Q&A: As Earth Day turns 50, founder Denis Hayes takes stock

by Gregory Scruggs | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Wednesday, 22 April 2020 13:15 GMT

Denis Hayes, the national organizer of the first Earth Day event 50 years ago, stands in front of a sustainable building of the Bullitt Foundation, a Seattle-based environmental philanthropy he leads. Credit: David Hiller

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Hayes reflects on the legacy of the first Earth Day, the threat of climate change, and where he sees the environmental movement headed now

By Gregory Scruggs

SEATTLE, April 22 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Fifty years ago, Denis Hayes looked out over Fifth Avenue in New York City at a crowd that stretched as far as the eye could see.

The occasion was the first Earth Day, when 20 million people, or one in 10 U.S. residents, participated in marches, teach-ins, and clean-ups to demand greater environmental protection and act against threats to nature.

Hayes, the national organizer of the event, has since 1992 led the Bullitt Foundation, a Seattle-based environmental philanthropy that funds climate activism, urban sustainability and land conservation efforts in the Pacific Northwest.

This year's 50th anniversary aimed to gather crowds of environmental activists in 180 countries around the world - but had to be postponed as a result of the coronavirus pandemic.

But action on climate change, biodiversity losses and other environmental threats has surged in the last year, with the Fridays for Future, Extinction Rebellion and Global Climate Strike movements injecting new energy. 

The Thomson Reuters Foundation asked Hayes about the first Earth Day's legacy and where he sees the environmental movement headed now.

What are the biggest changes you see since the first Earth Day? Are we making progress on climate and environmental issues?

In Los Angeles in 1970, you couldn’t see two blocks ahead because of automobile smog. (Living there) was the equivalent of smoking two packs of cigarettes a day. Today, we have reduced nitrous oxide and ozone particulates by 98% per mile versus 1970.

We don’t have rivers catching on fire anymore. The bald eagle, California condor and brown albatross are not endangered.

We passed the Toxic Substances Control Act, stopping companies that used to haul their waste out into a big trench in the backyard and light it on fire. You can’t do that sort of thing anymore.

We’ve made fairly stunning progress on national and local issues, much of it in the first decade between 1970 and 1980.

But with the exception of banning CFCs (chlorofluorocarbons) and healing the ozone layer, we’ve made very little progress internationally. Every year we pour more greenhouse gases into the atmosphere than we did the previous year.

Does dealing with the coronavirus pandemic have lessons for tackling climate and environmental issues?

Internationally recognized authorities like the World Health Organization have been crucial for this pandemic.

Having strong, prepared international bodies that can regulate disease from spreading untold havoc in our increasingly globalized world is translatable, with some limits, to these international environmental issues.

With the pandemic, access to medical equipment and developing a vaccine are tough issues - but comparatively easy when compared to climate change, where you’re talking about replacing the entire underlying energy infrastructure.

What effect is the pandemic likely to have on the surge of climate activism, now forced off the streets?

This is a digital-native generation. Most organizing to get people on the streets has been done through social media. It continues and I think their spirit is relatively high.

What’s the biggest barrier to more effective climate action – and how do we address it?

The first major barrier is the increasingly subtle but nonetheless persistent opposition of the fossil fuel industry to smart public policy.

You see companies say that the answer is neoliberal economics, like a tax on carbon. Then Washington state comes up with an initiative that has a trivial tax on carbon and they oppose it.

Even after 50 years of dealing with them, I am amazed by the hypocrisy that permeates the industry.

The answer is technological preemption. Cheaper, more efficient, cleaner, and more popular technology will simply squeeze them out.

At the scale of utilities today, for much of the world it is cheaper to buy solar panels than fuel existing coal-fired power plants. 

The second major barrier is an era of resurgent nationalism at a time when you require global cooperation and even some willingness to be subject to international authority.

The only place where we’ve had fairly effective sanctions is the World Trade Organization. If we could get something like that working on climate and acknowledged by the private and public sectors as legitimate, then I’d be a little more hopeful.

But there is a reluctance on the part of sovereign states to surrender even a modicum of sovereignty on behalf of global health.

Related stories:

Earth Day 2020: How to be eco-friendly during the coronavirus lockdown

As coronavirus limits climate protests, activists go online

Youth action on climate change

(Reporting by Gregory Scruggs; editing by Laurie Goering. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters. Visit http://news.trust.org/climate)