How far would you go to 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.
Sasha Frate: 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?
Denis Hayes: 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.
SF: 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?
DH: 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.
SF: 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.
DH: 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.
SF: There are a lot of celebrities who are utilizing their influence to have a more far-reaching voice and enact positive change. Some examples include Leonardo DiCaprio’s ‘Climate Action Plan’, Pearl Jam’s ‘Carbon Mitigation’, and Woody Harrelson, who received an Honorary Doctorate for his work with environmental issues and helped found Prairie & Paper. What is your take on these kinds of efforts? How would you suggest we bring this legacy forward and keep the message authentic?
DH: The role of celebrity in American and global culture have been somewhat helpful with Earth Day. Tom Cruise was the host of the Earth Day event in 1990, and Leonardo DiCaprio played a similar role as Honorary Chair and host for Earth Day in 2000. People who have a genuine commitment to the issues have been real assets. The early pioneer on this was Robert Redford, who worked with incredible authenticity on a wide-range of environmental issues and has received various awards. Somebody like Matt Damon working on safe drinking water for the world, is just an enormous asset, bringing great credibility and visibility to that issue that those of us working in the trenches, just never would be able to reach.
SF: The hashtag “#naturelovers” has been used over 21 million times on Instagram alone. There is an abundance of outdoor sports and recreational activities that expand upon this number, displaying both an appreciation for and a connection with nature. The immense love for this planet paints a pretty picture, both in what the Earth has to offer and in the potential for us to connect with and experience it. What do you see as the best route to promote this experience, strengthening policy through proactive strategies fueled by a new generation, keeping the passion alive?
DH: The idea of biophilia, was basically pioneered by Steve Kellert and Ed Wilson and means that we get a great degree of satisfaction from interactions with nature, and this is an important part of being human. A problem that many people face in economically dire situations is that it often creates difficulty to get out of the inner city and experience nature. Then we have middle class who could easily do it but are wrapped up in electronic devices.
In New Zealand you’ll find communities of 5,000-7,000 people, and they have arboretums with acres and acres to roam. I wish we could do more of that in American cities.
SF: 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?
DH: 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.
What we’re trying to do is develop a few basic principles where you achieve as high a degree of self-sufficiency as you can within neighborhoods and even within buildings. We are in what is known as a “living building” here at the Bullitt Center, where it generates more electricity with roof top solar panels than the six-story structure itself uses. It captures all of the rain that falls on its roof and uses it for everything, including potable drinking water. It doesn’t generate any waste. It treats its sewage right on site and turns it into compost. It would all be much easier if we could do it with a neighborhood, but we couldn’t afford to do a whole neighborhood, so we did it all in one building. 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: As President of the Bullitt Foundation, you have helped design and build the world’s greenest office building. What all went into this building to make it the greenest in the world, and what are some unique features that has set it apart from others?
DH: This is a living building so it functions pretty much like an organism. It’s brain is a computer down in the basement. The nervous system includes a weather station outside telling you how and if the wind is blowing and from what direction; whether the sun is shining and if so, how intensely or if it’s covered with clouds. It tells you the external temperature in the shade. Then it gives you all of that data about the particular microclimate within which the building is nestled. Sensors inside the building tell you the temperature inside my office and how much carbon dioxide is built up- is it stuffy? We have venetian blinds on the outside of the building that go down following the sun across the sky to keep it from penetrating the glass and overheating the structure.
As of this moment, we are the only commercial office building that has met the living building challenge- the toughest challenge in the world. The requirements as of right now are that you generate as much energy as you use, you capture all of your rainwater, you treat all of your sewage, you use only materials that are non-toxic, non-carcinogenic, non endocrine-disrupting… Those are all tough standards to meet both technically and sometimes legally when you have to figure out how to work around regulations that make it illegal to build a really green building (which is kind of crazy). One of my contributions that everyone misunderstands is that I asked them to come up with an “irresistible stairway.”
You walk into a typical office building and you’re faced with a bank of elevators, and if you want to walk up the stairs you often have to look really hard to find them. If you find them, it’s dark, there’s nobody else on it, and if you’re a woman you might even be a little bit concerned going up some of these stairways by yourself, even in fairly modern, nice buildings. With ours you walk through the door and you can see this light filled stairway, and if you want to go to the elevator you actually have to go through the door to get to the elevator. If you’re disabled or you’re carrying a heavy load then you just push a button and it opens the door automatically for you. But virtually everybody uses the stairs and it turns out that it saves a great amount of energy. We have a super efficient elevator- it’s regenerative. But because something like 85% of inter-floor trips in the building are on the stairway, it’s good for people’s health!
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?
DH: 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. There’s this wealth of environmental things, and I would love for people try to come up with a coherent set of values that causes them to think of them in a holistic fashion; a framework of biophilia and a framework of human ecology.
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. Again, our success in dealing with global issues is dramatically less than it is in dealing with immediate issues.
We have now a lot of people in the world who have built relationships with folks that are a thousand miles away that they’ve never met, and they’ve built relationships that sort of transcend the things that divide us. Even among quite progressive people there is still this deep popular prejudice of patriotism. The thought if you are born one inch on one side of a line that was drawn on an arbitrary location on a map by somebody 150 years ago, you are worth infinitely more than someone born one inch on the other side of that line. 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. 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.
SF: Many people are confused by muddled and “mixed messages” on climate change as reports have claimed that it’s not related or resulting from human activity. While the pro side argues that rising levels of atmospheric greenhouse gases are a direct result of human activities and are causing severe climate changes including global warming, loss of sea ice, sea level rise, stronger storms, and more droughts. Can you clear the air? Hmm, pun intended.
DH: There are not two sides on this. The science is now clear. If we went back to 1970, climate change really wasn’t much of an issue. In the early 1970s there was actually a period when there was a degree of popularity about what they called “snowball Earth” in the sense that we were moving into a cooler regime, but before 1980 the people that were devoting their lives and careers to studying climate change reached a unanimous view that we were warming at an accelerating rate as a consequence of human activity in the form of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases.
I’ll confess climate wasn’t on my radar screen in 1970, and I didn’t become convinced until 1979. During the last part of the Carter Administration I was running the Federal Government Solar Energy Research Institute, which was right down the road from the National Center for Atmospheric Research and Steve Schneider was running the global climate modeling program for them. We became close friends and over the course of that he completely convinced me of the truth- so much so that in 1980 I gave a keynote address on solar energy that was to the American Association to the Advancement of Science.
With each passing year the volume of evidence has grown more and more. The reason people think there is a debate is principally because the fossil fuel industry, under the agents of the Global Climate Coalition, ran a campaign that was explicitly modeled upon the cigarette campaign that was convincing people that cigarettes didn’t cause lung cancer.
The automobile companies in the 1960s said there was absolutely no connection between automobile exhaust and smog. It was up to a scientist at Cal-Tech to prove beyond a doubt that smog was almost entirely due to automobile exhaust. There are these kinds of things and disputes and if somebody’s ox is being gored, tragically they are not beyond even lying to try to save it.
As part of the confirmation process for bringing in the CEO of Exxon as our Secretary of State, they found some internal Exxon documents that showed that when they were deciding what new oil fields they were going to explore, they were putting in a shadow price of between $40 a ton and $80 a ton for the price of carbon emissions that would be emitted and then be taxed under a carbon tax.
They knew enough that global warming was there, that they believed that the world was going to be putting a price on carbon emissions. If you’re doing that in your internal calculations and you’re not going to develop an oil field that isn’t economical – at a price that is dramatically higher than the price of simply the oil that is pulled out of the ground – then you’re pretty well committed to this issue. At the same time the advertisements, public statements, the grants to so called “think tanks” that crank out idiotic pieces of propaganda have created confusion in the US. This is actually quite rare in the rest of the world.
We are in the ironic position now of being less committed to climate change than China, India… not even in the same league as Europe. We will almost certainly be tearing apart the Paris Climate Accord –by far the most important step that the planet has made with regard to climate. They now look like the gold standard as a really important step in the right direction and getting the entire global community behind them in consensus is just a triumph.
SF: When the impacts have reached such incredible global scale and the sources of many of these major problems are deeply embedded in grandiose political and corporate operations as well as daily routines of convenience and habit, what do we do? Can it be reversed, slowed, improved? Woody Harrelson says stop buying the products and the companies will stop making them. Paul Stamets’ research has shown mycoremediation to be effective in removing heavy metals and toxic waste – reversal?? Solutions do in fact seem to abound. How do you suggest implementing them most efficiently?
DH: The difficulty is that we’ve now waited so long to move on the climate issue, that to get the price right is going to be staggering. A recent Stanford study trying to figure out what the costs of carbon are now, said it should be somewhere between $300 and $500 a ton. We can’t pass a tax of $15 a ton, so we are going to be doing what everybody hates- regulating power plants, fuel standards of automobiles, even behavior… There’s the political values part of your mind, and then there’s the consumer part of your mind.
People may say all the right things and genuinely believe them. As hundreds of millions of consumers, we tend to relate to items largely based upon their price and how efficacious they are- meaning “is it cheap enough, and does it actually do what I want to have done?” Once it passed those two standards then you take a look at style, value, endurance, recyclability, and environmental components start to come in and people say they are looking for sustainability. But for the most part green and sustainable come after you get past price and efficacy, and so without having something that influences price or regulates efficacy you have a rough time getting it done just by people who want to do the right thing. There is a segment of the population that one of these segmenting studies coined the “true blue greens” for whom the environmental impact is more important than the price. They will happily pay a significant premium and they will even be willing to go for something that doesn’t do the job as well but is really better for the world, but that’s a pretty small number of people- 15-18% of the population. With the rest, you’ve got to figure out a way to address this.
SF: How do you feel about the factors of convenience and habit? People often have to go out of their way to get some of the items that are more sustainable and reusable, the upcycled items… they’re not in the majority of stores, and for some people they may not even be within local reach. There is also the factor of habit, speaking of bottled water for example- people are thirsty so they pick up plastic bottled water…
DH: And because your cities have gotten rid of all of the drinking fountains! One of the elements is to get people to cherish what they now think of as an inconvenience. My “commute” to my office involves a mile walk and a bus ride, which for many could be regarded as pretty inconvenient. It could also be considered really healthy exercise, and it gives me time when I’m not looking at a phone or computer screen to think about what I want to get done that day. One of the things of our digital era where there’s always something convenient to read, is that people don’t take time to think. We’re constantly ingesting information, and we don’t have time to process it and come up with our own unique thoughts. So is that inconvenient, or is that something a positive contributor to my mental and physical health?
SF: Can you share some insight from your book “COWED: The Hidden Impact of 93 Million Cows on America’s Health, Economy, Politics, Culture, and Environment” that you co-authored with your wife Gail Boyer Hayes? Perhaps you can reveal just some of that “hidden impact”?
DH: Gail and I were on a trip in the United Kingdom, and as were driving around we kept encountering cows. You don’t encounter cows when you’re driving around the United States, because they are all off on confined animal feed lot operations- places that stink and that the producers don’t want the public to see. In England we kept seeing these little herds, and they were all different. Gail had almost no exposure to cows before in her life, but when we came back home she was just intrigued by the experience and started doing research. We found ourselves recognizing how important cows have been to the United States. Cows are human creations that were once animals called ‘aurochs’ that we bred into cows. An auroch was fast, really smart, and pretty vicious, and we’ve turned them into these docile, fat, stupid creatures because some of the things that we bred them for were related to genetics that reduced their intelligence. They didn’t come over on the Mayflower, but we had cows that came over on the second ship to the US. Then they were not only coming into New England but also the Spaniards coming into Latin America with their long horned Iberian cattle that they bred with the English cattle and produced the Texas longhorns. The Jesuits going up through Mexico and then into Southern California took herds of cows with them as part of the way that they were angelizing and getting the Native Americans to become part of their mission, offering them milk and meat.
Now, if you were to put all of the cows in America on one side of the scale and all the people on the other, the cows would outweigh us about 2.5 to 1. For the most part they don’t eat grass, which they evolved to do and their stomachs process really well. The great value of cows is that they take cellulose, which we can’t do anything with and they turn it into high value protein. Instead, we put them into these confined animal feeding operations fairly early in their lives and stuff them with grain (which is the functional equivalent of stuffing your kids with Halloween candy)- it’s bad for their stomachs. They begin to develop ulcers, diseases, and infections, and so we then we fill them with antibiotics. The antibiotics for cows as for people cause weight gain, and cattle ranchers are trying to get the cattle to weigh more so they can sell for more, so they use the antibiotics for this. It became illegal just a few years ago, so now they use it prophylactically. They don’t have any diseases, but they’re giving it to the cows anyhow so that they don’t come down with diseases, and a bi-product of that is that they gain weight. We use vastly more antibiotics in our livestock than we do for people, so that’s creating a wave of antibiotic resistance diseases that is beginning to permeate the planet and could ultimately lead to pandemics.
If we’re going to continue to have cows, we think they should be dramatically limited in numbers. They should be fed entirely on grasslands, be antibiotic free, and cruelty-free. That will only happen as Woody Harrelson apparently said- if people demand it. If people being to demand those changes and reduce the amount consumed down to a trivial fraction of what we currently do. If we were to stop eating beef, cows would disappear within two generations.
Regarding the impact on the environment– the waste from the feedlots is taken to what they call “goons” that are filled with terribly smelly cow waste. They’re often unlined or thinly lined and tend to rip, and the waste sinks down into the water table and creates nitrogen poisoning. Cows also fart and belch a lot. Their belches are principally methane, which is a more powerful greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide is. The largest use of corn in the United States is for ethanol, and the second largest use of corn is to feed cows on feedlots. A really distant third use is for human direct consumption, and it’s a different kind of corn. All of this in “corn country” we have enormous amounts of erosion, incredible amounts of nitrogen fertilizer to increase growth, use of herbicides- and all of this runs down into the rivers like the Mississippi. The ‘dead zone’ in the Gulf of Mexico is a direct result of the cattle industry and the corn that’s been grown to feed them. It all ties together in ways that are alarming and not in the best interest of the people and the planet. Instead of 93 million cows, it probably ought to be something closer to 20 million. The impact would be dramatically less.