The Organizer Behind Earth Day
A lifelong environmentalist reflects on the movement he helped spawn.
By Melinda Sacks
When he coordinated the first Earth Day in 1970, Denis Hayes, ’69, JD ’85, had no idea it would garner so much attention, or that 20 million people from across the nation would come out to celebrate Mother Earth. Hayes had been attending Harvard’s Kennedy School when a New York Times article about the idea of Earth Day caught his eye and inspired him to volunteer. Soon after, he became its principal national organizer. That was 48 years ago. Now president of the Bullitt Foundation, a Seattle-based environmental nonprofit, Hayes looks back and marvels at his youthful idealism, and at the fact that so many similarities between then and now make Earth Day — often referred to as the world’s most celebrated secular holiday — more relevant than ever.
Hayes responded by email to STANFORD’s questions about his environmental leadership over the years, and what he sees as the biggest challenges facing the planet today. Here is an edited version of the conversation.
STANFORD: Can you describe the political context leading up to the first Earth Day?
HAYES: Politics were in a state of disarray. Richard Nixon had won the presidency with his “Southern strategy,” a bold, successful effort to realign American political parties. He saw that Lyndon Johnson’s strong support of the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act gave the Republicans an opportunity to take political control of the formerly solidly Democratic South. Many progressive Republicans — John Lindsay, Pete McCloskey [’50, JD ’53], Dan Evans, Ed Brooke, John Chafee and many, many others — found themselves increasingly isolated from their party. These Republicans aligned with Democrats to move a powerful environmental agenda. Indeed, President Nixon — emphatically no environmentalist himself — felt compelled to establish the Environmental Protection Agency and to appoint Bill Ruckelshaus, a smart, courageous environmentalist, to lead it.
How was America’s environment then compared to now?
We’ve mostly forgotten that the air in 1970 in Gary, Ind., and Pittsburgh and Los Angeles was the same as the air today in Beijing, Delhi and Mexico City. The Santa Barbara oil spill proved that no community was exempt from pollution. The Cuyahoga River famously caught on fire — yet again. The use of the defoliant Agent Orange was causing a mounting tide of still-born babies and birth defects. Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring and Paul Ehrlich’s Population Bomb were both being fiercely debated. The bald eagle was an endangered species.
‘If the greatest environmental progress occurs in response to the greatest threats, the time is ripe for the pendulum to swing hard toward environmental progress.’
[Today], America has withdrawn from the Paris climate accords, which were themselves too unambitious to avoid climate calamity. A plastic-filled Great Pacific Garbage Patch is now three times the size of France. Antibiotic-resistant diseases are emerging and spreading (I had one myself). An epidemic of extinction is diminishing the richness and diversity of life everywhere, but most powerfully in the global South. If the greatest environmental progress occurs in response to the greatest threats, the time is ripe for the pendulum to swing hard toward environmental progress.
When that first Earth Day pulled the pendulum toward increased environmental protection, what sorts of changes took place?
Legislation that had been unthinkable in 1969 became unstoppable in 1970. In the five years following the first Earth Day, America established the EPA and passed a number of legislative measures:
• Clean Air Act (1970)
• Environmental Quality Improvement Act (1970)
• Lead-Based Paint Poisoning Prevention Act (1971)
• Clean Water Act (1972)
• Federal Insecticide, Fungicide, and Rodenticide Act (1972)
• Marine Protection, Research and Sanctuaries Act (1972)
• Marine Mammal Protection Act (1972)
• Endangered Species Act (1973)
• Safe Drinking Water Act (1974)
• Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFÉ) standards (1975)
• Hazardous Materials Transportation Act (1975)
• Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (1976)
• Toxic Substances Control Act (1976)
• National Forest Management Act (1976)
As a result, tens of trillions of dollars have been spent differently, with a very high benefit/cost ratio, because of that legislation. Human health has improved dramatically, and the environment has improved immeasurably. Along with the New Deal, I think it was one of the two greatest public policy revolutions of the 20th century.
For those who have never seen or read about it, please describe the Bullitt Center, the specially built commercial building where the Bullitt Foundation and other organizations are housed.
The Bullitt Center is a “living building.” It functions like a hybrid organism with its own brain, nervous system, pores, fur, chlorophyll and alimentary canal. It is the only six-story building in the world that generates more electricity on its solar rooftop than it uses (and it’s in Seattle!). Its external weather station and internal sensors give the brain the info it needs to determine whether the windows should be opened or closed. All of its water, including potable drinking water, comes from the rain that falls on its roof and is stored in a 50,000-gallon cistern in the basement. (It uses only 8 percent as much water per square foot as the average office building in Seattle, and only one-fifth as much energy as a building built to code.)
‘Everything else pales before the need for a habitable planet with population levels comfortably below its carrying capacity.’
The Bullitt Center is important for several reasons. First, before we completed it, it was considered technically impossible by every developer in the city. Second, it was assumed by many to be unaffordable — a vanity project by a foundation unconcerned with the bottom line. However, it has one of the highest internal rates of return of any commercial building in Seattle, and maintenance costs have been minimal. Third, unlike commercial developers, we were able to delay construction while obtaining the necessary new ordinances and regulation changes. Today, there are more than 400 living buildings at various stages of development, and the field is expanding swiftly.
Buildings consume about 40 percent of all energy. If every building functioned like the Bullitt Center, the world would already be well on its way to surpassing its 2050 goals under the Paris climate accords.
What else is important for people to know about you and your work?
When I was young, the big existential threat was nuclear war. When I became interested in environmental issues, it was in search of a better instrument to guide public policy, rather than liberal, neoliberal, radical, conservative or libertarian economics that held sway. But in time, a series of environmental threats emerged — some truly existential, and others that could dramatically reduce the carrying capacity of the planet. From ozone depletion to catastrophic loss of top soil, from climate change to emerging zoonotic diseases, from hormone-disrupting chemicals to ocean acidification, these all fell within the general framework of “the environment.” Everything else pales before the need for a habitable planet with population levels comfortably below its carrying capacity.
It’s my hope that the 50th anniversary of Earth Day in 2020 will produce an unprecedented global outpouring of outrage over climate change and other global threats. Hopefully, going into 2020, young people in colleges, high schools, cities and work places around the world will seize upon the 50th anniversary of Earth Day as an inflection point. •
Melinda Sacks is a senior writer at STANFORD.