Symbolizing the Green Movement

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 sign?

Various symbols of the green movement over time.

(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 how the ecology symbol was created.

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.

Ecology flag

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 to.

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 December 1968.

1966 NASA photographs of Earth from space

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

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 obituary 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.