Denis Hayes: The Man Who Started Earth Day - Rolling Stone
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The Man Who Started Earth Day

Denis Hayes on why the first Earth Day went viral, the U.S. solar industry that could have been if Reagan hadn’t stopped it, and what he hopes we learn from the pandemic

Denis Hayes, president and C.E.O. of the Bullitt Foundation, which funds environmental causes, in Seattle on March 26, 2020. Fifty years on, Denis Hayes is still trying to keep the spirit that made Earth Day a world-changing event alive and to refocus its energy on climate change. (Grant Hindsley/The New York Times)

Denis Hayes, organizer of the first Earth Day, in Seattle, March 2020.

Grant Hindsley/The New York Times/Redux

Denis Hayes is the Mark Zuckerberg of the environmental movement, if you can imagine Mark Zuckerberg with a conscience and a lot less cash. Like Zuckerberg, Hayes dropped out of Harvard to start an eccentric and unpromising venture. Zuckerberg’s was called Facebook, which he launched in 2004; Hayes’ was called Earth Day, which he founded in 1970. Both grew into something far bigger and more significant than their founders ever imagined. And while Facebook has become a tangled web of cat GIFs and manipulative political ads, Earth Day has grown into a secular holiday recognized by billions of people and which has no goal beyond building a better world.

Hayes is a child of the Sixties. He grew up in a small town on the Columbia River in Washington state, where his father worked in a paper mill and Hayes saw firsthand the toxic consequences of the collision between industry and nature: dirty air, spoiled streams, dead fish. He drifted through college, bummed around in Asia and Africa, and thought deeply about the role of humans in the natural world. When he returned to the U.S., he enrolled in Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, where he happened to meet with Gaylord Nelson, a U.S. senator from Wisconsin, who was looking for someone to organize a national teach-in about environmentalism. Hayes took the job and helped transform the teach-in into the first Earth Day, on April 22nd, 1970, which attracted more than 20 million people and gave birth to the modern environmental movement. Virtually overnight, burning rivers and vanishing birds were tragedies Americans cared about. And voted on. Thanks largely to the momentum created by Earth Day, the early 1970s saw the passage of the most important environmental legislation in U.S. history, including both the Clean Air and Clean Water acts.

Not surprisingly, Hayes was an early advocate of renewable power. During the Carter administration, he was director of the Federal Solar Research Institute in Colorado — until it was gutted by President Ronald Reagan. Since 1992, Hayes has been president of the Bullitt Foundation in Seattle, which funds a wide range of environmental and climate-related organizations in the Pacific Northwest. But as Earth Day celebrates its 50th anniversary, Hayes stands out not just as an environmental pioneer, but also as a reminder of how much can be accomplished with the right mix of idealism and pragmatism.

Gallery: Earth Day 1970 Photos

When you were planning Earth Day, did you imagine that 20 million people would show up, that it would be that big?
Well, our wild-eyed aspirations in the early days was to enlist not just college students, but adults, and school kids, and everybody. Our aspirations were patterned upon the events of the 1960s. The March on the Pentagon, the Poor People’s March, the Selma March. We hoped to have it in maybe eight or 10 cities. But in the end, I think we were in essentially every city, and almost every town, village, crossroads in America. That’s when the numbers started to become so staggering. The first time that I recognized it was going to be enormous was when I was in New York City, where Mayor John Lindsay gave us Fifth Avenue. He put police barricades across all cross streets and gave us more than 40 blocks of Fifth Avenue. When I climbed up on this platform to give a talk and looked out, 60, 70 feet in the air, and looked at the sea of people, it stretched out over the visual horizon. I couldn’t see the end of the crowd. That’s when I realized, “Oh, my God, this is really big.”

It must have been an amazing moment. When you think back on it now, what was it that made Earth Day go viral?
Well, the obvious answer is we were just truly brilliant organizers [laughs]. In fact, we were blessed with a number of fortunate circumstances. People had all read Rachel Carson [author of Silent Spring, a groundbreaking book about the dangers of chemicals in the environment], and suddenly you’re talking about the vanishing of the bald eagle, the brown pelican, the California condor. People were starting to make connections they had never made before between clean air, clean water, public health, vanishing species. I still recall a conversation with the president of the National Audubon Society, where he said, “What the hell does clean air have to do with birds?” That was in 1969. By 1970, nobody in the freaking country would have asked that kind of a question.

We pulled all of these strands together. We wove them into a fabric of modern environmentalism, helped people realize that they had shared values, and turned it into something that was a far more powerful force, legislatively, by having them all work on one another’s issues. These were also issues that affected people directly — the sorts of things that people will really come out for because they think their bodies will make a difference. That’s different from, say, climate change. It’s very hard to make people think that if they show up for a rally, that’s going to change the amount of carbon dioxide that is emitted by 200 nations around the world.

Also, in the 1960s, we had the anti-war movement, which, particularly after the 1968 Democratic Convention, was breaking down into ever more radical splinters. Then there was the civil-rights movement that led to the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act, followed by the assassination of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, and the urban riots that followed that. There was this great tension in the country that was pulling things apart. There were the cultural battles of the 1960s. The Summer of Love in Woodstock was looked at by people in Akron [Ohio], like, “What the fuck are those people up to?” What Earth Day brought to all this — and I say this with some trepidation because I don’t want to make it sound too goody-goody; we were pretty radical in what we were calling for in the restructuring of the American economy — but Earth Day was something that could relieve much of that tension. I think people were looking for some opportunity to find common cause again. It was something that brought people together.

How do you see the peril we face environmentally and climate-wise today, versus how things felt 50 years ago?
There are very large differences. In 1970, different people in different parts of the country would focus on different things, all of which are addressable within the existing political structure. If you’re in Gary [Indiana], or Pittsburgh, or Los Angeles, and worried about air pollution, there was a path that you could see with federal legislation to significantly reduce automobile exhaust [or] power plant emissions. If you were concerned about the oil spill, or banning drilling, or stopping the freeway from cutting through your inner-city neighborhood — they were tractable problems. You could see the problem and the solution.

Today, with regard to climate, we’re finally getting away from the position we were in 40 years ago, where it was models showing two lines crossing on a graph some time out there in the future. [Now], the increasing intensity and frequency of a variety of events make it pretty clear that there’s some serious issues. We’ve gotten past the disinformation campaign that was lying to us with billions of dollars for so very long. But it doesn’t have that other element of being easily addressable.

Denis Hayes Denis Hayes, Head of Environment Teach-In, Inc., the Washington organization coordinating activities for Earth Day on April 22, poses in the group's office in Washington. Teach-ins on the environmental pollution crisis an overpopulation are planned for school campuses across the country that dayEarth Day Evolution, Washington, USA

Denis Hayes, the head of Environment Teach-In Inc., the organization that coordinated activities for Earth Day in 1970, in the group’s office in Washington, D.C.


What role did corporations play then? With the climate fight, we’ve had very sophisticated engines of disinformation and lobbying — ExxonMobil, the frackers, the auto industry.
There was a lot of sophistication [in the corporate world], but as late as Earth Day, they didn’t take us very seriously. They didn’t really roll out the guns. Yes, they had sophisticated advertising campaigns and significant corporate lobbying efforts, but very little in the way of environmental lobbying capacity in Washington, D.C. And that was true for both sides. The office of the Sierra Club consisted of one full-time employee, a retired Senate staffer, and one half-time college student. It was a different era.

Some fairly radical speeches that many of us gave on Earth Day that were linking environmental destruction directly to poverty, and to social injustice, to the war in Vietnam, and the use of Agent Orange — all of that stuff got corporations to pay attention. And they began to realize this wasn’t just a bunch of kids out planting trees and frolicking in the park, but these guys seem to have an agenda.

But that agenda was derailed pretty quickly by the war, right?
Yes. A week after Earth Day, Nixon invaded Cambodia. Environmental issues which had been front-page, above the fold, suddenly retreated into an afterthought. Just a few days after that, some young, frightened National Guardsmen fired their weapons into a bunch of unarmed students at Kent State and killed four students and wounded nine others. So you had this vast outpouring on Earth Day, and then a couple weeks later, “Oh, my God,” it had gone away, and all of these bold ideas we had about restructuring the economy seemed to be going away as well.

So we came up with a new strategy. In the late summer we got a trivial amount of money. It was like $50,000. We decided to use it to attack what we called “the Dirty Dozen,” which was 12 incumbent members of Congress, all of whom had despicable environmental records. Most members of Congress had bad environmental records, because it wasn’t an issue. But these were also people who had won their previous election by no more than three or four percentage points, had a major environmental issue in their district that they were on the wrong side of, and perhaps most importantly, we had a group of activists in that district who were prepared to move on from Earth Day-ish kinds of things to working on political campaigns.

In the end, we defeated seven of the 12. The first one to go was a guy named George Fallon, who was the chairman of the House Public Works Committee. If you wanted a federal building, a prison, a courthouse, a road, a bridge, George Fallon had to sign off on it. When Fallon was defeated by his environmental record, that was the shot heard around the capital. It was just a staggering impact [felt] by members of Congress.

Once we demonstrated [the environment] had the potential to be an issue that moved votes, things changed. The Clean Air Act was introduced less than a month after the election, and by this time, industry was awake, and the legislation was vigorously opposed by the automobile industry, the electric-utility industry, the coal industry, the oil industry, the steel industry. The presidents of what were then the big four automobile companies roamed the halls, saying, “If you pass the Clean Air Act, you will turn America into a Third World country.” It passed the Senate unanimously on a voice vote. It passed the House of Representatives with one dissent, something that had been unthinkable. And this resulted in suddenly north of $10 trillion being spent differently as a result of it. Unthinkable in ’69, unstoppable in 1970. The momentum that came out of that, and the applause that it got from editorial boards across the country, created the context in which we had that spate of the Clean Water Act, the Endangered Species Act, Toxic Substances Control Act, Marine Mammal Protection Act, National Forest Protection Act, and on and on. For the next decade, we were an almost unstoppable force.

Then in 1980, Ronald Reagan was elected president, and things began to head the other direction.

When did you first hear about climate change? On Earth Day, were you at all conscious of it?
It definitely was not prominent on much of anybody’s mind at that time. There were discussions, occasional newspaper articles based upon something that would appear in a scientific journal. But my sense is there were at least as many articles written about Snowball Earth [a theory that the Earth’s surface was almost entirely frozen during past ice ages] as there were about global warming.

I started working on renewable energy in the 1970s. I gave a keynote address in 1980 at the American Association for the Advancement of Science, where I talked about renewable energy as the way to mitigate climate change. That was the first time that I talked about it in a prominent place. That was 40 years ago. And at that time, we had a president [Jimmy Carter] who had declared as his explicit goal to get 20 percent of the nation’s energy from renewables by the year 2000.

My lab was charged with coordinating the detailed study to show what policies and what technologies would get us there. I really thought we would be able to achieve that goal, and that if we were 20 percent renewable by 2000, we would be out there sufficiently ahead of the curve, that a great tragedy would be avoided. Then we elected Reagan.

It’s easy to imagine what a different position we would be in with climate change if we had kept going on that track. We’d be in a very different place.
Yeah. In June of 1981, the Department of Energy came out to the Solar Energy Research Institute, where I worked, and they fired about a third of my staff. They fired 100 percent of our contractors on an hour’s notice, and more than 1,000 people, some of whom went on later to win Nobel Prizes. They reduced our budget, which was then about $130 million. In 1980, $130 million was still real money. They reduced it by $100 million.

 It was the most horrible day of my life. It was harder than the days my parents died. I spent much of the next year writing letters of recommendation for people, many of whom I had lured out to this thing, and then they suddenly had their lives shattered.

When you look now at the progress and lack of progress of renewables, especially solar, do you see it as purely a kind of political interference? Like, the technology was there — it was politics that got in the way?
If we’re talking about the development of today’s solar modules and today’s wind turbines, the limited progress is 98 percent political versus technological. We’re doing stuff with lithium ion batteries now that we weren’t thinking about back in the 1970s; we have serious research going on in batteries, and flywheels, and ultracapacitors. But if you look at the basic technologies, the solar modules that are sold around the world today, something very close to 100 percent of them are based upon technologies that were pioneered in the United States. Much of it was public money. When Reagan shut us down, the Japanese picked up the baton with Project Sunshine, but the real breakthrough came in Germany. They made the decision that they didn’t require that their modules be manufactured in Germany, which led to some bright people in China recognizing that this was a spectacular opportunity. They sent very bright young students to the United States, to Australia, to England to study photovoltaic technology, brought them back, gave them land, gave them zero-interest or extremely low-interest loans, gave them guaranteed markets for their production. Everybody talks about it in terms of the labor. The first couple of years, yeah, they used cheap Chinese labor to crudely solder solar panels. But very fast, they moved to robotics and to gigantic facilities. Their production labs were the size of several soccer fields added together. As you move into that kind of mass production, costs just plummet.

You could go from where it was initially, maybe $70 a watt, to where it might be today if you’re buying things in really big scale — 20, 30 cents a watt. That’s just a stunning kind of breakthrough, comparable to what happened with regard to computer chips. The Chinese were smart enough to take advantage of that. That was a state decision. That’s a Green New Deal, that decision. That’s what we’re going to have to do if we’re really going to be timely in addressing the climate crisis.

Among other things, the Green New Deal is an attempt to broaden the conversation about climate change to include things like environmental justice, social justice, racial justice. I’m wondering how that connects with the kinds of things you were talking about on Earth Day 50 years ago, and how is it different?
Well, it’s very much what we were talking about 50 years ago. Until recently, the conversation about climate has been all about basic neoliberal economics, which asks, “What is the right price for carbon?” But that conversation all leads to: If you get the price right, then the market will sort it out. That has dominated our policy response to climate, and we have not managed to pass any of [those bills]. I live in a state [Washington] that is pretty progressive, pretty well-educated, pretty prosperous, pretty green, and we have twice defeated the $15-a-ton tax on carbon that everybody recognizes wouldn’t do squat if we passed it. All it would do is raise revenue. But it doesn’t bring about dramatic change.

The alternative vision, and the one that was dominant in the 1970s, was: “What is your vision of what society should look like? Society should have air that you can breathe without smoking the equivalent of two packs of cigarettes a day. What America should look like is we shouldn’t be having our national symbol on the verge of extinction. We shouldn’t be having rivers that are catching on fire, the Great Lakes dying, et cetera. What does it take to get there?” That’s how our legislation was designed. It was mostly driven by health considerations.

Denis Hayes Earth Day founder and Palo Alto, California resident Denis Hayes at a dump site in Palo Alto, California, as he displays burlap sacks filled with empty glass bottles and metal cans that local residents use in a weekly recycling program. Hayes urges all people to recycle as an alternative to dumpingDenis Hayes at dump site, Palo Alto, USA

Hayes at an Earth Day cleanup in Palo Alto, California, in 1990.

Paul Sakuma/AP/Shutterstock

You’re right, the Green New Deal has had strong elements of social justice and equity built into it, which has significantly inspired, particularly, the youth climate strikers. But it also has within it a vision of a future that doesn’t burn fossil fuels, a vision that is increasingly decentralized and distributed and resilient, so that if there’s a terrorist act or a storm, everything isn’t shut down, because you’ve got all these micro-grids, and all these different distributed generating capacities and storage areas.

Now we have this pandemic upon us. How do you think it will change our relationship with the planet, and how we deal with climate change?
If we — and by we, I mean Homo Sapiens around the planet — address it effectively, if we manage to tamp down the curve so that it becomes something where maybe there’s a lot of death but not a 1918 flu level of death, then I’m not sure how it will pan out. It may be something that is here with incredible intensity now, but what people remember three years from now is that their 401(k)s declined and they lost a lot of income for two, or three, or four months.

But if there’s something that I hope comes out of this particular pandemic, it’s that there is value in science and expertise. You want to be paying attention to that and letting it guide your policy. You can ignore Mother Earth for a little while, but in the end, it will catch up with you.

The role of government is also key here. There’s nobody that can issue a shelter-in-place order except a government. If the economy goes into a spiral, there’s nobody that can pump enough purchasing power back into it to stop that from happening except the government. This entire conservative ideological era says, “I want to starve the government and shrink it till it’s small enough that I can drown it in the bathtub.” I hope this idea comes out of this thing with just an enormous discrediting, because there is a role that government has to play. That’s definitely true, not just for pandemics, but it’s true for, obviously, climate change. If we can come out of this thing [with] the government deciding what it wants the nation to look like 20 years from now — not just a goal 20 years from now, [but] a plan for next year, and the year after, and five years, and 10 years — then that would be just a wonderful consequence for climate.

As you were talking, I was thinking about President Trump. Obviously, Trump has been a disaster for all things environmental and climate-related. But one of the things that has empowered Trump is the way the media works now, the fact that you have Fox News and this whole amplification system out there. How different was it in 1970 at the first Earth Day?
Well, in 1970, things were vastly more limited. We had three dominant television networks, and also the Public Broadcasting Service. We had a handful of national newspapers and the wire services. News magazines were much more important than now. That was pretty much it. You had conservatives reading publications like the National Review, which, whatever you want to say about it, was literate, thoughtful, and provocative, and not just telling boldface lies. That whole system worked reasonably well to get intelligent, thoughtful, true facts, and interesting analysis diffused at a relatively slow rate across the country.

The big change today is that there’s a million channels, and all this social media, and stuff happens very rapidly. You can start a rumor that has zero basis in fact, but if it sounds sort of plausible, and it’s interesting enough, it can spread around the world in a day. We live in a Wild West of falsehood.

If you could get 100 of the top climate activists in the world together in a room, or on a Zoom meeting, what advice would you give them?
The last few years, I think, we’ve been doing it relatively well. Student activists, in particular, are just full of energy and enthusiasm. Nobody expects a 16-year-old to be able to talk to you about ultracapacitors, or photoelectric chemistry, or different kinds of policy approaches. They’re simply demanding a sustainable, resilient, healthy future for themselves, and that’s what they ought to be doing, and the adults ought to be figuring out how to get that done.

Also, don’t be afraid of getting involved in organized politics, particularly in the next few months. I hate to sound like the catastrophist, but this president is so very awful. His enabling sycophants in the United States Senate are awful, too. I fear for the future of this country if we do not come out of this election having changed the distribution of power in Washington, D.C.

As you wrote in an op-ed recently, “Let’s make Election Day Earth Day.”
Yes. We had done a lot of work to make this Earth Day the most extraordinary outpouring of human passion in the history of the planet. I was hoping for 750,000 people on the mall in Washington, D.C. Now, because of the pandemic, it’s illegal to have more than 10. But we are going to have in the United States a really, really important election. Our climate, and our world, is at stake. We’ve got to win it.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.


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