The Weirdo Conspiracy Theory About Earth Day and Lenin - OZY | A Modern Media Company
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A shared birthday can feed rumors that last decades.

By Pallabi Munsi

In April 1970, James L. Bentley, comptroller general of Georgia, sent out about $1,600 worth of telegrams warning that Earth Day — which got its start that year — was a Communist plot. His evidence: It fell on April 22, the same day as the centennial of Vladimir Lenin’s birth.

Bentley eventually admitted he’d sent the telegrams at the taxpayers’ expense and agreed to cough up the $1,600 himself. But the theory that Lenin’s birthday and Earth Day are intertwined — while nonsense — has enjoyed support in certain corners for the last 50 years. At the time, as venerable a group as the Daughters of the American Revolution saw the environmental movement as deeply subversive. And the suspicions continue to this day.

“I believe the young anti-capitalist students knew precisely what they were doing in selecting April 22,” wrote Robert J. Smith, former director of the Center for Private Conservation, on the blog of libertarian think tank Competitive Enterprise Institute in 2015. “Was it sheer coincidence they would select Lenin’s 100th birthday — out of 365 days in the year — to celebrate the first Earth Day? I find it hard to believe.” Smith wasn’t the only person to express sentiments about hippie environmentalists having communist sympathies, even long after the end of the Cold War. Capitalist Magazine published an essay in 2004 maintaining that Lenin’s aversion to private property was “obviously shared by environmentalists.”  

This odd conspiracy hasn’t aged particularly well, as environmental causes become more and more central to saving the planet and the future of the human race.

Spring kind of gives this notion of rebirth and regeneration — kind of coming to life bursting forth.

Dorceta Taylor, University of Michigan and Earth Day Network

But in the 1960s and ’70s, the far-left did gravitate toward the environmental movement, though it wasn’t the only factor — witness President Richard M. Nixon being the one to set up the EPA in 1970.

And Earth Day wasn’t founded by barefoot Communists but was the brainchild of conservationist Wisconsin Sen. Gaylord Nelson, who proposed it as an environmental version of anti-Vietnam War protests known as a teach-in. He tapped activist Denis Hayes to organize it, and 20 million Americans came out to demonstrate in support of environmental causes.

The original date proposed for celebrating Earth Day was actually a month earlier. In 1969, green activist John McDonnell had proposed March 21, 1970, as Earth Day, coinciding as it did with the spring equinox. The event was held, but it wasn’t the official Earth Day that year — that fell on April 22, as it has every year since.

The selection of the date had much to do with the academic year. “April in the U.S. comprises nice spring days, and in many parts of the country, the apple blossoms are out, beetles are blooming,” explains Dorceta Taylor, professor of environmental justice at the University of Michigan and a member of the Earth Day Network. “And so, spring kind of gives this notion of rebirth and regeneration — kind of coming to life bursting forth.” An Earth Day in the summer, when kids are out of school, could have been harder to organize. April 22 not only dodges spring break for most schools, but it also comes too late to conflict with major spring holidays like Easter and Passover.

Unfortunately, it bumps right smack into stupid conspiracy theories. In Nelson’s 2002 book, Beyond Earth Day, he recalled the radical far-right John Birch Society claiming that Earth Day was simply an “ill-concealed attempt” to fete Lenin’s birthday. “Obviously,” he wrote, “the John Birch Society was more informed about Lenin than I was.”

Taylor, too, laughs off the rumored communist link. “Those students who are working on environment, climate justice, environmental justice are too engrossed in finding ways to save lives to focus on the Lenin rumors,” she says. “They’re really not spending any time thinking and talking about conspiracy theories.”

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