Tag Archives: environmental history

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

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Same place, different times

Imagining present-day places in past-tense times can be fascinating. One way to do so is by “reading the landscape,” as my former environmental history professor, Bill Cronon, puts it. And “landscape” refers not only to picturesque countrysides and wildlands, but also to urban spaces and other human settlements.

Reading the landscape entails asking questions like what does today’s landscape tell us about past land uses; what social forces were behind those past land uses; and why was this street named after a king who rarely set foot there and not the blacksmith whose shop was on the corner.

Perhaps because my senses are generally more open in a new place, I’ve become an avid reader of landscapes here in Munich (granted, doing proper landscape readings requires in-depth historical research, so my readings have been more like skims). One “landscape” I have recently become smitten with is Odeonsplatz, a public square in the city’s Altstadt, or the old city center.

Historically, Odeonsplatz has been a place for pomp and circumstance. It is situated at the end of the traditional parade route that stretches the length of Ludwigstrasse (named for King Ludwig I of Bavaria, who also commissioned the construction of the square), down which ceremonies of all sorts still march today. When parades arrive at the square, they are greeted by three grandiose structures: on the left is the former royal residence; on the right is the ornate Theatinerkirche (a catholic church), and straight ahead is Feldherrnhalle (loosely meaning “commanders’ hall”).

Parade's-eye-view of Odeonsplatz. Image by Florian Adler

Historical accounts highlight Odeonsplatz’ tainted past. It was here that Hitler staged his first, but failed coup in 1923. When Hitler had finally succeeded in taking over Germany, the square became a favored Nazi ceremonial and procession grounds.

But this tainted past is juxtaposed with its more cheerful present. Odeonsplatz now hosts happier, more inclusive festivities, such as the annual St. Patty’s Day street party, which I recently attended. (Factoid: Munich has one of the largest populations of Irish people outside of Ireland). A mix of Germans, Irish, and at least two Americans (me and a friend) celebrated with an assortment of traditions from both Germany and Ireland: Guinness, Bratwurst, Irish song and dance, and, of course, a parade down Ludwigstrasse.

Another juxtaposition of Odeonsplatz is its stateliness and its more pedestrian side. It was commissioned by royalty, designed by a prominent neoclassicist architect, but built by commoners (although none of their names made it into the history books). Its namesake was Odeon, a nearby building that was formerly a concert hall for “commoners” and now houses the Bavarian Ministry of the Interior, a conversion that took place when the building was rebuilt after WWII. (This link has before and after pictures of the building; beware, the text is in German).

But even though the original music hall is gone, Odeonsplatz is still a musical venue for the common folk. The square is regularly host to musical acts ranging from street performers, such as the pianist I saw the other day (don’t ask me how he got a grand piano there), to Munich’s annual open-air classical music festival.

Odeonsplatz’ pedestrian significance can also be read in its present-day orientation: it is one entrance to the Altstadt’s pedestrian zone. On a typical stroll through the square, you’ll encounter a myriad of folk: from tourists to bike commuters, and from people drinking coffee at the square’s historic cafe to protestors demonstrating against [insert social/political cause]. A new, favored ritual of mine has been walking home from work, just so I can pass through the square to see what is happening there that day.

And, if I could go back in time, back to Odeonplatz’ early years, I wonder what a normal day on the square would have been like…

Odeonsplatz facing Ludwigstrasse circa 1900.

p.s. Check out this 360 degree panorama of Odeonsplatz (although it is usually not as empty as this picture shows it to be).

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