What do you think about when your national flag passes by?
Your country’s proud history, perhaps? Its national identity? The ideals and dreams of its people?
Flags, historically, have been used as icons and identifiers which represent entire nations – tools to distinguish a group of people from all the others and unite that group of people in shared experience and ideology.
Today, there are nearly 200 sovereign, recognized nations – and that number’s been growing rapidly. A majority of countries, in fact, formed only within the past 100 years. Their establishment followed large, ideologically polarizing global events like WWII and the Cold War.
That’s nearly 200 different groups of people, all with different ways of thinking and looking at the world, and each representing something unique: a different language, a different political system, a different road to nationhood, or another set of distinguishing characteristics.
Amidst all of that discord, here’s a question to ponder: Do we need a flag to represent and unite Planet Earth?
The Earth Flag Movement – Past and Present
Even with the number of different ideas growing in number over the past century, there has risen the desire to create a symbol that can represent the world – a flag for all of Planet Earth.
There have been many, many attempts at making one, but if you look around, I’m betting you probably won’t see any Planet Earth flags flying.
The question, then, is why?
Why is this even worth the effort and why have there been so many attempts? The trend is towards a more independent nation, not fewer. Each new nation represents another ideological divide – another obstacle to uniting the world.
Indeed, there are many people who think it’s a good thing that the world isn’t completely united.
How can we, a species of 7 billion people – all with different histories, perspectives, and ideologies – ever hope to represent ourselves under just one symbol? How could we make one symbol mean something to everyone, without boiling it down so much that it means nothing to anyone at all?
Flags for the World Over the Years
To answer these questions, it’s a good idea to look at some of those attempts at a world flag. Let’s look at the various symbols already proposed.
The Olympic Flag
The Olympic rings were designed in 1912 by International Olympic Committee founder Pierre de Coubertin, and it was first used as a flag in the Olympics two years afterward. As one of the first flags designed to represent a multinational organization, the Olympic flag had the distinction of ushering in the new, much more globalized 20th century.
The late 19th and early 20th century was the first time in history when an endeavor involving nations from all over the world as possible. With the advent of communications technologies like telegraph and radio, as well as advanced transportation technologies like steamships, trains, and automobiles, the world could be more connected than ever before.
This spirit of a connected world is clear in the symbolism of the Olympic flag:
- The Rings – Representing the five inhabited major regions of the world: Africa, The Americas, Asia, Europe, and Oceania
- The Colors – Contrary to popular belief, the colors of the rings don’t correspond to a specific major region. The colors (including the white of the background) were chosen because those were the colors that appeared on all of the national flags present at the time.
- The Interconnection – The rings were interconnected to display the spirit of international friendship that the games stood for.
The 1913 Peace Flag
This beauty was designed by Ohioan minister James William van Kirk and eventually adopted by the Universal Peace Congress (which existed from 1889-1939) as their official flag.
In this flag, the Earth is shown on a field of stars with a rainbow banner attached to it. The rainbow banner was meant to represent all varieties of human on Earth, the colors all being “different, but united in global peace.”
It’s a shame, then, that World War 1 started the year after this flag was created. In 1913, the ticking time bomb of the web of European military and political alliances was about ready to blow. It was, indeed, a more connected world by then, but those connections worked both ways. Humanity’s ability to create in this new world grew fast, but so did its ability to destroy.
The United Nations Flag
The United Nations was proposed in the closing days of the second world war and formed directly in its aftermath. The war had been more devastating than any that had come before it, and with the development of weapons as terrifying as the atomic bomb, many of the nations of the world took it upon themselves to make sure that World War 3 didn’t happen.
Following the example of the earlier League of Nations, which itself was made after the First World War, the United Nations was to be a common ground between all the nations of Earth, unaffiliated with and unbiased to any single country, instead opting to foster peace and aid humanity as a whole.
The United Nations’ flag symbolizes this intent:
- The World from the North Pole – To show every inhabited continent on Earth without centering itself on any one territory.
- The Olive Branches – A long-time symbol for peace, originating from Greek culture.
The Earth Day Flag
This flag was designed in 1969 by John McConnell, a peace activist and the founder of Earth Day. It’s perhaps the most literal interpretation of “a flag of Planet Earth” to date. The image of Earth itself is based on images taken from space by NASA (The image, by the way, isn’t the famous Blue Marble photograph. That wasn’t taken until 1972).
This point in history was the height of the space race and a time of rapid technological progress in the area of Earth exploration. For the first time in history, we humans were able to see our planet in its entirety, and from there, movements like environmentalism really began to pick up steam.
It made many of us realize how small we all are in the grand scheme of things, and how close we actually are to each other in this small, blue world. It was certainly enough for McConnell as he conceptualized Earth day – a day made to remind us that we all share one home and that we all have a stake when it comes to how we take care of this home.
The International Flag of Planet Earth
This proposal was designed by Swedish artist Oskar Pernefeldt as recently as 2015. It seems a fairly minimalist design, but there’s a surprising amount of symbolism for such a simple-looking flag.
- The Seven Rings – Each representing one of the seven continents of Earth
- The Central Flower – The center of the flag forms a shape of a flower, representing life on Earth
- The Intersection of the Rings – The rings are arranged in a complex, interlocking fashion. This represents the fact that no part of Earth can be removed without dismantling the entire structure.
- The Blue Background – Represents water and its importance to all life on Earth.
This flag is currently the proposal for a flag of Planet Earth. There are, in fact, serious plans to send this flag to Mars within the next 10-20 years. Once planted on Mars, it will serve as a symbol for humanity, as well as a reminder to everyone – much the same as many of the other flags talked about here – that we’re all connected on this planet.
The Real Purpose of a World Flag
What does this all say, then, about the use of a world flag? How can all of humanity be represented with a single symbol?
The simple answer is: It can’t.
But that was never the purpose of a world flag to begin with.
National flags are used to distinguish people. A national flag, more often than not, is filled with specific symbols which all have something important to say about the heart and soul and history of a people. A dozen stories can be told from a single flag. It’s there to remind the people of the nation it represents where they came from and where they are now.
The world flag, however, is for something quite different. Instead of a recounting of the past and an identifier for the present, a world flag has always been a representation of the future.
In every single flag design discussed here, the designers poured out their hopes, their dreams, and their fears for the future, which in turn reflected the hopes, dreams, and fears of the people at the time.
Human nature, technological progress, and the ideas of unity and diversity – all are abstract, nebulous themes that represent the abstract, nebulous future that every single person who has ever lived has had to face.
More than a representation of who we are now, these flags represent who we, as a species, wish to be. It’s as much a symbol for our children as it is a representation of ourselves. Future historians will look back on all these symbols and see the heart and soul of the humanity which birthed them, the humanity which would have brought them the world they lived in.
That leaves, then, the eternal question – the one which each flag in this article attempted to answer.
What do we aspire to be?
NOTE: With much appreciation to The Flagmakers for helping locate and choose the flags shown in this article.
About The Author
What are we to be?… that is the question. Abel Cane loves to ponder the future of our planet from his home in the Cascade Mountains. Find Abel @boomalive.