Sunday, April 4, 2010

Earth Day 2010

Earth Day will be 40 years old on April 22. (Actually, it will be the 41st Earth Day. But like babies in western cultures, who are not considered to be 1 until their first birthday, annual events get caught in a weird time warp.)

The Wisconsin Historical Museum has mounted a small exhibit highlighting the role of Senator Gaylord Nelson in starting Earth Day. Here are a few of the items included.

Orange poster for the first Earth Day, with graphic rendering of traffic and pollution
Poster from Washington, D.C.

Black and white photo of a small group of young people marching up some stairs, carrying a white flag with the black ecology symbol on it
Madison's Earth Day march in April 1970.

Seeing the images in the exhibit made me wonder what happened to the ecology symbol -- I don't remember seeing it used in decades! According to the Wikipedia, the symbol was created in November 1969 by underground cartoonist Ron Cobb as a combination of E and O, which stood for environment and organism. (The fact that it's also the Greek letter theta appears to be unintentional.)

It was first incorporated into a flag graphic by Look magazine in its April 21, 1970 issue. (I couldn't find a visual representation of it online, however.)

Green ecology flag printed as a full page of a newspaper
Look's flag was followed by this one in the student newspaper at the University of Wisconsin -- The Cardinal, April 22, 1970. Hmm. Wonder how that happened so fast?

Environmental Action newsletter cover with the symbol and illustration of Statue of Liberty crushed by pollution with headling Is that any way to treat a lady?
The symbol was adopted by the organization Environmental Action, and is still used as their logo. I'm not sure if EA is the direct successor to the original Environmental Teach-In organization, founded by Nelson and directed by Denis Hayes. The content and format of EA's website (referring to the first Earth Day as 35 years ago!) makes me think they're not at the forefront of environmental efforts any more.

Maybe this use by a specific organization caused the symbol to lose its more general meaning. Or maybe it became associated with a particular type of environmental activism, no longer seen as effective by later generations of world-changers.

But seeing it reminded me that environmentalism lacks a good symbol, something as simple and effective as the recycling symbol, but more encompassing.

1 comment:

elena said...

Thanks for researching this: I had completely forgotten that symbol! Maybe it is too abstract somehow, and the Greek analogue makes it too open to (mis)interpretation? A fascinating subject, and I agree – a new symbol would be good...How does one go about creating something like that, I wonder? (on that – literally – global scale).