The Rumpus Interview with Earth Day Organizer Denis Hayes

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pests0902Denis Hayes coordinated the first Earth Day, April 22, 1970, when 20 million people took to the streets and kicked off the environmental movement. The kick was executed by feet shod in shoes that, though probably ugly, were not as unsustainably ugly as today’s petroleum-based Crocs. Since then, Hayes has taken to the streets, literal and virtual—and of course to the corridors of power—as an erudite, quietly witty environmentalist, lawyer and author. He’s written a book called Rays of Hope: The Transition to a Post-Petroleum World. And in 1999 Time Magazine named Hayes “Hero of the Planet.”

Rumpus: In the three or four years following the first Earth Day in 1970, there was a tsunami of new environmental laws in America. They governed clean air, clean water, endangered species, toxic substances, pesticides, marine mammals, and what-have-you. The EPA was created, along with the Council on Environmental Quality and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. How did all that happen?

Hayes: Politicians had always viewed environmental issues as narrow things of no great political consequence. Sort of NIMBY issues. A big part of the reason was that the groups that cared about wilderness didn’t talk with the groups that were trying to stop freeways from cutting through inner cities, and neither of them talked to the folks who wanted to stop the military from dumping Agent Orange on Vietnam. Earth Day gathered up those strands, and dozens more, and knitted them together in the public consciousness as “environmental” issues. The nation was pretty startled when 20 million people hit the streets. Congress, which had adjourned for the day to go back to its districts, was blown away.ijo-3

Then that fall, we targeted twelve members of Congress with terrible environmental records as the Dirty Dozen. We defeated seven of them, including a hugely powerful guy—the chair of the House Public Works Committee. The Pork Committee. When we took down George Fallon, it was clear that Earth Day was not just a walk in the park. Congress began taking us very seriously.

We built some unconventional coalitions. A charter member of the Coalition for Clean Air was Walter Reuther, the visionary president of the United Auto Workers, the nation’s largest union. Walter’s presence at our first press conference utterly changed the dynamics of the coverage —we had instant credibility. And we didn’t limit ourselves to environmental arguments. When we defeated the Supersonic Transport, we rounded up prestigious economists who testified that it would be disastrous for the nation’s balance-of-payments.

We were young and idealistic and unschooled in the ways of Washington, and a lot of power brokers underestimated us until we ate their lunch. It can be a huge advantage to be underestimated.

We had a great run. The laws passed between 1970 and 1974 fundamentally changed the way America does business.

Rumpus: Was Earth Day mostly about reigning in business?

Hayes: That was a big part of it. Environmentally, business in America in 1970 was very similar to business in China today. Even if a CEO wanted to be a responsible corporate citizen, he (and they were all “he’s” then) simply couldn’t invest a billion dollars in pollution controls to produce a product that was indistinguishable from those of his competitors. His products would be priced out of the market. Passing laws that created a clean, level playing field for whole industries had to be a core focus of the 1970s.

However, there was also a critically important cultural dimension. By 1975—and continuing to today—all Americans came to believe that they had a “right” to a safe, clean, healthy environment. When I grew up, no one seriously criticized the steel mills and paper mills for the deadly stench they produced—that was the smell of prosperity. Today, no one would tolerate such conditions in an American city.

earthdaynycRumpus: It’s been about 40 years since you organized the first Earth Day. For the last few decades, things seem to have slowed down. Some people say the environmental movement has lost its momentum. A couple of books have even claimed that it is “dead.” For example, today, in the face of compelling evidence of climate change, and with Democrats at both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue, you can’t pass a very modest climate bill—even after lobbyists have riddled it with loopholes. What happened?

Hayes: A bunch of things happened.reagan_on_horseback2

First, the Republican Party, starting with the Reagan Administration, began taking a strenuously anti-environmental stance. I mean, it doesn’t get much worse than James Watt, Ann Gorsuch, Rita Lavelle, Tom DeLay, James Imhofe—and their enablers like Rush Limbaugh and Fox News. It wasn’t that way in 1970. Republican Senators John Sherman Cooper and John Chafee were genuine green leaders in those days. It was Howard Baker, later the Republican Senate Majority Leader, who drafted the provision in the Clean Air Act that forced Detroit to install catalytic converters, even though no commercial catalytic converters existed when he inserted the provision. John Lindsay, Pete McCloskey, Tom McCall, Chuck Percy, and many other Republicans could be counted on to support the environment when it counted. Today, we just have Arnold Schwarzenegger. The Republican “Southern Strategy” destroyed the prospect of continued bipartisan support for the environment. Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush were probably the two most knee-jerk anti-environmental Presidents in American history, and we had 16 years of them.

Second, the issues got much more complicated. It is pretty easy, if you know what you are doing, to stop a company from pouring poison into a lake where kids swim. It is much harder to address all the myriad greenhouse gases emitted by different sources— from petrochemical refineries to hundreds of millions of peasants cutting down trees for their incredibly inefficient cook stoves. It’s complicated, but we failed to get started 30 years ago and now we are out of time. That said, I’m embarrassed and furious that so many coal-state Democrats in the U.S. Senate are paralyzing international progress to protect the short term interests of a dying industry that ravages the environment from mine to slag heap.

Rumpus: How does the global environmental meltdown and the collapse of so many multinational financial institutions play into all this?

Hayes: There are a few obvious consequences and perhaps one subtle possibility. One obvious thing is that, to stimulate the economy, President Obama has committed to creating millions of green jobs that will leave a legacy—much as Roosevelt’s public works did during the new deal. Obama wants to build such things as smart electrical grids and high-speed rail lines, which will offer big environmental improvements. Another obvious thing is that large-scale project financing is virtually frozen, so a lot of renewable energy projects are on hold. If the system doesn’t get unclogged before the developers run out of cash, they will be cancelled. Money matters, and we are racing against time.

The more subtle thing is more speculative. The world is well past its long-term carrying capacity for human beings living a European, much less an American, lifestyle predicated on planned obsolescence. International economic growth is largely a matter of accelerated movement of materials from mines and forests to the dump. Instead of saving and buying decent furniture we can pass on to our children, we charge our credit cards for shaped heaps of sawdust and glue that fall apart in three or four years. The economy favors throughput over quality and craftsmanship, and economists are terrified because the American savings rate has crept upward from about zero to almost five percent. But the mortgage crisis and the burgeoning credit card crisis are causing Americans to become wary of irresponsible debt. I would love to see a fundamental re-thinking of whether we truly want to be the world’s largest debtor nation, feeding an insatiable desire for mall-crawling with cheaply made crap from all over the world. Sustainability requires that we demand enduring quality. Steve Strong has a slide presentation pointing out that much of Oxford was built 800 years ago. What are we building today that will be here 800 years from now? If something like that emerged from this recession, it would help justify the hardship so many people are currently experiencing.

Rumpus: Let’s say that President Obama made you climate & energy czar. What five big actions would you take?

Hayes: Big actions, in our system of checks and balances, require approval by Congress and have to pass constitutional muster by the Supreme Court, and some powers are reserved to the states. So this overused “czar” word is a little misleading. But the things America ought to do should include the following:

1. An aggressive building performance standard for all new buildings, and a set of performance requirements to be met by all buildings before they can be sold (when upgrades can be included in the new mortgage). These should encompass heating and cooling, lighting, and plug loads. Coupled with new efficiency standards for appliances, lights, and furnaces, this should reduce the energy consumption of new buildings by 50 percent, more or less immediately, and go on from there.

2. If the government is going to put money into the automobile sector, it should break up GM and Chrysler as a condition of financial aid, and it should be even-handed in its treatment of start-up firms like Tesla, Miles, Fisker, and others. It would be terrible to kill the entrepreneurs who have taken great risks to bring new automotive technologies to market by pumping tax dollars into the behemoths that have done everything wrong for the last 40 years. That, coupled with a $4 per gallon tax on gasoline, phased in over four years, and bonuses for junking old inefficient cars would transform personal transportation swiftly.

3. Build high-speed, electrified trains over the most-traveled corridors. It’sreally hard to power carbon-free airplanes, but electrified trains are much easier. We’ll be a half century behind the Japanese, but better late than never.

4. Establish a federal Renewable Portfolio Standard for all electricity, causing 50 percent of all generation to come from renewables by 2020 (with a tranche requiring half of that to come from solar), and 100 percent by 2030. Couple that with feed-in tariffs to provide financing and cost-controls to eliminate profiteering. The goal is to turn solar electric technologies into a commodity business like computer chips, and make them ubiquitous in the built environment. I’d couple this with a huge commitment to fundamental research in nanostructure to goose the next generation of more efficient, cheaper, dematerialized cells. And if I’m truly czar, I’d emphasize silicon technologies, as that approach is the one least likely to encounter material constraints in supplying an explosive global demand.

5. A firm cap on carbon emissions from fossil fuels. No coal, oil, or gas could enter the economy until the buyer had a permit. All permits would be auctioned by the federal government, and the number of permits auctioned would be decreased by three percent per year. Permits could be traded, but they could not be created out of whole cloth by companies that plant forests or dump iron filings at sea. And, at least for the first several years, it would be illegal to manufacture derivatives to trade on futures markets for future permits.

There are lots of other things we should do, but these would take a giant bite out of the problem and catapult America back into world leadership in the solar and renewable energy fields.

oral history logoRumpus: Would you say you’re optimistic or pessimistic?

Hayes: I suppose I’d characterize myself as having a faith-based optimism. My faith is parental and Darwinian. My only child is now pregnant with what will probably be her only child, and I have to assume they will have a future. And as a student of conservation biology, I believe that characteristics with survival value will ultimately prevail. There is no survival value in pessimism. If you think failure is inevitable, that view will probably become self-fulfilling.


Melissa Price is a writer and editor living in San Francisco. More from this author →