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Mitchell “Micky” Wolfson, the great collector and connoisseur of
graphic, decorative and industrial arts, recently celebrated his
70th birthday, and his many fans contributed items in his honor to
the Wolfsonian-FIU in Miami
Beach, that wonderful repository of objects and images exemplifying
the overlap of design and propaganda that bears his name.
My extremely modest contribution was meaningful to me: a
treasured button I had worn on the first Earth Day, in April of
1970. It seemed to me to combine the elements of propaganda and
design that inspired Micky. It was a simple wordless assemblage of
two triangles: blue and green, sky and earth. I recall seeing
number of buttons like it that first Earth Day, but realized I had
not seen it since. It set me wondering: Why is there no simple
single symbol or badge of environmentalism, like the peace
(From left) The author's souvenir pin from the first Earth Day,
in 1970; an ecology button for Earth Day; and the City of New
York's GreeNYC logo, designed by Blake E. Marquis and TURF.
There are candidates for this role, of course, but even among
them my pin was an also ran—it was not an image that became widely
known. It was created by a New York pin maker, but I have no idea
who designed it.
Other images that emerged from the first Earth Day included the
ecology symbol, created in 1969 by Ron Cobb, a political cartoonist
and artist. As the story goes, his symbol combined the letters E
and O, the initials of “environment” and “organism,” with the idea
of an ellipse and a circle. Together the shapes also conveniently
formed the Greek letter theta often used to denote “danger” or
“warning.” (Theta was a bit of a downer. It is said to be based on
an Egyptian glyph of a soul in a skull and so became associated
with the death's head. It had long been used as a warning like the
skull on bottle of poison.) Cobb's symbol was first used in the
fall of 1969, several accounts say, in the counterculture Los
Angeles Free Press. It figured in various ecological banners
and demonstrations. Cobb apparently declared it copyright-free, in
the public domain.
Visual explanation of the meaning of the ecology
symbol by Rob Cobb.
By spring 1970 Cobb's symbol was well enough known that
Look magazine incorporated it into a flag that ran in its
April 21 “Earth Day” issue that year. It had a rival in the Earth
Day Flag, with a picture of the “whole earth,” which several
accounts attribute to John McConnell, the activist who first
proposed the idea of Earth Day observance in 1969.
Flag bearing Ron Cobb's ecology symbol.
The photographic image of the “whole earth,” taken from space,
surfaced around the same time and might be the closest thing to a
universal green symbol today. The so-called “blue marble” is the
default desktop image on the screens of iPhones.
In 1966 Stewart Brand, creator of the Whole Earth Catalog,
rhetorically asked NASA, “Why Haven't We Seen a Picture of the
Whole Earth?” Our space probes had been out there with cameras for
years, he argued, but NASA had not yet released any photos of the
whole. His question carried a vague overtone of conspiracy theory.
Was there something they didn't want us to see? Was it because the
national authorities knew that seeing the planet that way would
make us all unite against local officials and big business?
The implication was that such a photo would make us think
globally and not locally, as politicians and businessmen wanted us
The first photograph of the whole earth was actually taken in
August 1967, by the probe Lunar Orbiter V, which captured the earth
from behind the curve of the moon. But the first widely seen such
photos, the so-called “earthrises,” were taken on Apollo 8, the
flight during which three astronauts flew around the moon in
NASA images of Earth taken by the Lunar Orbiter in August 1967
(left) and August 1966 (right).
Brand published his first Whole Earth Catalog in the fall
of 1968, with a photo of the planet taken by Lunar Orbiter V on
November 10, 1967. In a 2004 interview with Massive Change Radio he
said that “it gave the sense that Earth is an island, surrounded by
a lot of inhospitable space. And it's so graphic, this little blue,
white, green, and brown jewel-like icon amongst a quite featureless
black vacuum.” The photo, he said, communicated that “this is all
we've got and we've got to make it work. There's no backup.”
Green symbolism has more recently incorporated the infinity
symbol to suggest sustainability. The infinity symbol bears some
resemblance to theta, as well. More recently, the environmental
efforts of Mayor Michael Bloomberg in New York led to the creation
in 2008 of the GreeNYC
symbol, which combined an infinity symbol with the apple of Big
Apple. Attorneys for Apple Computer ill-advisedly attempted to
claim priority. The logo was designed by Blake E. Marquis and TURF, a New York design firm, and
appears, among other places, on the flanks of hybrid taxicabs. It
highlights such green goals as efforts to reduce the city's
emissions of global warming gases by 30 percent by 2030.
Woodsy the Owl.
Less profound is the federal government's effort at an
environmental graphic symbol, the mascot Woodsy the Owl. With his
motto “Give a hoot, don't pollute,” that any middle-schooler might
call “lame,” Woodsy was intended to do for clean water and clean
air what Smokey the Bear did for forest-fire prevention.
In fact, Woodsy may be the ultimate loser of a symbol, a kind of
joke of government earnestness. His creation has been attributed to
Chuck Williams and Harold Bell, who died in December 2009. An
in The New York Times reported that “it was on the set
of the long-running television show Lassie that Mr. Bell,
along with the United States Forest Service rangers Chuck Williams
and Glenn Kovar and their co-worker Betty Hite, came up with the
concept of Woodsy as a new mascot for the Forest Service in time
for the first Earth Day, April 22, 1970.”
The story explained that “in 1974, Congress passed Public Law
93-318. The so-called Woodsy Owl Act protects the image, declaring:
'The term Woodsy Owl means the name and representation of a
fanciful owl, who wears slacks (forest green when colored), a belt
(brown when colored) and a Robin Hood-style hat (forest green when
colored) with a feather (red when colored), and who furthers the
slogan 'Give a Hoot, Don't Pollute.'”
Laugh at Woodsy all you want; few symbols or mascots can claim
such specific entrenchment in the statutes of a great nation.
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