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.

If he wasn't an environmentalist, he was a hell of a politician, and the two things that caught his attention were that our biggest event was in New York City and the prime politician helping was Mayor John Lindsey, who was Nixon's biggest challenge on the left in the Republican Party, while the other major player was Ed Muskie, who was Nixon's presumptive Democratic opponent for the next election. Muskie was running the air- and water-pollution subcommittee of the Senate Public Works Committee, so he would have been the author of any clean air or water act.

Nixon looks out the White House window and sees the mall full of people, turns on his television and sees gigantic crowds in cities across the country, and reads the Associated Press report that more than 20 million people are involved. He had barely won in 1968 and figured he had to be a player in this.

That afternoon, Ehrlichman brought him the Ash Commission report [on government reorganization] that had been gathering dust and said, "We're already working on air pollution at Health, Education and Welfare; we're doing some water-pollution stuff at Interior, radioactive wastes at the Atomic Energy Commission, pesticides at the Department of Agriculture. You can take all that, put them in one place, tie a bow around it and call it the Environmental Protection Agency, and you're a player."

As Ehrlichman told it to me, it was straight cause and effect: if there had been no Earth Day, there would be no EPA.

Will George W. Bush's place in history be as the man who made Nixon look good by comparison?

I think he's so far beyond that now that the question is if he'll be the man who makes Attila the Hun look good. Compared to anyone, the damage this man and his minions have done is just beyond belief. The reason isn't Bush being more anti-environment; it's that the greatest contribution of our nation's founders is not working well at the moment. When you have a divided government, it slows things down but it stops craziness from happening. But when you have the House of Representatives under the thumb of Tom Delay, the Senate is Republican, the judiciary's Republican, and then you've got the White House in the hands of folks who are at the right extreme wing of the Republican Party, there are no checks and balances. Bush has been able to get away with things that none of his predecessors could have even if they'd wanted to.

I'm most concerned about the administration's corruption of science—the fact that you have first-rate reports done by independent scientists, but if they're in any kind of opposition to either the dominant ideology or the economic interests of any prominent supporters, then they are either distorted or buried. A little bit of that has probably gone on forever, but there has never been this kind of wholesale disregard of fact-based decision-making before. It's so bad that bipartisan groups of prominent scientists and policy analysts have all called upon the administration to stop. People who have been prominent in other Republican administrations—Nixon, Reagan and Bush I—have all said that you cannot operate at this kind of disconnect.

The second concern would be that the United States is by far the strongest force in the world against intelligent energy and climate policies today. It's embarrassing for much of the world that while they are trying to figure out how to develop protocols, we're busy trying to figure how to get oil out of Iraq.

Then there's the whole "Clear Skies," "Healthy Forests" misuse of the language, where you call something by a really cheery-sounding name while the actual policies are rapacious.

So little of that even gets traction in the media.

What's fascinating to me is that, in this election, we have the worst environmental president in history running against the strongest environmental contender in history. Kerry's got a 96 percent lifetime voting average from the League of Conservation Voters, way higher than Al Gore. There's no one else out there like him on the environment. He makes it one of the top things he talks about it in every goddamn speech I've heard him do, and nobody ever picks that up in the news.

What are the biggest environmental concerns in the years ahead?

The things that worry me most are climate extinction and what we don't know. Look at [UC Irvine professor] Sherry Rowland's work on CFCs and the ozone layer: to go from everybody thinking this is a compound that's completely inert, with marvelous uses, to being a threat to all life on the planet—that makes you think maybe we don't fully understand what we're doing, and we're producing a hell of a lot of substances that are not going through sufficient testing. What's disturbing most thoughtful people now are endocrine disrupters, things that are basically synthetic hormones that, in very trace amounts, interfere with particular points of a living being's lifecycle, and they may be producing all kinds of effects that we just think of as the deterioration of society: short attention spans, learning disabilities and the like. The simple fact is we don't know. Hopefully, we'll deal with them appropriately before they cause calamities.

What things can individuals do to help the environment?

If you do nothing else this Earth Day, register to vote. And then, don't just vote: get in there at your congressman's town meetings and lay into him on the issues. And talk to your friends about the issues and pull them in with you. It's a part of friendship.

Another place of leverage is in the economic system. We're seeing more shareholder activism, some of it over environmental issues, where they're holding companies accountable for everything from disclosing greenhouse-gas emissions to sustainable forestry practices.

One important lesson successful social movements learned from religion is that if you're going to be successful, you have to really live the values you are preaching. As a consumer, that means when you're buying environmentally sound products, you're not just helping companies that are doing the right thing, but it also increases the integrity with which you are viewed by others, and that influences their commitment. It's like secular sacraments: buying the most fuel-efficient car that meets your needs, insulating the dickens out of your house, using superefficient appliances.

Despite the setbacks and issues yet to be confronted, do you feel the movement has changed the basic way we think about the environment?

I grew up in a small paper-milling community, and it produced an incredible amount of toxicity—sulfur dioxide, hydrogen sulfide and various kinds of effluents that went out the pipes into the Columbia River. There was zero pollution control. The biggest complaint people had wasn't the stench or that they woke up every morning with a sore throat because that's just how life was—you did wake up every morning with a sore throat. But people were pissed that this stuff corroded their cars, so the only pollution response of the mill was to install showers for automobiles on their parking lot.

I continue to think that my lungs are scarred from spending 18 years growing up with that stuff. But at the time, that was the smell of prosperity and the price of progress. The transformation from that is significant. If you ran a mill today the way they did then, you'd go to prison.

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