Why you should care
Because saving the planet was never going to be easy.
“I keep myself busy 24 hours a day as part of the international conspiracy to make the planet livable.” That’s how Ira Einhorn, a Philadelphia-based activist, described his work to a journalist in 1969.
Unlike most environmental activists, Einhorn didn’t rely on legislation or sustainability to accomplish his mission, but on personal charisma. The man who referred to himself as the Unicorn— Einhorn is German for “unicorn” — did not have a day job. Instead, he devoted his time to cultivating a network of influential contacts in the City of Brotherly Love and establishing himself as the local spokesman for all hippie-related efforts.
A year after Einhorn announced his so-called conspiracy, Philadelphia hosted an event to celebrate the first-ever Earth Day, with Einhorn, the most visible local activist, serving as master of ceremonies. He was supposed to just introduce the speakers and bands. Instead, he gave a 30-minute impromptu speech, only relinquishing the microphone when forced to do so by keynote speaker Sen. Edmund Muskie. In exchange for the mic, Einhorn planted a sloppy kiss on Muskie’s lips.
The history of environmental activism’s biggest day is as cloudy as the ozone layer so many activists are fighting to save.
Almost a decade later, things were still going well for Einhorn. He had just completed a fellowship at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government and was respected in the community. Even the discovery of his ex-girlfriend’s rotting corpse in his apartment in 1979 did little to dampen his local celebrity.
Einhorn’s ex-girlfriend, Holly Maddux, had been missing for a couple of years when police found her remains, beneath a layer of Styrofoam and old newspapers, in a suitcase in Einhorn’s apartment. Einhorn was immediately taken into custody, where he described his emotional state as that of someone who had “lost his home planet.” Prominent Philadelphians were shocked by the allegations, and Einhorn convinced many of them that he was innocent. He claimed that only an incredibly stupid person would murder someone and leave the body in his own house.
Einhorn’s lawyer, Arlen Specter — who later dropped the case to run for and win a seat in the U.S. Senate — assembled a group of his client’s supporters to serve as character witnesses, which helped Einhorn get released on bail. Upon release, he fled the country, vanishing for 23 years until he was finally tracked down in 1997 in a small village in France. He has since been extradited to the U.S., reconvicted — he’d been convicted in absentia earlier — and sentenced to life in prison.
Unsurprisingly, leaders of the environmental movement worked to distance themselves from the “Unicorn Killer.” Although Einhorn claimed to have been almost single-handedly responsible for the environmental movement and creation of Earth Day, in reality, he was just “one of the millions of people who got involved in the first Earth Day in 1970,” says John Oppermann, executive director of the Earth Day Initiative. “[Einhorn] was somewhat involved in helping put together the event in Philadelphia,” Oppermann acknowledges.
But Einhorn wasn’t the only threat to Earth Day’s reputation. The history of environmental activism’s biggest day is as cloudy as the ozone layer so many activists are fighting to save. Far more embarrassing than Einhorn? The fact that Earth Day was initially promoted as a way to fight global cooling. “The world has been chilling sharply for about 20 years,” prominent ecologist Kenneth Watt told an audience at Swarthmore College in 1970, noting that if it continued, “the world will be about four degrees colder” by 1990 and 11 degrees colder by 2000.
Watt wasn’t the only one convinced that Earth was on the brink of disaster. Stanford University biologist Paul Ehrlich claimed there would be worldwide famine by 2000. It was also predicted that gas masks would be required in large metropolitan areas by 2010, that Earth would be depleted of most metals by 2000 and that American life expectancy would drop to 42 years old.
Activist John McConnell, an Iowa native, was the first person to present the idea for an international Earth celebration, at a UNESCO conference — the idea being to celebrate it on March 21, 1970. But then Sen. Gaylord Nelson stepped up, founding a U.S. “Earth Day” for spreading environmental awareness on April 22, 1970, the day it’s now celebrated every year.
Luckily for the planet, Earth Day’s success was not deterred by its murky beginnings. The first Earth Day was “a real turning point in America’s view” about the environment, Oppermann says. “Ever since, Earth Day has been an inclusive and mainstream occasion to reconnect with nature and reassess what we can do in our own lives to lessen our environmental impact and better protect our planet.”
In 2016, the Earth Day Network announced its goal of planting 7.8 billion trees by 2020, the 50th anniversary of Earth Day. This year, the organization is providing tool kits to schools and communities around the globe to help them plan their own Earth Day events.
Meanwhile, inmate Einhorn has turned his focus to an entirely new conspiracy: He claims the CIA framed him for murder.