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In a some places, a different Earth Day is celebrated
NEW YORK (CNN) -- The United Nations and a few cities and countries observe a different Earth Day than the popular April 22 affair. And a scattered minority of environmentalists believes that the other date, the vernal equinox, is the true international planetary holiday.
John McConnell founded the equinox Earth Day, the first of which the city of San Francisco and the United Nations officially observed in March 1970.
The 85-year-old peace activist credits himself with founding the environmental movement and playing a major role in ending the Cold War. Many mainstream environmentalists dismiss him as an eccentric, but the backers of his version of Earth Day included Margaret Mead and former U.N. Secretary-General U Thant.
Thant began the tradition of celebrating McConnell's Earth Day at the United Nations in March 1971 by ringing a peace bell at the exact moment the equinox arrived. This year, such disparate people as a U.N. ambassador in New York, a Tibetan lama in Vienna and Lithuanian monks in Vilnius repeated the ritual, according to Artists Embassy International, a group that advocates using the arts to promote peace.
Much of Lithuania organized daylong Earth Day celebrations, which included hoisting McConnell's Earth Flag, the one that appears on the cover of the Whole Earth Catalog.
McConnell thinks an Earth Day on the vernal equinox makes historic sense. Festivals on the first day of spring go back to Stonehenge, Persia, the Mayan civilization and ancient China.
Equilibrium, balance of the equinox
"This is nature's day when light and darkness are equal length worldwide," he said. "The symbolism of Earth Day, the equilibrium and balance of the equinox, encourages cooperation."
McConnell first proposed a world Earth Day at a U.N. conference in San Francisco in 1969. Thant liked the idea. So did Mead, who formed the Earth Society Foundation with McConnell and carried one of his Earth Flags during her travels.
In 1971 he wrote an Earth Day Proclamation, calling on people to celebrate the vernal equinox as Earth Day. Besides Thant and Mead, signers included Sen. Eugene McCarthy, astronaut Buzz Aldrin, inventor Buckminster Fuller, writer Isaac Asimov, singer John Denver and David Brower, founder of Friends of the Earth. A recent signer is Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat.
Earth Dayers and bell ringers
The first McConnell Earth Day took place in San Francisco in March 1970, one month before a national environmental teach-in, which evolved into the annual April 22 Earth Day. The California city planted trees, hosted a parade and held seminars about recycling and composting, McConnell said.
The Bay area remains one of few that still observes the other Earth Day. San Francisco Mayor Willie Brown, like his predecessor 30 years before, issued a proclamation with high praise for McConnell's event. The city's National Shrine of St. Francis of Assisi took part in the bell ringing ceremony.
Third-graders from an Oakland school were to exchange art and music with Lithuanian children and present them to McConnell, according to Artists Embassy International, which helped organize the event.
Yet over the years the April Earth Day hordes have drowned out the March bell ringing few. McConnell acknowledges the good intentions and activities of the rival holiday but for the most part considers it harmful.
"It defeated a much larger good. Had their not been confusion about what and when Earth Day is, if the money had backed the authentic Earth Day, we would be well on the way to a peaceful and prosperous world."
Many environmentalists laud Gaylord Nelson as the founder of Earth Day. McConnell offers a different take on the retired U.S. senator.
"The statement that Gaylord Nelson started Earth Day is just not true. He switched the name to Earth Day to take advantage of our natural event."
Nelson, obviously, does not agree: "John McConnell may have used the phrase Earth Day before we did, (but) he knows our events were not similar. Ours was a political exercise. His was a peace exercise."
Which one is better for the planet?
Absent the fight over bragging rights, which day would best serve the planet? Nelson said April 22 does, because the weather is nice and most U.S. children are not on spring break.
McConnell, however, said a truly international holiday should serve as much of the world as possible. The beginning of spring for the more populated Northern Hemisphere is just such a day.
"It's simultaneous all over the world, at the moment the sun is crossing the equator," he said.
y: Earth Day at 30: Having a new day, or passe?
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