Denis Hayes was the principal national organizer of the first Earth Day in 1970, and he took the event to the international stage in 1990. He is board chair of the international Earth Day Network, and president of the Bullitt Foundation.
Earth Day 2018 is slated for April 22 and focuses on plastic pollution, so Mongabay took the opportunity to ask him about this year’s event and find out what else is on the mind of this key leader of the international environmental movement.
Interview With Denis Hayes
Erik Hoffner for Mongabay: What was the impetus for the first Earth Day, nearly 50 years ago now?
Denis Hayes: There were hundreds of important “environmental” issues before the first Earth Day: DDT & bird deaths. Air & water pollution. Oil spills. Herbicide use in Southeast Asia. Wilderness areas.
But they were commonly viewed as unrelated. One prominent leader actually asked me, “What the hell does air pollution have to do with birds?” Earth Day took all these myriad strands and wove them into the fabric of modern environmentalism—linked by a coherent set of values and grounded in an ecological framework. When added together, they formed the basis for a formidable new political force.
Mongabay: What’s the theme of this year’s Earth Day, and how can people get involved?
Denis Hayes: The 2018 theme is “End Plastic Pollution.” There is not much that the average person can do about the Pacific Garbage Patch or to ban endocrine disrupting plasticizers except scream at politicians to take the issues seriously. So inviting political leaders to rallies and teach-ins and confronting them can be useful. An aroused public can overcome a powerful economic interest, but only when the issue is felt intensely. Until ending “one-way” plastics becomes a political priority around the world, [their manufacture] will continue unabated. Meanwhile, we nevertheless each should “be the change we want to see.” The world produces at least a trillion plastic bags each year. Don’t be part of this gigantic waste stream that makes a one-way trip from the oil well to the dump. Earth Day Network has produced an excellent, free, downloadable primer on plastic pollution and what people can do about it as well as a “plastic footprint” calculator. And if you want to organize an event in your neighborhood, see www.earthday.org/yourjourney2018
Mongabay: We regularly cover the news of plastic and microplastic pollution, like the recent revelation that the Pacific Garbage Patch is much heftier than thought, and growing—the scope of the issue is just mind boggling. What do you hope the 2018 Earth Day efforts will accomplish, in the face of news like that?
Denis Hayes: It ranges in size from the North Pacific Gyre to nanoplastic fibers small enough to penetrate individual cells. We are finding microplastics in treated drinking water, in soft drinks, in beer … (maybe the discovery in beer will unleash a whole new constituency?) Environmental regulation has been most successful inside nation states. Transboundary issues (like migratory species that may need habitat on three continents) or global commons issues (like marine pollution and greenhouse gases) pose much tougher issues. 2018 will focus mostly on local, state and national policies, and also individual behavior. It’s my hope that by 2020—the 50th anniversary—we will be able to build a global constituency for action on the planetary scale.
Mongabay: You live in a major population center in America’s Pacific Northwest. How are cities there and in British Columbia models of sustainability?
Denis Hayes: It would be shockingly arrogant for any city to characterize itself as a “global model of sustainability.” Portland, Vancouver and Seattle are all making progress on super-efficient buildings, bicycling and electric vehicles, public transport, local and organic food, etc. But if “sustainable” means capable of being continued for thousands of years into the future—coupled with strong elements of social justice—there is no city on the planet that is close to sustainable. Our cities, along with Copenhagen, Freiburg, Malmo and others are at least making a serious effort.
Mongabay: Your office, the Bullitt Center, is made of wood and is said to be the world’s greenest office building. The Northwest has a long history of wooden buildings, so what’s your take on the trend of building large urban wooden structures, including skyscrapers?
Denis Hayes: We built the Bullitt Center before Cross Laminated Timber (CLT) made its debut in the United States. We were the first 6-story, heavy timber building constructed in Seattle since 1927. But with CLT, it is theoretically possible to build structures that are 40 or 50 stories tall. If the wood comes from forests that mimic ecosystems—forests that will remain healthy for thousands of years into the future—then wood can be a very attractive building material. We are still gaining a greater understanding of what that means, but for the present, being certified by the Forest Stewardship Council is a pretty good proxy for sustainable forestry. Every piece of wood in the Bullitt Center is FSC certified.
Of course, there is no free lunch. Even ecological forestry can be damaging. Beavers are damaging. But properly-sourced wood can be vastly less harmful than concrete and steel, as well as more beautiful and longer-lasting.
Mongabay: What would you say are the biggest challenges for Northwest forests in 2018?
Denis Hayes: Tens of millions of acres of West Coast forest have been killed by insects, mostly various bark beetles that global warming is allowing to spread into new regions. Hopefully, predators will follow them, and the ecosystems will get back into equilibrium soon. There have been hundreds of small- and medium-sized fires, but so far we have not had the vast inferno that was everyone’s worst fear.
Beyond that, there is a threat hidden in the opportunity provided by CLT. Understandably, politicians are falling all over themselves with enthusiasm for this new building material. Done well, it could be a boon. But if the now-dormant timber beasts are unleashed by the Trump administration to wantonly rape and pillage the region’s forests, we could see the re-ignition of the timber wars of the 1990s.
As for other environmental issues, I do my best to stay on top of most of the things that appear to be urgent and important. Currently on my desk are things having to do with autonomous vehicles, passivhaus buildings, tariffs on Chinese solar modules, ocean acidification, and antibiotic resistance. I love my job!
Mongabay: It was big news last week when the kids’ case “Juliana v. United States,” suing the federal government over its climate change inaction, was approved to go to trial in Eugene, OR, after much stalling and avoidance tactics from the Trump administration. Are you proud it’s been led by many young people and their adult advocates in the Northwest (and elsewhere)?
Denis Hayes: As it turns out, I had lunch just today with one of the plaintiffs in that case, Aji Piper, and one of the attorneys is an old friend. More precisely—as is so often the case these days—that attorney is the daughter of a dear old friend. I love that young people are waking up again, whether around gun violence, skyrocketing tuition, or environmental issues. Big dramatic change, when it happens, is usually led by the young. America’s civil rights struggle, the anti-war movement that toppled a president, and the environmental movement that fundamentally changed the rules of the game for industry were all led by kids in the 1960s and 70s. I’m hoping that some of the aged veterans of the 1960s will be able to find common cause with the angry young activists today — a gray-green alliance.
Mongabay: I’ve read that Earth Day is now the most widely observed secular holiday in the world. What does that look like?
Denis Hayes: If “observed” means a day on which people actually engage in some activity in support of a cause, I think it probably is. Most secular holidays tend to be national, like the Fourth of July or Bastille Day. Earth Day is observed in very different ways in different countries, and in different cities within the same nation. It will vary depending on which issues are resonating, what sorts of activities are acceptable in different polities and different cultures. Earth Day Network India is a year-round organization addressing issues ranging from protecting Asian elephants to empowering women (which brings innumerable indirect benefits, from smaller family sizes to smarter public policies). On Earth Day itself, most Indian activities focus on schools. The group has produced digital texts that are widely distributed, and it engages students in all manner of environmental restoration projects.
Actually, grade schools and high schools remain a crucial element of Earth Days around the world. When a billion little green guerrillas head home with messages relating to sustainability, it has a real world impact. Every parent wants to be a hero to his or her kids.
Mongabay: It perhaps points out the failures of the environmental movement, that a day to raise awareness of the ecological crises the world faces is still needed almost 50 years later. But it helped galvanize a movement for change that achieved many accomplishments, right?
Denis Hayes: The first Earth Day was purely a national effort, and it was successful beyond our wildest dreams. In the five years following that first Earth Day, America established the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).
Tens of trillions of dollars have been spent differently, and better, because of that legislation. Human health has improved dramatically, and the environment has improved immeasurably. But (1) we’ve never managed to enjoy similar success on trans-national and global issues, and (2) in the United States, the environment has been caught up in the dim-witted, whacko politics of the Trump administration. The current EPA head is by far the most irresponsible director that agency has had in a half century. 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, and demands that all governments do whatever is necessary to preserve a habitable planet. Is there any more fundamental obligation of political leaders than making sure that humanity has a future?
Mongabay: What else is on your mind?
Denis Hayes: There are two important ideas that I’d like to close with. First, in the 1960s and 1970s, the news media were not omnipresent and were more relaxed. A “day” could have an enduring impact. In America, people of a given age still remember the March on Selma and the March on the Pentagon, one-day events that marked major milestones. Earth Day (which stretched over a couple of weeks but was 90 percent focused on April 22) left an indelible legacy.
Today, a “day” is simply a news cycle, forgotten the next morning. With that in mind, Earth Day 2020 will be more like a meme than a day. Hopefully, it will last for many months, with innumerable developments tied together with a common branding. For example “Indonesian forest destruction halted #EarthDay2020,” or “Saudi Arabia commits to 20 GW solar plant #EarthDay2020,” or, more tragically, “Five more environmental activists murdered #EarthDay2020.” We need to build in the experiences of #BlackLivesMatter and #MeToo and #EndGunViolence to create a global community—on myriad different platforms—of billions of people committed to a peaceful, healthy, equitable future.
Second, Earth Day is not a top-down enterprise. Earth Day Network has no global command-and-control structure. Modestly resourced, it functions through inspiration, encouragement and shared values. So the success of Earth Day 2020 will be entirely dependent on the voluntary efforts of people like the readers of Mongabay deciding what’s really important to them and contributing their efforts to this global campaign.
Earth Day 2020 provides a framework and a value system, but humanity-writ-large will need to fill #EarthDay2020 with content and policies. Earth Day has always been premised on the belief that humankind, like other species, has hard-wired within it the will to survive, and that it will do what is necessary toward that end.