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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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