April 22 is Earth Day. Or is it? People disagree.
One version of the Earth Day story begins with a peace activist named John McConnell. After the assassination of John F. Kennedy, McConnell came up with the idea of pausing for a “Minute for Peace.” This idea evolved. In 1969, McConnell proposed the idea of celebrating an entire day dedicated to what he called “Earth-keeping.”
McConnell was inspired by a picture of the Earth taken from space that appeared on the cover of Life in 1969. McConnell designed an “Earth flag” using that image. He set the date for Earth Day as March 21, 1970, the vernal equinox.
Meanwhile, Gaylord Nelson, a U.S. senator from Wisconsin, had a similar idea. In 1969, Nelson proposed the idea of a national environmental teach-in to be held on April 22, 1970. Nelson called this “Earth Day” without giving McConnell credit. McConnell was encouraged to sue. But a lawsuit was against his idealistic principles.
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Nelson is now widely viewed as the father of Earth Day. He explained his vision of Earth Day in 1970 as creating “an environment of decency, quality and mutual respect for all other human beings and all other living creatures.”
For many years, the United Nations commemorated Earth Day on the equinox, as McConnell had imagined. But the April 22 date has caught on. This year, for example, the latest international climate change agreement – the Paris Agreement – was open for signatures Friday.
The date of Earth Day is unimportant – after all, Nelson and McConnell were both on the same side and agreed about much. But the fact that we squabble about a date reminds us that there is always more than one point of view – even among like-minded people. McConnell was an idealist. His original Earth Day proclamation called for love as well as peace and justice. Nelson was more pragmatic and political. He was more strategic and incremental in his approach.
If this sort of conflict arises among folks who basically agree, we might despair of creating truly planetary cooperation. But we might also suggest that friendly disputes and mutual competition are actually beneficial. They provide us with motivation and inspiration. At any rate, a good idea remains a good idea, no matter who thought it up. And Earth Day is important regardless of the date.
To my mind, the vernal equinox is nicely symbolic as a moment of planetary equipoise. The April 22 date has no symbolic resonance. It was originally chosen because of practical scheduling concerns. Some critics complain that April 22 is unfortunate because it is also Vladimir Lenin’s birthday.
But on the other hand, this is the day after John Muir’s birthday, which is April 21. Long before the Earth was photographed from space, Muir had imagined viewing the Earth from a cosmic vantage point. He wrote, “when we contemplate the whole globe as one great dewdrop, striped and dotted with continents and islands, flying through space with other stars singing and shining together as one, the whole universe appears as an infinite storm of beauty.”
Muir’s image is worth consideration. He sees beauty in the cosmic storm. The Earth is indeed a tempestuous planet. It is a closed ecosystem containing antagonistic elements. There is conflict throughout the whole. The shining dewdrop of earth also contains nature red in tooth and claw. Competition is woven into the web of life.
Our petty squabbles and political machinations are mere dust in the cosmic wind. The storms of Earth will eventually overtake every species. The challenge is to live well within the maelstrom.
McConnell’s Earth Day proclamation wanted to create “a global feeling of community” and awareness of “our mutual dependence on each other.” This may seem like a nostalgic hippie dream. But more recent globalization means that viruses, pollution and new ideas are of planetary concern. We are increasingly aware of our terrestrial interdependence.
This should lead us to be more sensitive to the fragile balance of the whole. We have no choice but to care for the Earth and each other. The storm clouds are gathering. And there is nowhere else for us to go.