Denis Hayes dropped out of Harvard's Kennedy School in 1970 to help organize the first Earth Day—an event that mobilized more than 20 million Americans and helped pave the way for the establishment of the Environmental Protection Agency.
That day, some planted trees and cleaned up parks as a rowdier set took to the streets to demand reform from corporations they accused of recklessly harming the planet. In Minneapolis, protestors crashed a General Electric stockholders’ meeting; others in Washington delivered dead, oil-soaked ducks to the steps of the Department of the Interior. Congress adjourned for the day as lawmakers from both parties capitalized on what NBC News characterized then as the “most popular and least risky election issue” of the time.
Over the next two decades, Earth Day continued to evolve. In 1990, Hayes, who had been pursuing a host of other enviornmental endeavors, returned to push it internationally. Two years later he was tapped to lead the Bullitt Foundation, a Seattle-based environmental company that is slated to formally open one of the greenest corporate buildings on the planet this Earth Day.
Leading up to the anniversary of one of the hallmarks of his career, Hayes looks back at the birth of popular environmentalism, the progress of the movement, and the challenges of addressing a threat that “dwarfs earlier perils”: climate change.
Here are his thoughts on key environmental issues, in his own words:
On the success of the first Earth Day:
At the time, the vast majority of people, 95 percent of Americans, could not have given you a coherent explanation of what the word "environment" meant. We were really taking this huge array of issues that did have constituencies—people worried about DDT, people worried about endangered species or the American military dropping Agent Orange on Vietnam—and we lumped them all together under a new banner.
We were hoping it would be successful and had no expectation that it would be three or four times larger than the largest anti-war rally back then.
Why climate change is a tougher adversary than the environmental villains of the 1970s:
The most important thing is visibility. When the first Earth Day came in 1970, for much of the year if you walked around Los Angeles it was like walking around Beijing today—the air pollution was so thick you could almost cut it with a knife. Pollution was a visible thing that you could taste and you could smell and was linked to rivers catching on fire and very serious warnings that unless we reverse course, the Great Lakes would become biologically sterile. So this visible tangible kind of thing was something that you could mobilize people around much more easily than you can an invisible gas that has no smell, has no taste.
I mean heavens—every time we breathe, we emit carbon dioxide. It’s hard to cast it as a villain the way you could with the components of smog, for example. So it's just a much more nuanced issue and yet with incredible capacity to change the world into a type of environment that has not existed since the evolution of Homo sapiens. That’s a tough issue.
On the public's interest in environmental reform:
I think that [the public has] the same level of concern now for things that immediately affect themselves and their families, their neighborhoods and their nation that are easily identified, which is what we were able to capitalize on back then. But with regard to the climate issue, it is much more difficult to get people to get their arms around intellectually and it’s much more difficult to come up with a solution or series of solutions in the current anti-tax, anti-regulatory environment.
Remember, in 1970 we had a Republican president who was okay with signing a Clean Air Act and creating an Environmental Protection Agency, and that has just dramatically changed. Richard Nixon, for all of his conservatism, was arguably more progressive than the majority of the current democratic members of Congress.
On getting climate change legislation passed after President Obama's first and only attempt—the American Clear Energy and Security Act—was squashed by Congress in 2009:
The climate legislation that was proposed was 1,400 pages long, breathtakingly complicated, laced with tons of loopholes that were put in there by various special interests in order to get a vote here and there and it was based on a cap-and-trade premise that had already pretty much failed when applied in Europe. So that’s kind of a tough thing to mobilize a vast constituency around.
If we had a solution that was two pages long—I'll be realistic, twenty pages long— that was very clear, that had provisions in it that people can comprehend, had a straight-forward solution to a problem and we did not have the relentless drumbeat of Fox News and the anti-science folks who manage to command the airwaves and the digital sphere today, there is no question in my mind that two-thirds or three quarters of the American public that cares about this issue and wants to get it solved could be mobilized.
The movement has not put together the right kinds of vehicles … we’re beginning to see some of that, the 350.org organization—but we need to get vastly more of that to people with the large constituencies.
On the legacy of Earth Day:
[Earth Day has] been hugely vibrant in that sense all the way through the United States, something on the order of 90,000 schools still annually participate in it. Then in 1990 we took it internationally and is now out there in more than 170 counties and serves each year as what I genuinely believe is the largest secular holiday in the world.
If you were in the human rights field or the anti-war field I think you would love to have an instrument like Earth Day that every year gives people pause—a chance to reflect upon the values that you’re promoting.