Earth Day 1979 was observed at the New York headquarters of the United Nations in cooperation with the Year of the Child. Several hundred children streamed across the street into the United Nations grounds, carrying and waving small (12" x 18". 31.5 x 47 cm.) flags which portrayed the Earth as seen from space
on a dark blue background.
At the last minute a volunteer had come up with the idea of distributing "Earth Flags" to the children, who were participating in the Earth Day program. By the time I learned of this they all had their flags. Knowing the stiff protocol at the United Nations, I asked the guards if it would be all right for then to carry the flags and was informed that they might carry them up to the gate, but must leave the flags there and pick them up as they left. Yet when they came through the gate no guard had the heart to ask for a flag and so the Earth Flags added to our joyous celebration.
What is the Earth Flag? What does It stand for? Is it a real flag? How did it get started and how has it been used? When the first photo of Earth appeared in Life in 1969, I was deeply stirred -- as were many other people -- by what I saw. The Copernican revolution in thinking back in the l6th century had enlarged our view, our perspective of the human race. We became more aware of our planet, its relation to our solar system and to the universe. In viewing the first photo from space, thereby sharIng in part the experience of the astronauts, we ex perienced in a deep and emotional way a new awareness of our planet. In fact, our venture into space resulted in a conceptual revolution that gave us a more generalist approach to our problems and new and reverent wonder about the nature of the human adventure.
My own special interest was the result of years of effort to promote international cooperation in space. This went back to 1957, when a "Star of Hope" editorial in my weekly newspaper in North Carolina attracted national attention. As I looked at the Life photo it occurred to me that an Earth flag could symbolize and encourage our new world view and that the Earth as seen from space was the best possible symbol for this purpose.
I called the National Aeronautics and Space Administration and spoke to the head of public relations, who sent me a transparency of the photo used in Life. When I told him what it was for, he said, "What a wonderful idea." In talking to friends, many suggestions were made for adding other elments to the flag - for example, the figure of a person. Nevertheless, I proceeded with the simple design of the Earth centered on a dark blue background.
I copyrighted the Earth Flag in 1969. A year later a registered trade mark was obtained, using the Earth photo as the basis for an original design that filled out the bit of shadow occuring in that particular photo. We then had 500 12" x 18" (31.5 x 47 co ) Earth Flags produced by the Amrican Flag Co. in New Jersey. In Geneva in 1973 I showed the Earth flag to Denis de Rougemont, the historian. On seeing it he said "You've got the right one." There had been differences about which photo was the first high resolution photo of Earth. The astronauts didn't know which photo they had taken first. Denis felt the first one published should be considered the first photo of Earth.
Our first 500 flags were produced in a hurry, in order to use them at the "Moon Watch" at Central Park in New York City. This was the big event where we watched and celebrated the first landing on the Moon on 20 July 1969. Prominent at the ceremony was a large Earth Flag specially made by volunteers. Several hundred of the small flags were sold and some were given away.
In the rush to make these first flags the colors in the screening of the Earth were reversed. This Earth view consisted mostly of clouds and oceans, the only land being a small part of Lower California and Central America. For simplicity we had combined the bit of land with the sea; but on these first Earth Flags (of which we still have a small supply, for posterity) the ocean is white and the clouds are blue.
Right after this I went to California and initiated the first efforts for Earth Day, another idea that had grown out of my thinking and efforts. On the first Earth Day, 21 March 1970, the City of San Francisco flew the Earth Flag. Schools, churches, ecology groups, businesses, and youth organizations flew and used the Earth Flag. In one interesting case when students in Hayward California, draped a steam roller with Earth Flags and flowers while singing "Where Have All the Flowers Gone?" they managed to stop the paving of their schoolyard.
Since that time requests for Earth Flags have come from all over the world. Meeting the requests has been a poorly-run operation carried on with a few Earth Day volunteers. Efforts to obtain financing and promotion have been unsuccessful. We have also had repeated difficulty in obtaining a satisfactory product from flag companies -- due to the unusual nature of our requirements for a photo-like representation of the Earth -- a problem we now believe can be solved. Lack of capital has resulted in our having to order small quantities of flags at expensive prices.
This "extracurricular activity," in the midst of deep involvement in global problems, has not been conducive to a successful undertaking. Nevertheless since our first Earth Day we have distributed over 15,000 Earth Flags - all in response to requests and contributions unsolicited by us. Many of these were the result of free mention in the Whole Earth Catalogue and other articles about the flag.
Our experience with the Earth Flag has been an inspiring one. One young man in the Shetland Islands wrote, "I received the large flag in beautiful condition and I love it. It is now serving as a curtain in my room. The first morning I woke up with it there the sunrise was shining through it and it was fantastic. The Earth seemed to glow and I could imagine the exhilaration the astronauts must experience when they see the beautiful planet, Mother Earth, in its full."
I have unexpectedly found Earth Flags in business offices, newsrooms, schools, and churches. The Earth Flag has been officially flown in many cities. It has been displayed at UN conferences and was featured in an Earth Day essay by Margaret Mead for UPI. She stated "... the selection of the March equinox [for Earth Day] makes planetary observance of a shared event possible. and a flag which shows the Earth as seen from space appropriate."
When the City of New York celebrated the city's ethnic diversity in a program at Central Park, they ordered 30 large Earth Flags. A Park Department aide confided later. "It solved a problem. All you'd have to do is leave out one ethnic flag and you'd have a crisis. This covers everybody."
Pete Seeger said that the best symbol for Earth was a flag with the Earth on it and he flew the Earth Flag on the Clearwater. The QE2 flew the Earth Flag in 1973 on a two-week Earth Society cruise in the Caribbean with Isaac Azimov, Carl Sagan, Burl Ives, and other Earth patriots.
Through the years we have said many things to try and express the meaning and purpose of the Earth Flag. Initially we stated that the Earth flag was created to remind us that each person has a basic right to use the Earth and an equal responsibility to build the Earth. All nations have flags. The UN has a flag, states have flags and businesses have flags. There ought to be a flag that's just for people.
On another occasion we said. "The Earth Flag is a non- government flag for all Earth people. Its purpose is to encourage equilibrium in nature, in social systems, and in the the minds of men." Another purpose is to foster loyalty to Earth that will transcend national loyalties and differences.
The most beautiful thing is that many people find their own words to express the meaning of the Earth Flag. Several have sent us pledges of allegiance to the Earth Flag. A prisoner who had several years to serve sent for an Earth Flag: he stated that he felt it would give him hope for a better life and a better world when he was released.
Flags have inspired heroic actions in war campaigns. The Earth Flag is inspiring heroic actions for the care and rejuvenation of Earth. Blowing in the wind, the Earth Flag speaks in silence. In rhythm, metaphor, and color it tells us our most important task is to take care of our planet.
Can the Earth Flag give clear meaning and purpose to foster a global community of conscience, free of partisan coercion and control and dedicated to the care of Earth? Flags have been used for centuries to communicate and encourage values and loyalties, but national flags have been divisive. While many depict sun, moon and stars, none depicts our home planet. Not one has a symbol or representation of the Earth, to which all are indebted for their very existence.
Action by any government to place the Earth in a corner of its flag and initiate a global effort to halt the degradation of Earth and foster its nurture and care would be welcome. To repeat my statement at an Earth Flag Ceremony in New York City in 1978:
We raise the Earth Flag, to encourage and inspire love of Earth, We raise the Earth Flag to enlist and unite young and old in courageous action for our planet's protection -- for cautious nurture of its life and care of its resources in every city and neighborhood.
We raise the Earth Flag as a promise to all who work to help our planet that they and their children will obtain a fair stake in Earth and its future, with equitable access to its beauty and bounty.
We raise the Earth Flag with a firm conviction that together we can save our planet; that our actions now and in succeeding years will enable us to celebrate the year 2000 with a healthy peaceful planet.
This article was originally delivered as a lecture at the 9th International Congress of Vexilollogy.
JOHN MCCOMELL is President of the Earth Society Foundation (585 Sth Avenue, New York NY 10017 U.S.A.). He has been active in many programs designed to improve the human condition, including Meals for Millions, Minute for Peace, and the Earth Care Handbook.
NOTE: The first Earth Flag used the Apollo 10 Earth Foto 69HC487.
Reprinted with permission from The Flag Research Center
(The Flag Bulletin - March/April 1982)