorization from the Louisiana Legislature and Louisiana Governor John McKeithen in time to display the flag for Earth Day.