Solar advocate and climate hawk Denis Hayes, coordinator of Earth Day 1970, talks about the future

  • Published on April 22nd, 2020

Fifty years ago, halfway through a 13-month prison sentence for refusing the draft, I missed the first Earth Day. But for most of the half century since then I’ve spent at least part of my time engaged in environmental advocacy, frequently working with or highlighting the work of people for whom environment means life. Four months ago I was trying to figure out what Earth Day events I could talk a friend into showing up for with me. I had, of course, no inkling that coronavirus protocols would be keeping me confined for today’s big Earth Day anniversary. Fortunately, there’s at least the digital version for which Albanius has put together a comprehensive list of events and activities. On-line engagement for Earth Day 2020 has one definite benefit—the most modest carbon footprint of any past such annual events, including the first one.

Denis Hayes, national coordinator of Earth Day 1970 speaking a half-century ago in Washington, D.C. - Photo courtesy of the Bullitt Foundation

By Meteor Blades

At that first Earth Day, the national coordinator was a 25-year-old guy named Denis Hayes. He would, during the Jimmy Carter administration, become the first head of the Solar Energy Research Institute and therefore my boss during the three years I worked at The Solar Law Reporter. A dozen years ago and again for Earth Day’s 45th anniversary, I interviewed Hayes with five questions. For this year’s 50th, Evelyn Nieves at Inside Climate News asked him questions of her own.

Hayes coordinated Earth Day 1970 and also Earth Day 1990. He founded the Earth Day Network, which now includes more than 180 nations. 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.”

One Q&A from 2015:

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.

And an excerpt from Evelyn Nieves’ interview of Hayes last Friday:

How did the coronavirus affect what you plan to focus on this year? It has squashed the big public events, but you were planning to focus on the climate crisis. Is the respite from cars and commerce all over the world—the cleaner air, lack of fossil fuels spewing through town and country during the lockdown—now a part of the Earth Day message?

For Earth Day 2020—the 50th anniversary of Earth Day—the coronavirus proved to be the ultimate Black Swan. For more than two years, a large team of talented people have been organizing around the planet to produce huge crowd events demanding bold action on climate. Essentially, a global Green New Deal.

Events were planned in more than 180 nations—some of them enormous. In the United States, I was hoping for 750,000 people on the National Mall. Internationally, building on the work of the student climate strikers, 350.org, and Extinction Rebellion, as well as all the major environmental groups; colleges & universities; K-12 schools around the world; museums, zoos, aquariums, and botanical gardens; religions (Pope Francis had pledged a very major service on Earth Day in St. Peter’s Square); social justice groups; indigenous groups, public health groups; and others, I had hoped to have 1 billion people in the streets on April 22—many with diverse specific goals but all with a shared belief that, after decades of reports, conferences and official indecisiveness, we have run out of time to dawdle.

COVID-19 came roaring out of a wet market in Wuhan and overnight spread to the world.  Essentially everything that we had spent two years organizing around the entire planet became impermissible—actually became illegal—in a couple of weeks.

What does this mean for Earth Day 2020?

At a personal level, it is devastating. I gave my first global warming speech—a keynote to the AAAS—in January 1980.  I never dreamed we’d have made no global progress reducing greenhouse gases in 40 years. I dreamed of Earth Day 2020 as the climate inflection point where mankind began producing less and less greenhouse gas emissions every future year.  I’ve been involved with Earth Day for 50 years now, and this 50th anniversary was when we were to bring it all home—doing for the planet what the first Earth Day did for America—successfully demanding swift, bold action.

How does the Earth Day Network plan to save the day?

The Earth Day Network staff is working its collective tail off trying to stitch together a significant online stream event that is interesting and educational and inclusive.  But in terms of political impact, there is simply no substitute for a billion people in the streets—and right now, that is against the law.

More Earth Day 2020 coverage:

Earth Day: A comprehensive guide to all the online action

Earth Day turns 50: NOAA invites YOU to get to know your planet (without leaving home)

The Story Of Plastics is a must-see video for Earth Day

The first Earth Day was a shot heard around the world

Earth Day at 50: A look to the past offers hope for the planet’s future

On Earth Day, National Geographic offers cute baby animals to inspire a new generation of scientists

(Crossposted with DailyKos.)

About the Author

Meteor Blades is a writer and contributing editor at DailyKos. He believes there is something profoundly wrong with our system. - the unchecked accumulation of wealth and power into the hands of a very small group of corporate business interests has contributed to the wholesale corruption of our political system. For an understanding about the level of corruption in our country, he encourages you to view these two PBS documentaries: (1). ,The Untouchables; (2) The United States of ALEC.