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Q&A With Denis Hayes: Clark Alum and Organizer of the First Earth Day

(Graphic courtesy of the Clark College Foundation)

Editor’s Note: This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Tomorrow, Feb. 23, at 5 p.m., the Clark College Foundation will be hosting a virtual event focused on building healthy, sustainable human ecosystems. “Creating Super Green Cities” will feature Clark alumnus Denis Hayes, ‘64, the organizer of the first-ever Earth Day. 

Hayes currently serves as CEO and president of the Bullitt Foundation, a Seattle-based nonprofit that promotes sustainable development in the Pacific Northwest. Since he organized the first Earth Day back in 1970, it has become the most widely observed secular holiday in the world. Hayes was an early advocate for renewable energy and served as director of the Federal Solar Research Institute during the Carter administration. 

Ahead of the upcoming event, we sat down virtually with Hayes to discuss Earth Day’s lasting impact, the current environmental movement led by youth activists, climate change and his ongoing work.

The event is free and open to the public, but registration is required. Click here to RSVP.

Q: So you grew up in the area, what was Camas like at that time?

HAYES: Yeah, just down the road in the town of Camas. In those days it was mostly known in the region for its odor. We had sulfur dioxide and hydrogen sulfide coming out of the paper mill smokestacks, essentially unconstrained. It was actually at that time, the world’s largest specialty paper mill: papers like bread wrapping, frozen foods.

Q: So, growing up with that in your backyard, is that how you first got interested in environmentalism?

HAYES: Probably at some subconscious level. I mean, in those days, there really wasn’t an environmental ethic that transcended and encompassed a wide variety of issues in the framework of values. But certainly waking up every morning with a sore throat, watching all the automobiles and the roofs in the town being pitted from acid rain, going down to the Columbia Slough and seeing a thousand dead fish floating out, hiking someplace that you’d camp the previous summer and now it’s some massive just unending clear-cut. I’m sure at some level, all of that created the context, especially adjacent to the spectacularly beautiful Columbia River Gorge. But I only really got involved in what you would think of as modern environmentalism when I was in my early twenties and a little bit as a result of some classes I took at Clark College before I went out hitchhiking around the world for a few years. 

Q: What do you remember about your time at Clark College?

HAYES: Well, I was living at home in Camas. I was working evenings and weekends at a Dairy Queen and commuting back and forth every day in the fog and the rain. I remember having teachers who were, for the most part, kind of exceptional. They didn’t, as in other institutions that I’ve attended, spend their time writing books, law review articles and conducting basic research. But they knew their fields and they were people who had decided to commit their careers to educating the next generation. I was a beneficiary of that. For the most part, Clark College was the first time that I encountered adults who wanted me to speak to them with their first names and to be in a friendly relationship, as opposed to a learned scholar, the adult versus the kid.

Q: Moving forward, I  want to touch on the origins of Earth Day and your involvement. How did the idea come about? 

HAYES: The seed for it was a senator from Wisconsin named Gaylord Nelson, who had long been interested in conservation issues, was appalled by the Santa Barbara oil spill and thought that it might be possible to organize a college teach-in on environmental issues. Much the same sort of way that the teach-ins had played a key role in building up the movement against the war in Vietnam. I had, by that time, decided I wanted to devote my life to what you might think of as human ecology. So I flew down to Washington DC, had a 15-minute meeting with them and came out with a charter to organize Boston. A few days later, I was invited to come down and organize the United States. It turned out that I wasn’t able to do it. There was very little interest on college campuses; it was all about the war and civil rights. But we had a lot of interest, particularly among young women. Often married with children, often college-educated, typically in a single wage-earner family. This thing just resonated with them and so we moved it off of campuses, at least for the first few months of organizing, and renamed it Earth Day instead of environmental teach-in. The new name just resonated with folks and exploded, and then it suddenly acquired incredible momentum. 

Q: Why do you think Earth Day and the larger cause resonated with that demographic?

HAYES: I think it’s been true from the beginning that women are somehow more responsive to environmental issues in general than men are in general. I don’t know if it has to do with imperatives of motherhood, or hormones, or acculturation in society or what it is. But if you take an index of members of environmental groups around the world today, you find them really dominated by women. I should say after it got momentum after we dropped the teach-in nomenclature which students thought was antiquated, we got something that was fresh. The students did come roaring in, in the last couple of months, with a vengeance. They were often terrific organizers in their communities and on their campuses, just maybe not the starter engine for it. 

Q: So nearly 20 million people showed up for that first Earth Day back in 1970, what happened in the weeks and months following that demonstration? 

HAYES: To be really candid about it, right after Earth Day, less than two weeks later, President Nixon invaded Cambodia. A few days after that, four students were shot at Kent State. A couple of days after that, more students were shot at Jackson State and the whole nation was convulsed into an anti-war sentiment. The environment sort of slipped away from public consciousness. That fall, we went after the dirty dozen members of Congress, people with terrible environmental records who were in districts where they were potentially vulnerable. There were districts where we had strong organizers from the Earth Day effort and we went after them with a vengeance, although not with much money. We had about 50,000 bucks for all 12 races combined, and in the end defeated 7 of the 12, including a couple of really powerful members of Congress. Most notably, the chairman of the house public works committee, (George Fallon) was taken out clearly on environmental grounds. At that point, the environment became a vastly more important political issue than it had been before. In those days, committee chairmen were even more powerful than they are today. When Fallon got taken out by an environmental group, that was the shot heard through the halls of Congress. That created the context in which the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act, the Endangered Species Act, Toxic Substances Control Act, National Forest Protection Act, on and on and on, just rolled out over the course of the next six years.  

Q: So what would you say is the lasting impact of Earth Day? Obviously, that initial legislation is a big part of it. What else stands out to you?

HAYES:  Yeah, certainly the legislation was a big part of the consequences of the first Earth Day and its aftermath. I mean, when we’re fighting climate change today, the strongest legislation that we have to work with is the clean air act of 1970. Fortunately, the courts have interpreted carbon dioxide as a pollutant, and that became something that we could work with. But more broadly, what came out of Earth Day was it took this wide variety of issues and gave them this wrapper termed environmental issues. It boosted the intensity with which people care about it and it has endured 50 years later. At the moment, it’s now come back once again to students. It’s people, your age and younger, who are the vanguard of this. The most vibrant climate organizations on the scene right now, like the sunrise movement and the various youth climate justice organizations, many of them, maybe the majority of them, are organized by kids still in high school. 

Q: So let’s transition here and talk about the upcoming alumni foundation event, “Building Greener Cities.” What will you be discussing? 

HAYES: Well, the bulk of this program will be questions and answers from the audience. So what we’re going to be talking about will be determined by what people are interested in. The framework for it all is that I believe pretty strongly that there is much that we have to learn from the way that the natural world functions. If it’s managed to keep myriad ecosystems stable for millions of years, and we have not been successful for dozens of years with our cities, then we have to see what we can learn from the way that forests operate, the way that marine ecosystems operate and so on. I’ll probably talk a little bit about that, framing this up as how do you design a transportation system that will still be vibrant, viable and flexible a thousand years from now? How do you build a building that is more comfortable than the average building, is better than the average building, but uses only maybe a fifth as much energy as the average building?

Q: Thanks again for taking the time to speak with us ahead of the event. Before you go, do you have any words of advice for current Clark students?

HAYES: Well, I suppose. I was thinking back to when I was 20-years-old, how interested I would be in words of advice from a 76-year-old guy who hasn’t been here for 60 years and the answer would be not very much. I suppose one thing is, we have this image that comes out of John F. Kennedy’s inaugural address about “the torch has been passed to a new generation.” He said it in the passive voice and I’d like to emphasize that that never happens. People who get power, who get wealth, who have control, have often gotten it because that’s what they care about more passionately than anything else in the world. They don’t just pass it on to somebody else. If you have a cause that you are drawn to, you have to go grab that torch yourself, wrestle it away from them, or build yourself your own torch like we did with environmentalism in the late 60s and early 70s. 

I guess the advice is, find what your torch is and grab it. Follow it and let it light the path that you follow in your career. If you can find a job that is compatible with your values and where you get up every morning, eager to go to work and you’d be willing to do it even if they didn’t pay you, then you are far better off than somebody who earns 10 times as much as you do, but would never in a million years get out of bed in the morning and go to their job if somebody didn’t pay them to do it. Those are people who spend their entire lives doing stuff they don’t want to do. 

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