Monthly Archives: April 2012

Who actually founded Earth Day?

With another Earth Day behind us, I felt inclined to explore a recently piqued curiosity: the differing claims as to who actually founded this appreciation day for Mama Earth.

This curiosity is partly based in (very) loose connections I have with two of the alleged founders. I received my Masters degree from an institute whose namesake is one of them: the late US Senator Gaylord Nelson. And I used to work for an organization whose keynote speaker for a conference I helped organize is the other: Denis Hayes. Like I said, very loose connections.

I have seen claims splattered about the Internet and on social media that both were the Earth Day founder. Such as here and here.

A quick Google search revealed two more alleged founders. Peace activist John McConnell is one, and the environmental movement is hoping we all can forget the other: girlfriend-murderer Ira Einhorn.

While perhaps there’s no real harm or controversy in this confusion over who wears the “founder” crown, it is kind of an interesting example of how history is muddled or tweaked (perhaps unknowingly) along the way. Word-choice among journalists and activists likely also plays a role in creating this confusion.

As an attempt to help set things straight, here are my suggested titles for these earth-loving gentlemen.

Gaylord Nelson, the Man who had the idea
Nelson hatched the idea to create a national teach-in to raise awareness about environmental problems, which evolved into Earth Day. His proposal swiftly attracted media attention and enthusiastic activists, which helped build momentum for the movement.

Denis Hayes, the Man who made it happen who shepherded the team that collectively made it happen, a.k.a. the first national coordinator*
Since Nelson wanted Earth Day to be a “bottom-up” effort, he hired Hayes to help make his idea a reality. At age 25, Hayes became the original national Earth Day coordinator (geez, I was having a quarter-life crisis at age 25). He later helped spread the Earth Day net to over 180 countries. But Hayes was not the only key orchestrater–see my friend Brian’s brilliant insights in the first comment below to get the more complete story. (Brian is an actual historian and played a crucial role in the creation of the “Gaylord Nelson and Earth Day” website I share below. I thank him for calling me out on my poor original choice for Hayes’ title.)

*This “a.k.a.” title is straight from the horse’s mouth. Check out this post’s comments for Hayes’ first-hand account of the birth of Earth Day.

John McConnell, the Man who founded the other Earth Day
Although McConnell launched his equinox Earth Day a month earlier than Nelson’s (in March 1970) and the city of San Francisco and the UN officially observed it, it seems his version didn’t quite catch on. In fact, it appears the UN later took sides with Nelson, as it now officially observes International Mother Earth Day on April 22. But McConnell did create the Earth Day flag (though I can’t tell who now flies it) and wrote the Earth Day Proclamation. Interestingly, McConnell is an evangelical Christian, and his ambitions were somewhat biblically motivated, which makes me wonder what role, if any, he has played in the religious environmental movement.

Ira Einhorn, the Man who went crazy
Technically, Einhorn was the master of ceremonies for the original Earth Day event in 1970. But after killing his girlfriend for breaking up with him; then hiding from the police in foreign countries for 23 years; until finally being caught, found guilty and thrown in jail for the remainder of his life, his self-proclamations as the true “founder” are likely just crazy-talk.

So, in reality, like many historical events, the creation of Earth Day was more of a team effort.

You can compare Earth Day histories at the following links:

Earth Day Network (Nelson and Hayes’ version)

The Official International Earth Day (McConnell’s version)

Gaylord Nelson and Earth Day (an awesome website created by the Wisconsin Historical Society)

McConnell’s Earth Day flag


Filed under Environment

Insurance in a changing climate

When you are entrenched in conversations about the environment in both your professional and personal life, it is easy to start thinking you’ve heard it all. Until you discover nooks, crannies and even wide-open spaces you’ve yet explored. I had one of those discoveries last week at a colloquium hosted by my employer, in which I learned about the fascinating world of climate change and insurance.

Yes, that’s right, I said insurance is “fascinating.”

The colloquium’s speaker was Peter Hoeppe, the head climate guy at the world’s largest reinsurance company, Munich RE, which is headquartered in Munich. (A reinsurance company is in the business of insuring insurance companies from failing). Based on his presentation, they seem to be leading the way in addressing climate change for the insurance industry (being a company of their size probably also helps them afford a whole department devoted to climate change).

In fact, Hoeppe claimed Munich RE was one of the first alarm-sounders to climate change with a scientific report they published in the 1970s, and they’ve made the issue one of their company’s primary focus topics. A broad sweep of their efforts includes their attempt to make their business operations 100% carbon neutral by 2015, investment in renewable energy, and initiating flagship renewable energy projects–one of them a giant and controversial effort to harness the Sahara desert’s solar and wind energy and transport it all over Europe, the Middle East and northern Africa.

This BBC News broadcast will give you a good, concise introduction to Munich RE’s climate change efforts.

Why would an insurance company care about climate change? It all comes down to the fundamental business of insurance: risk management. Climate change ups the ante on the amount of risk many people face (or will face) on a regular basis, and of course an insurance company would care about a riskier world.

In short, climate change predictions show an increase in the number of severe weather events (storms, tornadoes, droughts, flooding, etc.) in many places around the world. Actually, it seems to already be happening (see graph below).

You see, a warmer atmosphere means more water evaporation, and more water in the atmosphere means a feistier climate. A feistier climate means more natural catastrophe losses for an insurance company to cover, and the more catastrophic losses to cover, the less money an insurance company makes.

After all, their bottom line is still to make a profit–a point Hoeppe even made in his presentation. And a reinsurance company would be especially interested in ensuring insurance companies (terrible wordplay intended) maintain their profits.

To make the situation even trickier (for everyone), numerous other factors exacerbate the risk of loss to climate change-related disasters. Rapid human population growth means there are more people vulnerable to natural catastrophes; an increase in wealth across the world means higher risks of losses (i.e., there is more to lose); and people are increasingly inhabiting risk-prone areas (think Florida), as well as concentrating themselves in cities.

Sorry for all this doom-and-gloom talk, folks. I promise to turn it around. Stay with me.

So, who is going to pay for the losses from these potential floods, storms and droughts? It will depend on where you live and how well-prepared your insurance company is in dealing with climate change.

In some places, especially the risk-magnets, insurance companies are already throwing up their hands and pointing to the property owners. For example, State Farm has has stopped writing new policies for American homeowners in the increasingly disaster-prone states of Florida and Mississippi, according to one report.

Even those who are lucky to be covered may be seeing premium hikes; for some people, this is already a reality. An Environmental Defense report from 2007 (admittedly a little dated now) showed soaring premiums for hurricane-battered coastal states, with rates tripling and quadrupling in some areas. Such hikes could render insurance coverage less or not affordable for many people.

And the world’s most disaster-vulnerable places also happen to be the least developed and least insured.

The world's insured and uninsured. Graphic created by Munich RE.

At least in Europe, some insurers, scientists, and policy people are putting their heads together to figure out what to do about this daunting predicament through collaborations such as the Munich Climate Insurance Initiative (if the name didn’t give it away, this group was convened by Munich RE) and ClimateWise.

The situation in the US, however, is reflective of the general dragging of the feet on dealing with climate change. A survey of insurance companies, conducted by Ceres in 2011, revealed their sluggish response to climate change.

Andrew Logan, the director of Ceres’ insurance program, told the New York Times in February 2012, “The big takeaway from the survey last year is that there is a high level of concern among insurers about the impacts of climate change that is not matched by concrete plans to deal with those impacts. There is a real gap between the risk that’s been identified and plans to address it.”

This same NYT article explains that three states–California, New York and Washington State–are now requiring insurance companies to disclose their plans to respond to the risks of climate change, which seems but a meager baby step forward in light of their European counterparts’ strides.

But back to positive thinking…

Whether you call it “finding solutions” or just “mitigating the cost of the problem,” either way, it’s not a bad thing for global giants like Munich RE to be thinking hard about the riskier world promised by climate change and to be trying out some solutions. We can hope more companies will continue joining them at the drawing board and on the battlefield.

(Insert disclaimer: I claim no expertise in insurance. In fact–and somewhat embarrassingly–I had never given the idea of insurance a whole lot of thought before writing this post. So if you notice any major conceptual holes, I blame my lack of knowledge and/or desire for brevity.)

Further reading

Case study on Munich RE by the Canadian National Roundtable on the Environment and the Economy

Insurance payouts point to climate change,” ScienceNews, 4 January 2012

Why the insurance industry gets climate change,” The Guardian, 28 June 2011

Can the insurance industry survive climate change?CSRWire, 8 June 2011

Insurance in a climate of change,” Science Magazine, 12 August 2005


Filed under Environment

Spargelzeit is nigh!

Spargel! Image by 4028mdk09

In Germany, April showers bring Spargel.

Known to us English-speakers as asparagus, Spargel—specifically the white variety—is a celebrated national symbol in Germany and a sure sign that spring has arrived. Affectionately called “the vegetable of kings” by some Germans (mostly because, back in the day, only royalty could afford to eat it), as soon as the white stalks start popping up in markets, you can sense the country tremble with excitement.

The official debut of German-grown Spargel is still a couple weeks away, but that has not stopped market vendors and grocery stores from whetting everyone’s appetite with early-bird white asparagus from Greece. Even though Germans don’t consider Grecian Spargel the crème of the crop, I bought my first bunch this weekend out of curiosity and impatience—I, too, share Germany’s enthusiasm for asparagus.

In my endeavor to eat somewhat seasonally, asparagus is perhaps the only vegetable I refuse to cheat with out-of-season. To me, asparagus heralds the impending bounty of the growing season, and I want to preserve that magic. So when asparagus season (Spargelzeit auf Deutsch) rolls around, I become gastronomically giddy.

Spargel still art. By Maria Vos (1878), not a German artist.

As I channeled my excitement to write this blog post, I soon discovered I was not the first with the desire to tell the Spargelzeit story. There are piles of other articles that have already done it justice.

So, why reinvent the wheel? At the end of this post, you’ll find a sampling of some of the articles I found. Within the first couple sentences of these pieces, you’ll get a sense for the fanfare around Spargel in Germany.

(And to the Germans reading this, I recognize I am generalizing your culture’s obsession with Spargel. If you actually don’t like it all that much, I apologize for assuming otherwise.)

If you don’t have the time or curiosity to browse those links, here are the “Spargelbasics.”


While the dawn of Spargel cultivation was around 2000 BC in the then-major civilizations (Rome, Greece, and Egypt), it reportedly first sprouted in Germany in the 16th century.

During the Renaissance, Spargel was extolled for its presumed medicinal and aphrodisiac qualities, though the truth of these claims has since been falsified. Still, no one can confidently explain the origins of Germany’s obsession.

Nowadays, the city of Schwetzigen considers itself the world’s Spargel capital, and is the center of the “Asparagus Triangle,” a trio of western German towns hailed for their Spargel-growing prowess. The city even commemorates the veggie with a statue (see below).

Schwetzingen's Spargel statue. Image by Hermann Luyken


Official Spargelzeit is mid-April through late-June, when growing conditions in Germany are optimal (although I wonder what this year’s funky weather will do to the harvest).

White and green asparagus are actually one in the same plant: Asparagus officinalis. The difference lies in how they are grown. White asparagus is grown under mounds of soil to prevent the sun from turning the stalks green. Apparently harvesting them is also more labor intensive than their green brethren.

But Spargel’s health benefits may outweigh the labor costs. It is a low-calorie snack packed with vitamins and minerals, and is apparently good for cleansing the system, if you know what I mean.

Spargel field. Image by Harald Bischoff


To eat white asparagus, you have to peel it before cooking (unlike the green variety). Boiling seems to be the preferred, if not the only way of cooking it. In fact, Germans even have special pots specifically designed for boiling Spargel.

Spargel is traditionally served drowning in Hollandaise sauce and accompanied by Schinken (ham), Kartoffeln (potatoes), and a glass of white wine.

During Spargelzeit, Germans supposedly dine on the “edible ivory” at least once a day. Collectively, they consume an average of 70,000 tons of Spargel per year.

Spargel mit Hollandaise und Kartoffeln--lecker! Image by Elya

Did I mention Germans really love Spargel…

Further Spargelreading

Buried treasure: white asparagus” in The CS Monitor

White asparagus time in Germany” on the German Mission to South Africa’s website

Land where asparagus is king of spring” on

Spargelzeit: Asparagus Season in Germany!” on

Deutschlicious: German white asparagus season” in Honest Cooking (includes a recipe for a traditional Spargel dish)

The White Asparagus is Here” on German World Online (includes wine-pairing recommendations)

Asparagus: Green versus White, Not Just a Different Color” on (a more agronomical perspective)

Edible Ivory: Germans Are Obsessed with Asparagus” on Speigel Online (a snarky take on the obsession)


Filed under Germany