In a move that initiated the first global Earth Day celebrations, UN Secretary-General U Thant signed a proclamation on February 26, 1971, that said, “May there be only peaceful and cheerful Earth Days to come for our beautiful Spaceship Earth as it continues to spin and circle in frigid space with its warm and fragile cargo of animate life”.
The earliest Earth Day celebration was an initiative launched by John McConnell in October 1969 at the UNESCO Conference on Environment. McConnell chose the vernal equinox to represent the natural harmony of the Earth. The day marks the start of spring in the Northern Hemisphere and autumn in the Southern Hemisphere. Day and night are equal all over the world; it is the day when the South Pole prepares for a six month long night and the North Pole for a six month long day. The Mayor of San Francisco, Joseph Alioto, pioneered the observance of the first Earth Day in the city on March 21, 1970. McConnell, then wanted to launch a global Earth Day celebration each year which would allow people to transcend all national boundaries and unite in their pledge to protect the earth and its natural resources. The Earth Day initiative was accorded a global outreach when UN Secretary-General U Thant supported McConnell’s idea and turned it into an annual event by a proclamation on February 26, 1971.
The following year, United Nations Secretary-General Kurt Waldheim, similarly led the observance of Earth Day on the March equinox. Each year, the United Nations Earth Day ceremony has continued to garner international support. The Japanese Shinagawa Peace Bell at the UN offices in Geneva is rung and a minute of prayer and reflection marks the start of Earth Day each year. Eco-friendly activities are organized in many countries of the world. McConnell and the renowned anthropologist, Margaret Mead, co-founded the Earth Society Foundation, the non-profit organization that is currently responsible for organizing Earth Day activities in many countries.
At about the same time as McConnell, US Senator Gaylord Nelson from Wisconsin started to promote April 22, 1970 as Earth Day. Promoting an Environmental Teach-In, Sen. Nelson called for a day of nationwide environmental activism and ran ads to call it Earth Day. The event was meant to showcase Senator Nelson’s political campaign centered on environmental issues. The April 22 celebration became a huge success in the US with millions of participants including schools, colleges, and other institutions. The dual celebrations irked McConnell and other leading environmentalists who had been keenly promoting the equinox as Earth Day. Earth Day celebrations in April, however, caught on in the US and remain a popular day for environmental activism. In 1995, Senator Nelson was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom from President Bill Clinton for founding Earth Day (April 22). Upon his death, most obituaries called him the founder of Earth Day. Despite many attempts at having a unified Earth Day celebrations worldwide, the Earth Day celebrations in many parts of the US differ from the UN observance in other countries. The UN also coordinates with the Earth Day Network that oversees the April observance. In all about 192 countries of the world now celebrate Earth Day on either of the two dates.
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