April 22nd marks the annual observance of Earth Day, but we want to help you commemorate your love for the environment and our planet every day! With our Celebrate Earth Day series, we’ll introduce you to the history of the event as well as practical ways to extend green and eco-friendly principles throughout everyday life.
The origins of Earth Day can be traced back to two events:
1) The first full color photo of the Earth was published on the cover of Life Magazine in January 1969. Taken by NASA’s Apollo 8 mission, the photo not only showed the entire planet but made clear that it was humanity’s ONLY planet.
2) A Union Oil Company platform six miles off the coast of California blew out in January 1968. It spilled three million gallons of crude oil into the ocean causing an oil slick covering 800 square miles. The event was covered on national TV — some 35 miles of coastline were damaged by oil sludge. Viewers saw dying birds covered in oil and local volunteers spreading straw on the beaches to absorb the spill. Over 3,600 birds died, as well as countless fish, and or marine animals. The oil spill repair work continued for months, leaking more oil for a full year long.
Two different men in different circumstances found ways to act.
After seeing the Apollo 8 photo, peace activist John McConnell designed the “Earth Flag” as a symbol for all people of the world to find hope. The flag showed no land masses but only white clouds and blue oceans to represent all earthlings. McConnell formed the social justice organization World Equality, Inc. (now the Earth Society Foundation) in part to sell and promote his Earth flags.
In September 1969, McConnell pitched his idea to a few members of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors to celebrate the Earth on during the Vernal Equinox. The proposal was submitted to the head of the board, Peter Tamaris, on October 3, 1969 and put on the city agenda for a later approval. It would eventually be approved, and the first “Earth Day” was proclaimed in San Francisco on March 21, 1970. One month later, during the final day of the National UNESCO Conference in San Francisco, McConnell announced his Earth Day proposal.
Wisconsin US Senator Gaylord Nelson (D) was on a return flight from touring the oil spill devastation at Santa Barbara, CA when he read an article on “teach-ins” organized by college students and faculty to oppose the Vietnam War. A lifelong environmentalist, he got the idea to use teach-ins to raise awareness about the environment on college campuses as well.
Nelson announced his “Environmental Teach-in” in Seattle in September 1969 and the idea took flight in the press. By November, the date for the “National Teach-In on the Crisis of the Environment” had been chosen — April 22, 1970, a date between spring break and final exams for many colleges and universities.
Organizing the event snowballed. Fred Dutton, a heavyweight Democrat party leader developed a top-down approach for the organization. A memo at the time included his desire for branding the event:
Develop a special name for the teach-in, giving it a simple, unmistakable image… Even little matters like the letterhead for the mailings should have a flourish appealing to the young–a little far out, fresh, elemental, somewhat irreverent. Get name by November 5th.
Though the press would cover the teach-in using all sort of titles that April, it’s possible Dutton’s memo moved some Nelson supporters attending the National UNESCO Conference in San Francisco to steal John McConnell’s “Earth Day” title.
Meanwhile, Nelson sought to keep the event as grassroots as possible and set up Environmental Teach-In, Inc. as a non-profit in Washington, DC, to support citizen events. April 22, 1970 saw 20 million Americans, from school children to college students and more, participate in rallies, marches, and educational programs. The day renewed political campaigns to safeguard the environment in the US, resulting in the Clean Air Act of 1973, Federal Water Pollution Control Act Amendments of 1972, the Endangered Species Act of 1973, and the establishment of the Environmental Protection Agency.
Though Nelson’s grassroots-organized “teach-ins” led to many significant reforms in just the United States, McConnell created the Earth Day Proclamation for worldwide use and awareness in June 1970. Signed by 36 world leaders including the UN Secretary-General, this document spread the idea of the need to preserve and protect our planet’s environment for and through the efforts of everyone around the world.
While there has been some bitterness over who owns the origin of the “Earth Day” name, both men’s efforts launched campaigns of awareness that have benefited all life here on Earth, our one-and-only home.
Stay Tuned for Part Two in the Celebrate Earth Day series: Green Living & Sustainability!