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Greenpeace talks with Denis Hayes: 50 years of Earth Day, and where we go from here

by Denis Hayes

Once you've seen the country fundamentally restructure itself through grassroots efforts, you simply have to believe that that sort of thing can be done again.

Denis Hayes, principal national organizer of the first Earth Day in 1970, board chair of the international Earth Day Network, and president of the Bullitt Foundation, leading on sustainability for a rapidly urbanizing planet

David Hiller

Denis Hayes organized the first Earth Day in 1970 and is board chair of the international Earth Day Network. Last week, he and Greenpeace USA Digital Content Strategist, Katie Myer, discussed the origins of Earth Day, how the landscape has changed since then, and why the environmental movement is fundamentally one of social and economic justice. This is an edited version of that conversation.

Katie Myer: Earth Day truly was a turning point; it drove the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency and creation of significant legislation, such as the Clean Air Act. Could you speak to how the landscape has changed since then? 

Denis Hayes: Before Earth Day, the environmental movement, such as it was — the independent groups that were worried about birds, oil spills, or air pollution, but not worried about the whole package — did not really have much of a legislative presence in Washington. It really was a kind of heroic change that happened relatively swiftly after Earth Day. 

The true turning point was the Dirty Dozen campaign, which brought us back after we faded off the landscape in the late spring and summer. We defeated 7 out of 12 members of Congress on the basis of their terrible environmental records, and it was like a shot heard around Capitol Hill. Suddenly, this wasn’t a bunch of kids out planting trees and chanting in their tie-dyed t-shirts; people were voting on this issue. That created a context in which a Clean Air Act could be passed, which was actually a fairly radical piece of legislation. More than 10 trillion dollars has been spent differently in pursuit of Public Health since it was passed. 

It led to a couple of dozen pieces of legislation that absolutely reframed the way that America does business. It created the momentum that then led us not just to a few laws, but to the Clean Water Act, Endangered Species Act, Toxic Substances Control Act, Marine Mammal Protection Act, and the National Forest Protection Act superfund. I would argue that it is certainly second to nothing, except possibly the New Deal, in terms of the way that it absolutely reframed American society. And in terms of overall economic impact, it might have even been more powerful. 

Now, we have Donald Trump, who is clearly the most anti-environmental head of state that the nation has ever had — the most anti-science, most anti-regulatory. He defines himself as being opposite every value that we stand for, especially with regard to climate change. So the effort is now to do two things. One, to swing that pendulum back just as far as we possibly can the other direction. He has tried to eliminate more than 100 rules, regulations, laws, and court decisions. We want to restore that progress. Two, we need to move forward with a brand new set of bold initiatives that are basically summed up in the Green New Deal. It is the great instrument that we were trying to play with regard to that symphony of change.

Myer: In terms of legislative priorities for this year, would you say that the Green New Deal is the most important thing we could be working on?

Hayes: The dominant thing that we should be addressing is climate. The Green New Deal is a package of discrete items that will not all be passed at once or in any particular form that we can anticipate right now. I think it will be very much like the New Deal, which was a whole series of things spread out over seven or eight years that were all together. You don’t want it to be a single piece of legislation, because a piece of legislation can be repealed. It’s much more difficult to repeal 12 pieces of legislation.

It has become quite clear that the traditional pricing strategies like trying to put a tax on carbon, tax on gasoline, cap and trade, upstream cap and auction — all of these things to boost the costs of carbon-based fuels — may be useful to do, particularly if you can do it in a progressive way, where revenues can offset the cost on the poorest of the folks who are paying these increased prices. But it cannot be a fundamental instrument of change. Instead, it would be far better to define a goal that’s fairly detailed about what we want to build and then implement the policies to be sure that we reach that end.

Myer: In an interview with the Seattle Times, you spoke about how we can still win against the impending catastrophe of the climate crisis. What are the most important things we can do to win as a country? 

Hayes: The most important goals are to identify what it is that we want to see, in terms of where the energy comes from or where that technology is manufactured. Determine how large our micro grid should be and how much intelligence we want to build into them and who’s going to be controlling what policies will work best to make change. 

There are just all of these things that can be done and need to be done if my daughter and my granddaughter are to have the kind of future I want for them. The real question is how do you get there past the lobbying forces, the economic interests, and the complicity of leading political figures? We have an internet that is full of lies, and some corporate disinformation campaigns that have come out of the coal and the oil Industries — and that’s just tough. There’s no magic bullet. 

We have to organize and communicate. We have to be prepared where necessary to make some compromises to prevail — purity very seldom cuts it, and we need to figure that out. 

Where is it that we want to get? What can we accept where we must draw the line? It’s that Future Vision that should be broadly saleable to the American public and getting 75-80 percent support. That’s really a matter of doing the sort of thing that Greenpeace does — getting out in the community, helping people talk to their neighbors, mastering the arguments before you go out there and having counter-arguments at your disposal.

This is going to be such a sufficiently bold, long-term, multifaceted transition that we can’t do it with a series of close votes that can be rolled back after the next election. We need to build a broad enough level of support fast enough that we can put in place policies that will endure without much change for 25, 30, or 40 years. That’s not typically been an American strength, but we’ve got to do it.

Myer: I hesitate to ask what we can do as individuals, as this crisis is truly a corporate regulatory one—or lack thereof. But there are millions of us who know the time to act is Right Now. Collectively, we have people power, and we can each be part of the solution. What is a critical step an individual can take this Earth Day?

Hayes: There’s nothing that’s going to happen legislatively this year that’s important, so what we ought to be doing is focusing upon the elections. Not just the federal elections, but those at the state and local level — governors, state representatives, city councils. In fact, that’s where the action is going to continue to be, with most climate legislation coming out of the state and local officials who are closer and more responsive to the people. Beyond that it’s about building for the future. It’s about building strong vibrant organizations with memberships that care about you and identify with you and reflect the values of those who are part of you.

Myer: We are seeing the historically underserved Black and Brown communities suffering disproportionately from our lack of preparedness for this pandemic. Similarly, we see the collision of environmental and economic inequality manifesting in the effects of the climate crisis. What do you hope we can learn from the current pandemic? 

Hayes: Something that the movement placed a lot of emphasis on that first Earth Day and it has kind of fallen by the wayside, until the last few years — the social justice, equity, and diversity elements of it. If we’re talking about totally restructuring the economy and building a brand new society, it simply cannot be one that has the extraordinary wealth and the extraordinary poverty that we have today. That’s just not stable or desirable over the long run. Some of those folks that are talking, as Elizabeth Warren did, about a wealth tax — where you find this trivial amount of tax per individual and the enormous amount of social good that can be done with it — is just eye opening.

When you see the statistics that six people have more wealth than the poorest 50 percent of Americans — my God, this is that’s not the America that we want. It’s going to be necessary for us to not be just the environmental movement, but the movement for social justice, the movement for peace and against violence in order to build the kind of world that we want to live in.

And that’s a nice thing about Greenpeace. That’s your roots as well.

Myer: COVID-19 has clearly had a devastating effect across the world—including your plans for the 50th anniversary of Earth Day. Can you speak to what you had planned, and how the movement has been able to pivot in a time of physical distancing? 

Hayes: Our plan was to have the largest demonstration globally in the history of the world on Earth Day, and COVID-19 just turned out to be a black swan, so utterly beyond anything that we dreamed of that there was really no way to prepare for it. Our national event was to have been 750,000 people on the National Mall in Washington DC, and suddenly it is illegal to have more than 10 people there. It’s just a dramatic blow for Earth Day.

It’s a pretty big difference between filling up the National Mall with bodies demanding change and anything you can do digitally, but we will do our very best. We will have a historic 72-hour virtual mobilization, streaming at www.earthday.org. Pope Francis is going to give the talk that he was intending to give at St. Peter’s Square, and we will have some heads of state, some scientists, and some celebrities. We will have a few musicians playing from their living rooms. Zac Efron’s doing an environmental special on the Discovery Channel, and I’ll be his interviewee.

Beyond that, our whole effort now is to channel people into doing voter registration, voter education, and get out the vote efforts. If you’re trying to influence the election, you just knuckle down and do the grassroots work, which is what the environmental movement grew out of — and where I think our greatest strength still is

Myer: You’ve seen this movement evolve over many years. We still aren’t where you were hoping you would be when you started this. Looking at the enormity of the task ahead, it could be easy to feel despair. What gives you hope?

Hayes: Once you’ve had the experience that I had through the 1970s, where the country fundamentally restructures itself and does so on a grassroots basis — we didn’t have strong presidential support, we didn’t have any of the kinds of things that you would ordinarily expect, but we had an irresistible force in the population that brought sweeping changes — you simply have to believe that that sort of thing can be done again.


Denis Hayes

By Denis Hayes

Denis was the principal national organizer of the first Earth Day in 1970 and took the event international in 1990. It is now the most-wide-observed secular holiday in the world. As board chair of the international Earth Day Network, Denis is gearing up for the 50th Earth Day anniversary in 2020.

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