Earth Day 2015
Denis Hayes speaking at Earth Day 1970.
takes place this Saturday, April 18.
In 2008, I conducted a five-question interview with Denis Hayes, my onetime boss and now president of the Bullitt Foundation in Seattle. Hayes coordinated Earth Day 1970, as well as Earth Day 1990 and Earth Day 2000. You can read that interview here. This year, for the 45th anniversary of that first Earth Day, I interviewed him again.
My questions and his answers can be found below the fold. But first I'm going to repeat a portion of the introduction I wrote for the first interview:
Although Earth Day 1970 focused desperately needed attention on the world's environmental troubles, it was also a distraction from the war in Southeast Asia. Many people on the left argued that environmentalism was a snare and a delusion. Despite the environmental horrors visited on third world people by the extractive industries of the imperialist powers, they viewed the whole movement as a low to nonexistent priority.
They were reinforced in their views when the slaughter abroad came home. Just a week after Earth Day, on April 29, the U.S. sent troops into Cambodia and, within three weeks, six students had been killed during protests at Kent State and Jackson State universities.
Despite the demurrers from some on the left, however, millions joined in Earth Day activities. The events were peppered with corporate sponsors, many of whom were more interested in making a public relations coup than doing anything environmentally substantively. Mere marketing.
Much more, including the interview, is below the fold.
Nonetheless, for a time—in part because Richard Nixon needed something positive to balance his administration's disastrous continuation of the war and because he was pressured by Democrats like Earth Day founder Gaylord Nelson and eco-advocates of his own party—quite a number of successful environmental initiatives were undertaken, including the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency and legislation on clean water and clean air.
For several years afterward, the U.S. led the world in a fairly aggressive tackling of environmental challenges. Denis Hayes was one of the reasons.
In 1978, the Carter Administration appointed him head of the Solar Energy Research Institute. That is where I met him when I was hired at SERI's Solar Law Reporter.
Along came Ronald Reagan, a man whose twisted views of something as obvious as old growth forest preservation left environmentalists of all stripes aghast: "A tree is a tree, how many more do you need to look at?" Although expressed less moronically, he delivered similar views (and policies) regarding public lands, pollution, the ozone hole, organic farming, global warming and advocates of renewable power sources and conservation. And, of course, some jabs at us dirty effing hippies who supposedly showed by the energy and environmental policies we backed that we wanted everyone to "freeze to death in the dark."
Reagan ordered removal of the solar thermal panels Carter had had installed on the White House, a move redolent with symbolic disdain for changing our energy paradigm. What he did environmentally went a good deal further than symbolism. For instance, he gutted SERI’s budget in 1981. Hayes was fired, as were hundreds of other employees, including me. (SERI is now the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, based in Golden, Colorado.)
Reagan made disastrous appointments to the Department of Interior, the EPA and the Bureau of Land Management. About the only positive thing he did for the environment in his two terms was add millions of acres to the nation's protected wilderness and, by his hostility to environmentalism, raised awareness and invigorated a fresh eco-activism.
Since those days more than three decades ago, Hayes has done prodigious eco-work. He was named a Time magazine hero of the planet in 1999, shortly before he coordinated Earth Day 2000, the biggest Earth Day yet. The Bullitt Foundation where he has served as president since 1992 seeks to promote a model of sustainable development in the Pacific Northwest. Its grants are focused on energy and climate change, transportation, sustainable agriculture, ecosystem protection, green chemistry, and other arenas to—as Hayes puts it—help “shape Cascadia into, if you will, a comfortable, progressive, innovative version of ecotopia."
METEOR BLADES: Since the last time we spoke, the evidence for climate change has become undeniable—unless you're Anthony Watts or half the U.S. Congress. The extent of winter ice in the Arctic hit a record low this year. The melting of Antarctic ice shelves means the continent's glaciers will feed a gigantic rise in sea level. The so-called warming hiatus is not a pause at all. Climate change is not something that will happen but something that is happening. Naomi Klein has written that effectively grappling with that change requires that we abandon the extremist, hyper-consumptive, carbon-gobbling economic system tagged "neoliberalism." Do you agree?
HAYES: To be candid, the balance of evidence weighed very strongly on human-caused warming as early as 1980. We’ve been putting additional nails into it ever since.
I suppose, in theory, that mankind could make such a very rapid transition to carbon-free fuels that we could reduce climate change to manageable levels without any other changes. But lots of things that are true “in theory” are not going to happen. Moreover, there is much more to life than just climate. (Controlling global warming is a necessary-but-not-sufficient element of a healthy, comfortable, productive, creative, resilient society.)
A world headed toward 9 billion people, all living a hyper-consumptive, wasteful American lifestyle, would rapidly run into myriad non-climate constraints. The mountains of material possessions that pass through our lives do not correlate with happiness. Indeed, most of the top one percent often seem more unhappy and dysfunctional than the rest of us! Untempered acquisitiveness, as a human attribute, may have had evolutionary survival value 10,000 years ago under conditions of chronic scarcity, but today elegant simplicity makes more sense. We would be wise to model ourselves more on Jedi Knights and less on Jabba the Hutt.
MB: Klein sees hope in the growing number of actions and policies taking place at the local level, from street protests against fossil fuels to divestment campaigns to the Energiewende in which some 170 German cities have bought back and recommunalized their energy grids. But one of her key criticisms cutting in the other direction is the partnership between Big Green and Big Carbon, a tie that she depicts as having produced mere window-dressing, and no reduction in the emissions that burden our atmosphere and oceans. Do you see any value in those ties, or do you think they have been a snare and a delusion?
HAYES: Big Green is not a monolith. It’s a fairly rich, diverse ecosystem with lots of disagreements among the major players. Many of the large national environmental groups communicate mostly through lawsuits, organizing, and lobbying, but some have carved out various niches working with companies. While I don’t personally know of any alignment between any environmental groups and what I think of as "Big Carbon" (say, Peabody Coal or Exxon), some have worked with progressive electric utilities to promote rate structures that incentivize investments in renewable energy and deep efficiency. That’s parallel to some of the German actions that get lumped under “Energiewende.” If a utility CEO like David Crane at NRG can use some outside help turning his bureaucratic supertanker in a greener direction, that’s fine with me. I have friends and trusted colleagues (Amory Lovins, Paul Hawken, Bill McDonough, Mindy Lubber, etc.) who spend much of their professional lives consulting with businesses.
That’s not to say there isn’t a lot of corporate greenwashing going on—just that in the grand scheme of things, its importance may be exaggerated. Is there anything that Peabody Coal could do or say that would change anyone’s opinion of it?
MB: I've just finished my second reading of Elizabeth Kolbert's exquisite and terrifying The Sixth Extinction. What would you tell young people—people who are now around the age you and I were in 1970 when that first Earth Day took place—that they should do, personally, professionally, politically to generate the societal changes on which the survival of our species and that of so many thousands of other species depends?
HAYES: That opens a nice segue to a new book that I’ve co-authored with my wife: Cowed: The Hidden Impact of 93 Million Cows on America’s Health, Economy, Politics, Culture, and Environment. Domestic livestock now weighs about 20 times as much as all wild land animals on earth, combined. As we take more and more land to feed our meat and dairy animals, we are literally squeezing everything else into oblivion. There are now more tigers in private hands—not in zoos, but in private ownership—in the United States than there are tigers in the wild on earth. Texas has more tigers confined in its zoos than are running free in the world.
The principal challenge for today's youth is to use the new digital tools at their disposal to build a true global consciousness—where we begin to find commonality with all the people of the earth and the whole web of life. We share an incredibly rare, precious planet, and we have to stop treating it like a rent-a-wreck.
MB: In the nearly half-century since the first Earth Day in 1970, what are the most encouraging changes you have witnessed regarding environmental matters?
HAYES: Deadly pollution is no longer tolerated anywhere. In 1970, most of the factories in the United States had zero pollution controls. Our major industrial centers then were like China’s today. And in China, the population is not willing to live with it, either. The drive to end pollution may well be the strongest social movement in China today.
MB: This is a question I asked you in our last interview. But it bears repeating. If, for three minutes, you had the undivided attention of the man or woman who takes the oath of office for the presidency on January 20, 2017, what single piece of advice would you give him or her regarding the environment?
HAYES: Let me reframe the question. I’ve given the same "advice" to multiple presidents and vice presidents, with no discernible effect. WAY too powerful a set of vested interests exists to allow my wild, expensive, life-affirming advice to be acted upon!
If instead, as in a fairy tale, I were granted one wish that the next president would have to obey, it would be to mobilize the entire economy—much as we did for World War II—to make a rapid (5-year?) transition into a nation powered almost entirely by solar energy. We would cover the entire built environment with photovoltaic cells that would harvest sunlight, just as photosynthetic materials cover the entire natural world. We would utilize surplus electricity to strip hydrogen out of water and store it for use when the sun isn’t shining, and then recombine it with oxygen in fuel cells to make power.
You can read the questions and answers of the first interview here