Earth Daddy

Denis Hayes organized the first Earth Day, and all he got was this lousy planet

Today Denis Hayes is president of the Seattle-based environmental advocate Bullitt Foundation. But in 1969, he was a 24-year-old Harvard grad student. He'd been active in protesting the Vietnam War and other social causes, but three years hitchhiking around the globe convinced him that the overarching problems on every continent he visited were environmental. When he returned to the U.S., he was looking to get involved in environmental causes, but there was scarcely even a vocabulary then to address such issues, much less a movement. Hayes didn't know he was about to help create one.

OC Weekly:How did the first Earth Day in 1970 come about? Denis Hayes:I happened to read a newspaper article about how a senator from Wisconsin, Gaylord Nelson, was calling for an environmental teach-in. I hadn't heard anybody talking about this in Boston, so I figured I might be able to get the charter to organize this thing at Harvard, maybe even all of Cambridge. It turned out that there really wasn't anything going on anyplace. It was just an idea Nelson had mentioned in a speech. But because he'd received three big sacks of mail over it, my 15-minute courtesy call turned into a several-hour conversation about what could be done. A couple of days later, he asked me if I'd consider dropping out of school, coming down and trying to organize the entire United States. So I did it.

The first thing we did was decide that this was an issue well beyond the teach-in stage. Most activists by that point thought the term "teach-in" was passé, that it was time to have some kind of action. So we changed the name from the Environmental Teach-In to Earth Day and reached out to every interest group we could identify that ought to be involved: farmers' groups, labor unions, conservationists, the National Science Teachers Association. By the time we were done, every town in America had something going on. An awful lot of it was just teachers going out with their students and studying butterflies, but it was still some level of engagement with nature.

The big issues in 1970 were polluting power plants and oil refineries: the Santa Barbara oil slick, lead paint in buildings, freeways cutting through people's neighborhoods. The passions were mostly local, and we had to fashion that into a national framework.

Some dire things were predicted for the environment then. Were the predictions right?

Certainly some of the things happening today prescient people—mostly scientists—foresaw then. Endangered species were a concern then; now there's practically a global epidemic of extinctions. The problems of the seas have just gotten worse and worse and worse. Something that many of us hoped for were solutions that would short-circuit many of these problems we face now, perhaps the most important solutions being renewable energy resources, which so many environmental issues were linked to. That hasn't come to pass. The technologies have, but they haven't been commercially exploited. And some things that nobody even recognized could be a problem then turned out to be enormous problems, like CFCs depleting the ozone layer. Global warming wasn't an issue then.

The first Earth Day engaged some 20 million Americans, and much of their motivation then was a concern for Earth's future. Now it is the future, and many of their worst fears are staring us in the face, yet Earth Day today scarcely has more impact than Arbor Day. What happened?

That characterization of it today is not unfair for the United States. The movement has become increasingly professional and institutionalized. The people who are the scientists, lawyers and lobbyists of the environmental movement now are head and shoulders above us rabble-rousers who were at it in 1970. They know the science and issues well, but the movement's lost a bit of the vibrancy and spontaneity it had. We've got to get the movement once again talking to people who watch football games or go bowling. There's not much engagement right now.

But Earth Day is still in a process of being created, and I think it's on a good trajectory. This year, it's being celebrated in 184 countries around the planet. It is the only secular, theme-based holiday in the world. That's important because so many environmental problems are international in scope. Even the richest, most powerful nation can't solve our climate problems. It would be nice if we'd stop being the enemy on climate, but even if we did a 180-degree, the world would have to act in concert to make a difference.

Did the first Earth Day produce any victories in Washington?

Well, Nixon created the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Two things about Earth Day really caught his attention. I wasn't there, but I did go out for a long evening of drinking with John Ehrlichman when he got out of the slammer. His version of this was that Nixon didn't care much for the environment and thought all this whining about pollution was a sign of moral decay, a weakening of the American fiber by people who weren't prepared to suck it up and pay the price of progress.

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