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The Boston Globe, April 21, 2009

The tale of two Earth Days
By Alex Beam

Ah, Earth Day. I'm old enough to remember when it was just a few granolaheads moping around the college quad, cursing the big corporations and the Eco-Crim of all Eco-Crims, President Richard M. Nixon. Of course it was Nixon who founded the Environmental Protection Agency, but that's the kind of detail that Vladimir Lenin - who shares a birthday with Earth Day - would airily dismiss as a "contradiction of capitalism."

How things change. Now the corporations own Earth Day. Wal-Mart is observing Earth Month selling "earth-friendly" products like Cheerios, STP gas treatment, and Hamburger Helper. General Motors, or what's left of it, has created Earth Day lesson plans for kiddies. Con Ed will be handing out compact fluorescent light bulbs in Harlem. What a larf.

Did you know that the first Earth Day was celebrated in the middle of March, on the spring equinox? Therein lies a tale. In 1970 an activist named John McConnell asked the mayor of San Francisco to create a special day devoted to environmental causes. "We had Christmas and Easter," McConnell, now 94 years old, told me. "Why don't we have a day just for earth? We'll call it Earth Day, dedicated to peace, justice, and the care of the earth."

McConnell says the decision to schedule Earth Day around March 20 came in a flash of inspiration. "I yelled to my wife, 'We'll have it on the equinox!' and immediately our house started shaking," he recalled. "I always felt that God and the planets thought I made the right choice."

According to McConnell, staffers for the late US Senator Gaylord Nelson - who, along with activist Denis Hayes, is credited with creating the better-known Earth Day - suggested he move the date to late April, but he declined. "Nelson had a wonderful program that he called 'environmental teach-in,' " McConnell says. "I couldn't change my date, nature's event is too important."

The rest is history. Hayes was a student at Stanford during McConnell's San Francisco Earth Day. "Nobody seems to have known about it," he says. The subsequent April 22, 1970, rally in Washington, D.C., attracted 20 million people.

"These events had different orders of magnitude," comments Hayes, now president of the Seattle-based Bullitt Foundation. "Their events had dozens, maybe a few hundred people. We had 20 million. We created a context in which a new vocabulary was established, uniting strands of activism into a fabric that became the modern environmental movement."

The Earth Society Foundation still observes what it calls Earth Day on the Equinox. In New York last month, about 200 people attended its rally at the United Nations Peace Bell. My friend Helen Garland of Gloucester is the ESF chairperson and no fan of the April 22 observance. "It is a 100 percent stalking horse for big corporations," she says." She charges, without offering any proof, that the late Big Oil man Robert Anderson subsidized the Nelson-Hayes Earth Day to divert attention from McConnell's more radical, global environmental agenda. "They gave Denis [Hayes] $5 million to quickly create the other Earth Day."

"This is brand new," says Hayes, who has been tilting with the equinox folks off and on for decades. "Anderson had nothing to do with Earth Day, and he certainly didn't give us any money. One of our early themes was to stop the Alaska pipeline" which Anderson's company, Atlantic Richfield, was codeveloping.

Hayes understands that Earth Day has become the Fortune 500's favorite propaganda event, and yes, he appreciates the irony of it all. "The official sponsor of one Earth Day event in Texas was Enron," he told me, chuckling. "That was not part of the plan. If Exxon declares that each day is Earth Day then it will just result in belly laughs."

Can't we all get along? Perhaps not. I asked how Hayes and McConnell plan to spend their time tomorrow, which is also the birthday of J. Sterling Morton, the founder of the vestigial eco-observance, Arbor Day. Hayes will be flying to a New York event with Mayor Michael Bloomberg and then on to Toronto. "Pardon my carbon footprint," he says.

McConnell's minister has invited him to address a local Boy Scout troop in Denver on the importance of Earth Day. "Talk about irony," McConnell says. "I'll try not to be negative."

© Copyright 2009 Globe Newspaper Company.

Photo © Paul S. Hamilton