Denis Hayes on the 40th Anniversary of Earth Day

Denis Hayes TreeHugger Radio photo

When he was just in his mid-20s, Denis Hayes was made national coordinator of the very first Earth Day. That was forty years ago, and a lot has changed. Over his career as a lawyer, technologist, investor, and advocate, Hayes has watched Earth Day become a global phenomenon, aggregating the efforts of myriad causes in many places (occasionally co-opted by corporations). Hayes shares his thoughts on the current significance of Earth Day, Obama's weaknesses and strengths, the future of cleantech, and what real climate legislation should look like.

For more on Earth Month, check out our dedicated page.

Listen to the podcast of this interview via iTunes, or just click here to listen, right-click to download.

Full text after the jump.TreeHugger: So what does Earth Day mean to you now?

Hayes: Well, it's somewhat different today than it was in 1970. In 1970, we had a couple of objectives. One was to unite a whole bunch of different strands that didn't view themselves as being related to one another, into a coherent fabric of a new movement. That's to say that the traditional conservation groups didn't see what they had to do with clean air, the clean air advocates didn't care that much about what the pesticide advocates were doing, and the folks that were fighting for the everglades couldn't understand why it was a big issue to push a freeway through an inner city area.

What Earth Day did was to pull all of those folks together under a banner that united them as environmentalists, so they could work together on issues, support one another, and have far more clout than they could have ever exercised independently.

Today, Earth Day means something a bit different. The first Earth Day was really focused on the United States, and although we called it Earth Day, that was because the Earth meant the environment more than it meant the planet.

Today, some really big, important environmental issues that are facing us--climate change, everything from threats to the hydrological cycle and nitrate cycle, mining, devastation by over-fishing of the world's oceans, acidification of the world's oceans, the trade in endangered species, and on and on--are all things that no one country can control or cure by itself.

And so, Earth Day now has changed its focus from the United States. The Earth Day Network now has events in 190 countries around the world. We are trying to do for all those individual nations what we did in 1970 for all the different kinds of interest groups. To weave them together to care about things that are beyond just their own national interests, into what is now a global issue.

It's a little bit like the traditional metaphor that if an asteroid were hurling itself toward the Earth we wouldn't have too much difficulty figuring out who was going to do what: we would respond as a planet. We're now facing those kinds of huge global issues. And I'd like Earth Day to play some important role in getting us to think like a planet.

TreeHugger: If you ask some people about the meaning of Earth Day, certain people will say that corporations have stolen the show, that it's been greenwashed. Do you think that's happened?

Hayes: Probably, in some places. We made a conscious decision, in 1970, not to get intellectual property protection for the term "Earth Day." Not to call it a trade name or get it trademarked. We wanted, spontaneously, a great many people to do whatever they wanted to do. It's something that's known in marketing as chaotic organization, a term that was first come out with regard to credit cards. The people at Visa don't care whether you put pictures of mountains or water on your credit card. They don't really much care what interest rate you're charged. They don't care about a great many things other than that the card has to be a particular size, it has to have its magnetic band in a particular place, it has to have a certain number of characters that are punched out, and that it has to be related to a bank. If you meet those things, then everything else is sort of open.

And with Earth Day, we tried to say this has to deal with environmental values. It has to be taking pro-environmental stands. We're trying to be transformative. But we wanted (and in some large measure succeeded) in getting tens of thousands of individual groups across the country to spontaneously do the things that are really important to them, tying it all under one banner.

When you do that, well, the classic case is that in 1990 in Houston, Earth Day was brought to us by Enron. It was not a decision that I applauded wildly. But as things were set up there was nothing we could do about it.

TreeHugger: Where will you be April 22nd, this year's Earth Day?

Hayes: That's a peculiar question, in a sense. The big thing that we are doing this year, for pragmatic reasons, is having a huge event on the Mall in Washington, DC. That will be on April 25th, and it will have the usual array of people who care passionately about climate, and who are just upset, one might say infuriated, by the way Congress has behaved on this issue. Starting off with what is basically a pretty crappy bill, and then weakening it and weakening it and throwing in all sorts of things.

The general thought in Congress has been that you can't pass anything if you don't win the coal-state Democrats and the pro-nuclear Republicans. An attitude that if we had taken in 1970 regarding the Clean Air Act--when we were opposed by the auto industry, the steel industry, the coal industry, the electric utility industry, and anybody who had any power opposed it--and we flattened them. I think we've got to do that again. So that's where I will be on April 25th.

On April 22nd there will be a whole collection of smaller events that will have cultural significance, both in Washington, DC and in New York. I'll be spending much of the day in New York and then finishing it off in Washington, DC.

And then, finally, on the eve of all of this, on the 21st, the Earth Day Network is co-sponsoring with the Carbon War Room (which is a group put up by Richard Branson, the CEO of Virgin Enterprises) to talk about post-carbon entrepreneurial opportunities.

So I'll be giving a talk to that conference, which I hope is going to be bringing together a couple hundred of the most innovative and creative people who are trying to think what opportunities there will be in a carbon-constrained world.

TreeHugger: I'd love to hear your overview of where you think Barack Obama is succeeding on the environmental front, and where he's falling short.

Hayes: He is succeeding in one enormously important realm, which is that most of the things that happen in any administration are not done by the President. They are done by people who are appointed to key offices. Lisa Jackson (along with Bill Ruckelshaus) will be remembered in history as one of the finest heads of the EPA that we've ever had. She's bold, courageous, bright, well-organized, disciplined. And similarly, Steve Chu, in the Department of Energy, is superb.

In the part of the department I care about the most, which is the energy efficiency and renewable energy section, Cathy Zoi has been in these vineyards for decades and knows it well, has a business background, as well as a background running Al Gore's organization, as well as a background in the Clinton White House, and is really nicely positioned to move that along.

Presidential Science Advisor, John Holdren, is similarly first-rate. I could go on and on. Just superb appointments in the environmental sphere. I only wish the judicial appointments had been as good as the environmental ones.

As for failures, it's not failures, it's a different world view. Obama is aspiring mightily to be bi-partisan in an era where it occasionally appears that we've got mad dogs on the other side of the aisle. I'm hoping that as time goes on he will become someone who aspires to really re-articulate the visions that were out there during his campaign and start drawing lines in the sand.

He did that, finally, in the health care debate, after trying and trying to have something that would have everybody buy into it. OK, done it. Let's move.
With regard to climate change, candidly, I'm a little worried that we have now moved to the point that if he does that today on climate change, it will produce a piece of legislation that may well be a step in the wrong direction, much less a very, very small step in the right direction. We need to have him decide that this is one of his priorities.

He cares passionately about health care and has produced something there. He cares a lot about the state of the economy, and I'm hoping something will be done on financial regulation. And there are two or three other issues that seem to resonate with him, either before it touches his soul or he thinks it's politically important.

But I believe he, and certainly his key political advisors, think they can move well beyond the center on things like offshore drilling without losing the environmental voters because where are we going to go? He can postpone action on issues that are environmental and that require presidential leadership because we don't deliver at the polls. We're not one of those crucial constituencies.

This won't change until we make some of our issues voting issues. Until we get to the point where it is as important to a big bloc of voters--maybe even five to ten percent of all voters--to aggressively address climate change, as it is to another identified block of voters to maintain the right to carry a Colt into Starbucks or save Granny from the death panels.

If the future of the Earth is not as important as that, then we're all sort of up a creek anyhow. We've got to make this a voting issue. That means we have to identify some people who've been villains, and we need to defeat them at the polls.

Denis Hayes on the 40th Anniversary of Earth Day
When he was just in his mid-20s, Denis Hayes was made national coordinator of the very first Earth Day. That was forty years ago, and a lot has changed. Over his career as a lawyer, technologist, investor, and advocate, Hayes has watched Earth Day

Related Content on