Mr. Earth Day Has New Goal: Star of Hope
NEW YORK TIMES October 28, 1998
By David Gonzalez
When John Glenn returns to space tomorrow he will behold a humbling view of Earth that few have savored. John McConnell can appreciate the old astronaut's perspective, and he doesn't even have to leave his apartment in Ridgewood, Queens. In a corner of his kitchen is a flag emblazoned with the Big Blue Marble. Next to it lies the instrument panel that guides him through his favorite space: cyberspace.
The computer lets McConnell circle the globe before the space shuttle reaches orbit. His mission? To urge others to save the planet by becoming Earth Trustees, individuals whose choices about life and ethics will usher in an era of global peace and cooperation. This is not a stretch for him, since McConnell, 83, was also the brains behind Earth Day, the eco-fest first celebrated in San Francisco on March 21, 1970. This year it was celebrated on the Mir Space Station, among other places.
Despite the popular misconception, Earth Day was not intended to be some hippie-dippy hazy holiday. McConnell, the son of a traveling preacher, is spiritual and serious about its implications. He thinks society has the technology to bring people together, even if only virtually at first.
"We keep trying to move in the direction of those goals," said McConnell, whose Web site is www.earthsite.org. "Actions, good or bad, begin in the mind. If we want to resolve conflict and rejuvenate our planet, we need people to be enthralled and have a sense of wonder of our amazing world."
All this started while he was gazing into space many years ago. As a child, McConnell was awed by the stars that shimmered in the night. His religious upbringing helped pique his curiosity about essential questions of humanity. Those varied impulses converged in 1957 when the Soviet Union launched Sputnik.
"In the context of the cold war, that was terrifying," said McConnell, who published a newspaper in North Carolina at the time. "Everybody had the jitters with that Sputnik up there."
He wrote an editorial proposing a peaceful satellite, a Star of Hope that would be visible from Earth as it flashed at the rate of a baby's heartbeat. The idea was published in other newspapers and led to a meeting with President Eisenhower.
A crew member on Starship Earth with a destination of peace.
The satellite was never launched, but he was now on a new trajectory. He devised "A Minute for Peace," public service television announcements that urged people to set aside a moment each day to ponder how they could improve the world. But why stop there? By the late 1960's, he had moved to New York and embraced the world itself when he came up with Earth Day.
"What brings people together is their local holidays," he said. "Every country has holidays. What we needed was a holiday for the whole planet."
The goals he set for Earth Day live on in the Earth Magna Charta, in which he outlines his current campaign for Earth Trustees. It requires no change from your pocket, only a change of heart.
"Simply stated, every individual and institution on our planet should join in choosing what will eliminate pollution, poverty and violence," he said. "To do this, we have to address the issues in ecology, economics and ethics."
While he and his wife, Anna, would prefer to be living among the redwoods of California, they do what they can east of Eden, in Queens. They keep in touch with like-minded people through their computer and have amassed an impressive archive of documents, videotapes and other records of their decades in environmental work. While their apartment is tucked among a row of brick houses that face an asphalt playground, they grow herbs and vegetables in a small garden behind the kitchen.
"Everyone has to make compromises," he said. "If you want your efforts to count, though, you must make contact with other individuals."
That explains his other compromise: living in Queens.
"This is the last place I would live," he admitted. "The only reason I'm here is because of my greater opportunity to influence the United Nations."
He often visits representatives of international organizations to promote his ideas. Now if he could persuade someone with big bucks to launch the Star of Hope.
"It would have progress reports from around the world on the progress they're making as Earth Trustees," he said. "It would be a great way to usher in the new millennium: an outrider of planet Earth."
The New York Times Company
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