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Earth Day and Flag
A summary of John McConnell’s biography by his biographer, Robert M. Weir
John McConnell – visionary and creator of the Earth Flag
John McConnell is a visionary, a man who, starting in the 1930’s, was able to look far into the future. With vitality and verve and a speaking style that punctuated key words, he offered the world advice and guidance for a better quality of life for all species. John McConnell is a man of symbols. He gave to the world two great and lasting symbols: the original Earth Day on the vernal equinox and the Earth Flag. Yet, he is little known by most people. John McConnell is a man who sees connections. He was among the first to draw a relationship between peace through understanding, social justice as a sharing of resources, and environmental preservation. He summarized his life-long mission with the simple phrase: “Peace, Justice, Care of Earth.”
Loyalty to our planet can best be achieved through voluntary efforts to understand its life systems and processes, and then with love for our planet to help nurture and sustain the amazing web of life that covers our globe. – John McConnell, “77 Theses on the Care of Earth, 1985.
John McConnell’s vision and mission
“Peace is not the absence of war,” John first declared in the 1960s, making him among the first to pronounce what has now become a catchphrase among peace speakers today. Continuing, he said, “The absence of war is more properly defined as a truce, an armistice or a cease fire. It is often a time of anxiety and lack of peace as people await an impending war. True peace comes from gaining an honest understanding of another person’s point of view.” In other words, John McConnell is an advocate of peace through dialogue, discussion, diplomacy and détente. In similar fashion, John proclaimed, “Justice is not an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth. That is legalized revenge that comes from the Code of Hammurabi, written 1,800 years before the birth of Christ. True justice,” he said, “is an equal sharing of all resources by all people for all species.” And of Earth care, John McConnell simply stated, “Without peace and justice, the environmental movement is a one-legged stool.”
We must make the important decision between thinking about peace and thinking deeply and seriously about ways of turning the world toward peace. – John McConnell, interview with United Press International, October 1966.
John McConnell – orator and essayist
John McConnell is a great orator, generally speaking extemporaneously from the message that beat in his heart. He proclaimed his messages to the public, to students and educators, to civic leaders, to senators and representatives in the U.S. Congress, to world leaders and Nobel Peace Laureates, and to diplomats and secretary-generals of the United Nations. John McConnell penned numerous essays that contained his deep ecological and spiritual convictions. Whether spoken or written, his words instilled fervor, introspection and action among those who heard or read them.
Our planet … is a mysterious orb of mind and spirit, a world of hope and love – but, unfortunately, a world of clashing thoughts and feelings. … If our world is to survive and find its destiny, new ways of achieving harmony must be found. – John McConnell, “Minute for Peace” speech to National Education Association, 29 June 1965
The planet belongs to us – all of us. We have spiritual and material rights and responsibilities during our journey here. – Definition of World Equality, Inc., an organization created by John McConnell in 1969
This is for young and old who care about the Earth, its air, water, land and living things. We must change the attitudes and actions now destroying the Earth into those that will heal and build our planet. – John McConnell, speech, 1974
Flatland vision is caused by closing one eye – the eye of the heart. If we will open it and look at the whole world – with full vision – we will see new depths of love and new promises of peace. – John McConnell, “Flatland” essay, 1975
Who ‘owns’ the sea? You do! And your property is being vandalized, stolen, and destroyed. What are you doing about it? – John McConnell, “Who Owns the Sea?” speech, 1975
John McConnell was active throughout his life, but his greatest accomplishments occurred in association with the United Nations. His influence there began in the late 1960s with Secretary-General U Thant with whom he often shared conversation. His influence continued into the 1970’s with the next Secretary-General Kurt Waldheim. Secretaries-General Thant and Waldheim rang the Peace Bell at the United Nations for the Earth Day celebrations at the UN in 1971 and 1972, marking the first and second anniversaries of the original Earth Day on 21 March 1970. In 1971, Waldheim’s ringing of the Peace Bell coincided with a special, 12-hour, commercial-free environmental broadcast, for which John was responsible, on television flagship station WOR-TV in New York and dozens of other affiliated stations around the nation. Thanks to the work of the Earth Society Foundation, a non-governmental organization that John founded with the help of anthropologist Margaret Mead in 1976, those Earth Day celebrations on the vernal equinox have continued every year since. John’s friends and associates described him as “audacious, yet respectful” in his approach to the UN’s great leaders. Under-Secretary-General Robert Miller wrote, “John McConnell was well known at the United Nations as someone courageous with ideas, a diplomat for Earth. And he never gave up.” While not wealthy and working as a self-employed advocate of Earth, John McConnell still found the means, often through donations from those who believed in his enthusiasm and message, to attend some of the UN’s greatest international conferences in Stockholm, Geneva, Vienna and Rio de Janeiro.
FOUNDING OF EARTH DAY
Founded in 1970 as a day of education about environmental issues, Earth Day is now a globally celebrated holiday that is sometimes extended into Earth Week, a full seven days of events focused on green awareness. The brainchild of Senator Gaylord Nelson and inspired by the antiwar protests of the late 1960s, Earth Day was originally aimed at creating a mass environmental movement. It began as a “national teach-in on the environment” and was held on April 22 to maximize the number of students that could be reached on university campuses. By raising public awareness of air and water pollution, Nelson hoped to bring environmental causes into the national spotlight.
Earth Day History
By the early 1960s Americans were becoming aware of the effects of pollution on the environment. Rachel Carson’s 1962 bestseller “Silent Spring” raised the specter of the dangerous effects of pesticides on America’s country sides. Later in the decade, a 1969 fire on Cleveland’s Cuyahoga River shed light on the problem of chemical waste disposal. Until that time, protecting the planet’s natural resources was not part of the national political agenda, and the number of activists devoted to large-scale issues such as industrial pollution was minimal. Factories pumped pollutants into the air, lakes and rivers with few legal consequences. Big, gas-guzzling cars were considered a sign of prosperity. Only a small portion of the American population was familiar with–let alone practiced–recycling.
Elected to the U.S. Senate in 1962, Senator Gaylord Nelson, a Democrat from Wisconsin, was determined to convince the federal government that the planet was at risk. In 1969, Nelson, considered one of the leaders of the modern environmental movement, developed the idea for Earth Day after being inspired by the anti-Vietnam War “teach-ins” that were taking place on college campuses around the United States. According to Nelson, he envisioned a large-scale, grassroots environmental demonstration “to shake up the political establishment and force this issue onto the national agenda.”
Nelson announced the Earth Day concept at a conference in Seattle in the fall of 1969 and invited the entire nation to get involved. He later recalled, “The wire services carried the story from coast to coast. The response was electric. It took off like gangbusters. Telegrams, letters and telephone inquiries poured in from all across the country. The American people finally had a forum to express its concern about what was happening to the land, rivers, lakes and air—and they did so with spectacular exuberance.” Dennis Hayes, a young activist who had served as student president at Stanford University, was selected as Earth Day’s national coordinator, and he worked with an army of student volunteers and several staff members from Nelson’s Senate office to organize the project. According to Nelson, “Earth Day worked because of the spontaneous response at the grassroots level. We had neither the time nor resources to organize 20 million demonstrators and the thousands of schools and local communities that participated. That was the remarkable thing about Earth Day. It organized itself.”
On April 22, rallies were held in Philadelphia, Chicago, Los Angeles and most other American cities, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. In New York City, Mayor John Lindsay closed off a portion of Fifth Avenue to traffic for several hours and spoke at a rally in Union Square with actors Paul Newman and Ali McGraw. In Washington, D.C., thousands of people listened to speeches and performances by singer Pete Seeger and others, and Congress went into recess so its members could speak to their constituents at Earth Day events.
The first Earth Day was effective at raising awareness about environmental issues and transforming public attitudes. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, “Public opinion polls indicate that a permanent change in national priorities followed Earth Day 1970. When polled in May 1971, 25 percent of the U.S. public declared protecting the environment to be an important goal, a 2,500 percent increase over 1969.” Earth Day kicked off the “Environmental decade with a bang,” as Senator Nelson later put it. During the 1970s, a number of important pieces of environmental legislation were passed, among them the Clean Air Act, the Water Quality Improvement Act, the Endangered Species Act, the Toxic Substances Control Act and the Surface Mining Control and Reclamation Act. Another key development was the establishment in December 1970 of the Environmental Protection Agency, which was tasked with protecting human health and safeguarding the natural environment—air, water and land.
Since 1970, Earth Day celebrations have grown. In 1990, Earth Day went global, with 200 million people in over 140 nations participating, according to the Earth Day Network (EDN), a nonprofit organization that coordinates Earth Day activities. In 2000, Earth Day focused on clean energy and involved hundreds of millions of people in 184 countries and 5,000 environmental groups, according to EDN. Activities ranged from a traveling, talking drum chain in Gabon, Africa, to a gathering of hundreds of thousands of people at the National Mall in Washington, D.C. Today, the Earth Day Network collaborates with more than 17,000 partners and organizations in 174 countries. According to EDN, more than 1 billion people are involved in Earth Day activities, making it “the largest secular civic event in the world.”