‘We’re on the way to a sustainable, resilient planet’

Denis Hayes in 1970 (above), while planning the first Earth Day, and (left) today

50 years after he was picked by Wisconsin Senator Gaylord Nelson to hastily orgainze the first earth day at age 25, Denis Hayes thinks ‘green’ is winning.

You and your team inspired 20 million Americans to take part in the first Earth Day, on April 22, 1970. How did you pull it off? We persuaded reporters to write about it and put our mailing address into articles. A week later, a flood of mail would come in. When we wanted to communicate, we’d mimeograph 50,000 copies, stamp them and send them out. Slow, but it worked.

And the idea really struck a chord. The response was remarkable. There was dissatisfaction with the way the nation was de­veloping. You couldn’t see more than two blocks in some cities because of the air pollution. Places we used to swim and fish had “No swimming, no fishing” signs due to wa­ter pollution. Rivers were on fire. Breathing the air in places like Los Angeles was like smoking two or three packs of cigarettes a day. People began to think there’s something wrong.

What’s your most amazing memory of that day? Climbing up on a platform 60 or 70 feet in the air, in New York City, and speak­ing to a crowd that was like the sea stretching out ahead of you. It swelled on forever. That was the first time I had the sense this was something enormous.

How were you picked to head the effort? I flew to Washington, D.C., to meet with Earth Dayfounder Sen. Gaylord Nelson (D-Wis.), hoping he didn’t have an organizer lined up for Harvard. A couple days later, his chief of staff asked me to drop out of school, move to D.C. and organize the entire U.S.

What’s the legacy of Earth Day? Legislation that was unthinkable in 1969 be­came unstoppable in the 1970s. A tsunami of legislation emerged. Between 1970 and 1976 the Clean Air Amendments ofl970, Clean Wa­ter Act, Endangered Species Act, Safe Drink­ing Water Act and more were passed. Human health has improved dramatically.

And the environment? Clearly, our air is much cleaner; our water is much cleaner. Things that used to be le­gal, like lead in your gasoline, are now no longer there. Wildlife is more protected. The hole in the ozone layer is starting to heal up. That said, we don’t have very good ways to address things that are internation­al in scope, like climate change. ·

What’s your view on climate change? The world is producing more carbon diox­ide every year than the year before. Hurri­canes, floods, droughts, forest fires, rising seas have become the new normal. After beating my head against the wall for 40 years, I cannot understand why this is not the number one political priority of every nation on earth. We already have in hand everything we need to build an ultraeffi­cient society powered 100 percent with renewable-energy technologies.

What can older adults who remember the first Earth Day 1970 do today? I’d love to see a gray-green alliance be­tween the generations. Talk to your grand­kids who are marching for environmental causes. Support them. Find an Earth Day 2020 event near you. We’re hoping a billion people will get involved.

What keeps you optimistic? You can’t get people to do anything unless there is hope of success. We’re on the way to developing technologies for a truly sus­tainable, resilient planet. Already, stunning things have happened, like long-range elec­tric vehicles and sustainable buildings.

As president of the Bullitt Foundation, a Seat­tle environmental philanthropy, you work in. an ultragreen office building. How’s that? Even on a cool, cloudy day, it’s bright and warm inside. Solar panels produce elec­tricity that fuels heat pumps, keeping the entire building comfortable. On a winter day, there’s nothing more delightful than walking around with just socks on.

Interview by Sari Harrar