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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Living on Earth Profile Series #19: Denis Hayes: Earth Day Pioneer

Air Date: Week of



CURWOOD: The first Earth Day in 1970, which attracted perhaps 20 million people to peaceful demonstrations all over the United States, was a remarkable moment of mass harmony in an era of confrontation. Perhaps the most important architect of this watershed event of the environmental movement was a young student at Harvard Law School. As part of our continuing series about pioneers of environmental change, Terry FitzPatrick at our Northwest Bureau at member station KPLU in Seattle has this profile of Denis Hayes.

(A newscast: sirens sound. "Sirens and fire engines, ambulances, police cars, burglar alarms... rampage of rioting and looting in a small section of the Negro community on the south side of town...")

FITZPATRICK: America's modern environmental movement was born in an era of rage and confrontation. By 1970 the nation was torn by a decade of racial strife and antiwar protests.

(Newscaster: "And now they've got the demonstrators on the run up Bay Street." Demonstrators shout.)

FITZPATRICK: Denis Hayes was a student activist then. Amid this polarization he saw an opportunity to build a grassroots campaign to protect the environment.

HAYES: Environmentalism seemed to me from the start to hold a unique ability to pull America together. Where most of the other issues that were traipsing across the floor were hugely divisive things, environmental issues had such a broad public approval that they could be used, in a fashion, to help rebuild American consensus around some shared values.

FITZPATRICK: Hayes discovered his values when he dropped out of college in 1964 for a 3-year hitchhiking trip. In Africa and Asia he saw unspeakable poverty and widespread environmental destruction. Back in the US he dedicated his life to building a society that understands the connection between the quality of human life and the quality of our air, land, and water. In 1970, Hayes was asked to organize a nationwide college teach-in, designed to build support for antipollution laws in Congress. But he was convinced concern for the environment could resonate beyond campus activists.

HAYES: The huge amount of this momentum came not from students at all, in reality. It came from an almost disappeared species: the housewife and the single income family with a good education and time on her hands, and that was really the mobilizing intelligence behind Earth Day. I guess I was smart enough to see that and to shift the focus of it away from campuses and fairly aggressively into community oriented events.

FITZPATRICK: The strategy worked. More people participated in Earth Day 1970 than any other event in American history.

(Newscaster: "Kindergartners and first graders in a predominantly black school darted around the school grounds picking up just about everything in sight, including a lot of dead leaves. That wasn't exactly the right idea, but they certainly had the right spirit...")

FITZPATRICK: This outpouring of concern turned environmentalism into a broad-based social movement. Denis Hayes has changed since the days when he organized the first Earth Day. During the Carter Administration, Hayes ran a Federal program to develop renewable energy technology. He now directs a Seattle-based foundation, which supports, among other things, Living on Earth. These experiences have tempered his outlook. Hayes no longer forecasts ecological catastrophe, like he did in his first Earth Day speech, with this comment about smog.

HAYES: Tens of thousands of people will soon die in Los Angeles in a thermal inversion that's probably now inevitable, and there's not a single instrument within the existing order that is stopping the poisonous flow of traffic into that system. We cannot pretend to be concerned with the environment...

FITZPATRICK: Hayes is somewhat embarrassed these days when listening to his youthful rhetoric. But he contends the alarmist tone was right for the times. Now, Hayes seems less strident and more philosophical. Instead of demanding that the government clean up America, he's working to get individuals to accept responsibility for building a sustainable society.

HAYES: We'd like to create a system within which people feel like they are acting in their own immediate self interest rather than feel like they are oppressed and being manipulated by faceless remote governmental bureaucrats, in order to lead lives where they are making the most efficient possible use of resources and acting in a way that allows them to pass onto their kids a world as wonderful as the one that they inherited.

FITZPATRICK: Earth Day organizer and environmental strategist, Denis Hayes. For Living on Earth, I'm Terry FitzPatrick reporting.



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