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

7 responses to “Who actually founded Earth Day?

  1. Hi, friend — I, too, have fallen down this rabbit hole before and can’t resist making a few comments. First, I think Nelson would really like the epithet you gave him. In fact, just yesterday at an event at the University of Wisconsin’s Science Hall, his daughter described his involvement in similar terms and repeatedly said that he never had any idea what that little idea would become.

    On the other hand, it is quite misleading to say Denis Hayes “made it happen.”

    First, Nelson himself worked himself ragged from December 1969 through April 1970 getting the word out, setting up the office Hayes worked in, and making appearances at lots of Earth Day events (http://www.nelsonearthday.net/collection/grassroots-organizing/nelson_26-18_preED_nelson_schedule_plane_ticket.pdf)

    Second, Hayes did not work alone at the DC headquarters of Environmental Teach-In, Inc. He was part of a team of talented activists who served as regional coordinators (http://www.nelsonearthday.net/earth-day/not-incharge.htm).

    Third, even this team cannot be said to have made Earth Day happen. But their own admission, while these activists did work to put together several large rallies (including the one in Philadelphia, which Einhorn spoke at, but which cannot be called “the original Earth Day event”), their most valuable and time-consuming function was as PR for all the many and varied actions being planned in towns and cities across the country. (http://www.nelsonearthday.net/collection/grassroots-enviraction.htm)

    Earth Day was, and remains, Nelson’s idea catalyzing grassroots action. Nelson would later reflect that “the real story is that we didn’t have to organize Earth Day. It organized itself.” While there’s a lot of Midwestern modesty in those words, there’s also a lot of truth. Before the DC office was established, Nelson was receiving letters from students who were well into their planning (https://docs.google.com/open?id=0BzBfGPholujeYWF4bXV1TG1pSmM). And, speaking of the muddling and tweaking of history, Earth Day wasn’t even Earth Day to all in 1970. Nelson never called it during the planning, and other organizers were as likely to call it E-Day or the Environmental Teach-In or, as often as not, speak in terms of their own local action, not in terms of a holiday. Not everyone chose to plan their event for April 22; the University of Michigan organizers chose March to avoid their final exams week. And in many, many places, it wasn’t even a single day. At the University of Wisconsin, it was “Earth Week” (http://www.nelsonearthday.net/collection/422-earthdayinmadison.htm).

    History’s not very good at accommodating the messy and diffuse nature of grassroots action. A great example is how often one sees it said that 20 million Americans took part in the first Earth Day. That astounding number (one in ten Americans alive in 1970) is almost certainly too high. (Lots of people had to work; lots of people were infirmed; lots of people were babies.) But if you think about it, we could never have known and never will know how many people took part. The NYPD officers on Fifth Avenue could make an crowd estimate, but Earth Day was more usually a group of citizens in a library or along a riverbank than it was throngs of protestors in the downtowns of a handful of big American cities. So we use a fantastically large number because it packs a quantitative punch where our qualitative language fails us.

    Thanks for the link and for probing a topic that gets to the heart of the unruliness of history and memory.

    • Hi Brian!
      Thanks so much for clarifying and offering your much-better-informed insights! It seems I did not do my research diligently enough…I guess I committed the same “oopsies” that others have in trying to explain the origins of Earth Day. Oh, the irony. What do you think Denis Hayes’ title should be, then? I hope you are doing well!

  2. Hi —

    There has been a good deal of bickering about this historical footnotes. I have tried to be generally a non-combatant. But as one who was actually there, I can perhaps clarify a few points that even Brian, in his generally excellent letter, got wrong, while agreeing with him on many of his central contentions.

    1. I have never claimed to be the founder of the event that took place on April 22, 1970. Gaylord Nelson was giving speeches calling for an environmental teach-in long before I read a press account of one of them and went to talk with him. He thought the target should be college campuses because college teach-ins had worked well on civil rights and especially on Vietnam. He told me his rationale for choosing April 22 was because (A) it was a Wednesday and students were most likely to be on campus mid-week; (B) it was late enough that snow would be off the ground on most of the northern campuses; and (C) it was early enough that students wouldn’t be buried studying for finals. Various people claim to have influenced him, but Gaylord is clearly the guy who took the ball and ran with it.
    2. Gaylord asked me to leave Harvard to come down to DC to hire and direct a staff or organize that teach-in. I hired an amazingly talented team. But, while we had great success with K-12 schools and a handful of universities (mostly schools of forestry and natural resources) we just couldn’t crack the activist base for a “teach-in” in 1969-70. We changed “Environmental Teach-In, Inc” into a dba as “Environmental Action, but that in the letterhead and in all our publications, and set out to rebrand the event — while keeping Nelson’s values and vision.
    3. In those days, activist stuff (like the Vietnam Moratorium) was commonly broadcast through full-page ads in the News of the Week in Review section of the Sunday NY Times. A creative Ad genius named Julian Koenig offered to create ad ad for us for free. (Koenig, who had won every award in the business, created the classic VW “think small” ad and the “Lemon” ad –where a VW is rejected for a blemish on the chrome strip on the glove compartment.) Koenig gave us several tear sheets — all announcing the new name in bold letters as a half page headline for the ad. They included Earth Day, E-Day, Ecology Day, Green Day . . . He told me he liked Earth Day the best, and I agreed with him. But I wanted a “focus group” of the people we were trying to speak to. I invited the whole staff — average age 22 — together for beer and pizza that night. We all agreed that “Earth Day” had the most resonance. We ran the ad; got much more money back in donations than the ad cost; and hundreds of local publications and a few national ones than ran the ad for free. Koenig’s rebranding “went viral” in that pre-digital era.
    I expect, as Brian contends, some local events still used other names, including Environmental Teach-In, but all the excitement and all the important media coverage was of Earth Day.
    4. Our DC team — which even including all the interns and wonderful full-time volunteers never exceeded 100 people — certainly didn’t “organize” all the events. There were events in every major city and virtually every town, village, and crossroad in America. We did play an active role in helping every major city except, ironically, Philadelphia. This was not because we knew that Ira Einhorn (who at that time was successfully straddling the line between conservative business executives and hippies) would later turn into a homicidal maniac. Rather, Philadelphia’s organizers took a uniformly pro-Nixon, pro-businesss stance, and accepted contributions from many of the companies we were protesting. Philadelphia was glitzy and slick and utterly unlike any other event anywhere. In other cities, like Chicago, when we encountered a similar situation developing, we were able to spark a change of direction including changes in the group’s leadership. But Philadelphia’s organizers were fiercely Republican, saw us as anti-war zealots, and pretty much wanted nothing to do with us.
    5. Elsewhere, we did compile an activist base of 55,000 local organizers; sent them useful materials; coordinated press coverage of the most powerful events. Nothing that size ever “organizes itself,” but Earth Day did provide a vehicle in which a number of terrific organizers first got their feet wet. Our secret weapon was college-educated stay-at-home moms who had never been engaged in anything before but really connected with this issue, our framing of it, and our little issue briefs and pocket guides to organizing a local event. With just a little tutoring in basic skills and a some praise along the way, they set out to change the world. (Now in their sixties and seventies, they remain the most consistently reliable constituency in our graying movement.)
    6. After we changed the name and got a somewhat feistier, anti-establishment image (I turned down a gift from Exxon and, later, declined an invitation to meet with President Nixon — both of which got substantial press attention) we began penetrating a broader array of college campuses. The principal organizer of the Michigan teach-in was Doug Scott, who serve on our national board. Doug didn’t randomly chose another date. He set out early precisely as a trial run, to see what worked most effectively there, for us to communicate to others elsewhere. I was there (with a TV crew from Japan’s NHK) to speak and to learn what I could to relay to my staff.
    7. Brian is absolutely correct that no one could do a nose count of Earth Day participants. But the 20 million number was not plucked from the air. It was calculated by the Associated Press from a series of facts and assumptions we discussed with them, plus a compilation of their stringers at events across the country. I can’t remember the components, but I know that the number of K-12 students alone (calculated from the number of schools that we were in contact with, plus reasonable assumptions about others) was more than ten million by itself. (20,000 schools time 500 students/school gets you to ten million. There are 90,000 k-12 schools in America. The official crowd estimates in Manhattan were one million. (I know when I climbed up on that very high platform, there were people stretching in every direction farther than my eye could see — literally a sea of people.) As Brian says, many people worked; I would guess that 4/5 of the crowd in NY worked. But they took long lunch hours; took a break in the afternoon; whatever. If it peaked at one million, I’ll bet at least 50 percent more rotated through it during the course of the day. I actually think that 20 million is a low-ball estimate, but we are all just making informed guesses. And with the passage of time, it has doubtless acquired the “Woodstock effect:” everyone alive in American in 1970 believes that he or she was at an Earth Day event somewhere.
    8. In 1990, Earth Day was larger domestically than in 1970 — though its impact was not as great. (We had coordinators in 50,000 school; New York City’s official crowd estimate was two million; etc.) Perhaps more important, we took it international — getting something in 144 nations. Now most years, it is observed to some degree in more than 170 nations. And in places, it is have effects not unlike in the US in 1970. This year we had 800 “registered” events in India — and we think at least twice as many that did not formally register on the web. Globally, we signed up a full one billion pledges to perform various acts of green. My own favorite North American event was in Canada, not the US. Here, on the vimeo link, is a cool 30-second time-lapse of 300,000 people (at the largest rally in Quebec history, ever!) forming a tree. The big point of the demonstration was a protest that Canada is the only nation ever to ratify and then withdraw from the Kyoto Protocol.




    9. Finally, John McConnell. The first time I heard of John McConnell was when he sued us in 1970 for misappropriating Earth Day. The chance that Julian Koenig stole something from Reverend McConnell is zero. The judge threw his suit out of court on a demurrer at the first hearing. John has since spent 42 years proclaiming that theft — and contending that if only we would abandon 4/22, join with him to ring peace bells around the world at the exact moment of the spring equinox, we would usher in an era of global peace and environmental harmony. I found this unlikely, but always wished him well. This year, although we can’t do a nose count, I believe that upwards of a billion people around the world did something in observance of Earth Day on April 22. My sense is that those who observed it on the spring equinox could fit comfortably into a phone booth, if they could find one. In a wonderfully ironic commentary, a few years ago some LA foundation — misled by his web site — once gave John an award as the “father of Earth Day.” It gave him the award at a ceremony on April 22.

    • Dear Denis,
      Thank you so much for offering your valuable first-hand insight! I can only imagine how frustrating it might be to witness inaccuracies and misinterpretations thrown about. I hope my post, as brief as it is, did not add to the inaccurate accounts in any way (which was certainly the opposite of my intent!). The devil is truly in the details! In any case, the passion and hard work of you and your original Earth Day teammates created an amazing legacy that I hope continues to make a positive impact. Thank you for your admirable work! I am curious, though, what would be your self-proclaimed “title” in the creation of Earth Day?

      • I’m not sure what my title was when Senator Nelson hired me. Probably Executive Director or Staff Director or some such. In those very egalitarian times, however, that seemed too hierarchical. We called all the principal staff members “coordinators” of their respective regions, target audiences, volunteers, whatever — and I was the “national coordinator.” That is how every story I was mentioned in referred to me.

        Actually, I’m probably more personally proud of resuscitating a limping brand in 1990 — again with a fabulous staff. That time, the indefatigable Chris Desser was the executive director and I was the full-time board chair. I put much of my effort, especially in 1989, into spearheading the effort to turn Earth Day into an international event.

        I just glanced at my earlier note and found it full of typos. Sorry. I’m racing tonight as I have to give a lecture at the University of WA at the crack of dawn tomorrow and need get to bed. Happy to edit the earlier piece sometime if this technology allows for that.

      • Thanks for offering your take on your title! I have tweaked my post to include your input. And thanks for taking the time to read my post and engage in this discussion. I hope your lecture went well!

  3. I’d like to join Jenny in thanking Mr. Hayes for taking the time to share these fascinating stories and correct my errors. There’s much more to be said about, and much more credit to be given to, the efforts of Hayes and his DC team in 1970 and the years since. Earth Day 1990 looms large in my childhood memories, and we have yet to thoroughly appreciate its effects.

    Historian Adam Rome has called the first Earth Day “the most famous little-known event in modern U.S. history” (http://envhis.oxfordjournals.org/content/15/2/194.full). I hope, though the years are piling on and storytelling duties pass from organizers and participants to historians, we nevertheless can come to know it better.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s