How far would you go save the planet? For the father of Earth Day, Denis Hayes, this is a question that is woven within the fabric of his day-to-day. This mindfulness is not new for Hayes who has been fighting to turn back the clock on climate change since 1971 as he witnessed the landscapes that nourished him change at the hands of mankind. For many, preservation is the name of the game. Hayes reminds us that preservation however, is not enough; innovation is now at the core of the current movement, if not the race, to save and preserve our planet. As Hayes himself points out: “Somehow if the world is going to enjoy a future that lasts for a long time, we have to come together as a species and pursue it in concert with one another.”
Denis Hayes has spent a lifetime showing us that we must band together to be better versions of ourselves collectively. As we struggle to grasp the ramifications of something as abstract as climate change, our mindfulness and reflection must move beyond how these changes affect our daily lives to how they will affect our very survival and that of generations to come. Despite the doom and gloom typically associated with climate change, Denis Hayes has showed us what it means to name something, create something, and foster change through the creation of green innovations, green economies, and green communities. Thus, this narrative harkens the urgency of the past and highlights the optimistic changes that must continue to be preserved, sustained, and cultivated. Here’s what we learned condensed from our full interview with Denis that you can check out in FtC’s April Edition.
FtC: Creating an official Earth Day is said to have been initiated by your recognition of the eco disasters and accumulation of waste. Were there any other factors from your personal life experience that motivated you to pursue this and make it happen?
I grew up in a paper mill community on the Colombia River back before there were any kinds of pollution controls. It gave off hydrogen sulfite and sulfur dioxide, which filled the air with acid whenever it rained and in the Pacific Northwest it rained every day so it was pretty miserable. Junk was just tossed into the river, and we had fish-kills of thousands of fish. While just ten miles away from that is the Colombia River Gorge, which is one of the most spectacularly beautiful pieces of real estate on the face of the earth. So all of the time growing up, on the one side we had massive clear cuts, acid rain, and fish-kills, while on the other side, there were wonderful camping and hiking experiences. I would take my bike up into the Gorge frequently and think ‘it must be reasonable to make paper without destroying the planet.’
After my junior year in high school, in 1971, I was at the Ecology Center sponsored by the National Ecology Center- nobody had ever heard of ecology. I read the book, “Fundamentals of Ecology,” and it really hit home and stuck in my mind for a period of time. Much of what I had read about how the world was supposed to operate from conventional political theorists, to radical theorists, to Marxists, to Frantz Fanon, Che Guevara, and so on, just didn’t make a whole lot of sense to me.
So I went out. I hitchhiked around the world for three years, basically looking for a meaning and found it, oddly enough, one night in Namibia. I had just hitchhiked from Luderitz, down on the coast and across from the mid-desert to a little town called Aus. I was looking back towards the coast and for whatever reason– and the epiphany that I had was commonplace now, but was kind of radical then in my mind. It was that fundamentally, humans are animals bound by the same principals of ecology that I read about in Eugene Odom’s book. I started wondering, what if we thought of ourselves in biological terms? There was no vocabulary then for urban ecology, industrial ecology, or human ecology, but that was the great insight. I basically stayed up all night trying to think through what that was, and then got up the following morning knowing what I wanted to do with my life.
In 1979 I was at an interview with a New York Times reporter where he called for National Environmental Teachers at colleges and universities. I was at Harvard at graduate school at the time and audaciously flew down to Washington DC for a 15 minute courtesy conversation with Senator Nelson, which rapidly turned into two and a half hours. I had been very politically active at Stanford in previous years and discussed the kinds of things that would make sense for him to do. I went back home to try to organize Boston, and I got a call two days later asking whether I would consider dropping out of college to try to organize the United States. It seemed a whole lot more promising than macroeconomics theory, so I did it.
FtC: What are some of the most impactful changes of the environmental movement that you find most meaningful – perhaps as a direct result associated with Earth Day?
While I like to think of it as having a massive impact, I do believe it very clearly was an inflection point. Things that were impossible in 1969 became unstoppable in 1970 and 1971, and I think Earth Day was the principal thing to pull that off. This coincided with a campaign that we ran called the “Dirty Dozen.” In it we went after 12 members of Congress with very bad environmental records, who were in districts that had strong Earth Day organizations where we could tilt the election using environmental causes. The combination of an election and a spectacularly successful “Dirty Dozen” campaign was the key. We spent under $15,000 on the entire nation and took out 7 of the 12 members of Congress.
Between the Clean Air Act, Clean Water Act, the Safe Drinking Water Act, the Endangered Species Act, the Superfund Toxic Substances Control Act, the Fungicide/Insecticide Act, and the Environmental Education Act and the establishment of the EPA- you throw all of those things together in just a handful of years and I think that the change in the way America does business is probably better than any change with the exception of the New Deal. The environmental revolution has basically come from the grassroots up under the presidency of a not-particularly-environmental president. It was determined that the net benefits through 2014 were considered to be about 30 trillion dollars. No matter where you are, $30 trillion is an awesome impact.
FtC: Then, like you said, it’s tricky to measure the impact from there because it’s just so webbed-out once you’ve had so many layers building.
One of the things that I think did come out of Earth Day was a sense of people thinking about how this particular issue affected themselves, their children, their neighborhoods, communities. As we have dealt more with global issues, we’ve been less effective. With the exception of CFCs and the ozone, most of the efforts globally are climate change, ocean acidification, migratory endangered species, and global population, and they were not very successful. What has resonated has been those things that were close to people that they could influence, and that they were affected by. We now have millions of people with jobs that have ‘environment’ in their title, which didn’t exist in 1970. It has become a set of values that all trace back directly and indirectly to that first Earth Day.
FtC: You have witnessed and contributed significantly to the Pacific Northwest’s becoming educated and environmentally aware in one of the most progressive regions in America. How do you envision this “global model for sustainable development,” and where are some other hot spots around the world that could be looked upon as a model?
Developments in different places are going to be an outgrowth of the culture of the people that are there and the physical circumstances of the land that they’re in. Other parts of the world that we’ve looked to commonly points to Copenhagen, Malmo, Friedberg, in some respects Singapore, and New Zealand has an interesting collection of cities…
Most of this has to do with learning how – in a world with ten billion people and most of them inside cities – we can live with a light enough footprint that we’re not going to crash the planet in the process. That means that our buildings have to be enormously different than they are now. What we’re trying to do with these cities is replicate that on a large scale, to make them super efficient in their use of energy and water, move people down the food pyramid a little so we’re not having climate destroying diets, etc. In a sense, it’s moving away from conspicuous consumption to conspicuous frugality and to be simple in our approach to life. Transportation will be a huge part of that, organizing our cities so that people don’t have to travel as much as they do now, and the travel that has to be done can be accomplished on bicycles, with foot traffic, and public transportation…
SF: Having already achieved the name “Hero of the Planet” by Time Magazine, what would be your all time goal to reach by the 50th Earth Day approaching in 2020? Whether personally or as a global community?
Well, if I could will the future I would have Earth Day be near the beginning of a protracted period of global environmental concern where we’re using digital media, movies, television, print magazines, web blogs, etc. We have issue after issue after issue from the bleaching of the coral reefs, to migratory bird species, to what ‘s happening to the children of Flint, Michigan, to what’s going on with black lung disease…
The next step is the leap: I would love to have this somehow cause people to start caring about things that are more distant from themselves, their families, their neighborhoods. The difficulty with climate change is that it’s vague and abstract, it affects the entire planet. The name “Earth Day” really resonates with people, but it’s hard to make people care about the whole Earth in the sense of causing them to pay more for their fuel and what have you to do it…
So, if you’re saying what is the best that can come out of Earth Day? That’s kind of a stretch for a civic holiday, but I’d like it to be much as that first Earth Day was with bringing environmental values and vocabulary into the popular culture, I would love for this next one to do that globally…
This is a condensed version of FtC’s in-depth interview with Denis. With our thanks to Denis for granting us permission to share his images with you. For FtC’s full interview see Face the Current April edition pages 54 – 63. Digital or print? You can purchase either, or subscribe. Just click here!
About the author
Sasha serves as Founder and Editor in Chief of FtC. A self proclaimed perspective seeker, adventurer, and explorer. She received her Master’s Degree in Liberal Arts and continues to study a variety of subjects within and outside of the academic setting. Bringing a personal moonshot approach to life through FtC, aiming to provide an experience for FtC’s global community to inspire one another to stay curious, never stop exploring, and to live on-purpose and to-potential.
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