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FROM THE ARCHIVE: Meet Denis Hayes, the founder of Earth Day

  • Written by  Nic Davies
  • Published in Climate
The photo that launched a movement: Earthrise, taken by Apollo 8 astronaut Bill Anders The photo that launched a movement: Earthrise, taken by Apollo 8 astronaut Bill Anders NASA
22 Apr
Founded in the USA by Denis Hayes, Earth Day became a global initiative in 1990 when it extended its activities to 141 countries. Today it’s claimed to reach an estimated one billion people across more than 190 countries. Nic Davies reflects on the movement, its founder and its meaning today. This article was orginally published in the April 2020 issue of Geographical. 

The first Earth Day in 1970 was a defining moment. Twenty million Americans took to streets, parks and halls to protest a growing list of contemporary environmental concerns. One issue was notable by its absence that day, simply because nobody was thinking about it. Predictably, a mere fifty years later, that missing issue is the central theme of this year’s event: ‘Climate Action’. And it seems it couldn’t be happening at a better, or perhaps worse time.

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Now CEO of the Seattle-based philanthropic organisation – the Bullitt Foundation – and based in the Bullitt Centre, ‘the world’s greenest office building’, Earth Day founder Denis Hayes is already hard at work planning this year’s milestone event (albeit with some last minute digital changes, for obvious reasons). It will be named ‘Earthrise’ after the famous photograph taken from the Moon on Christmas Eve 1968 by Apollo 8 astronaut Bill Anders, which shows a gibbous Earth apparently rising above the rugged lunar horizon. The photo became the event’s unofficial visual touchstone in 1970, seen by many to encapsulate the fragility and beauty of planet Earth in the vastness of space. 


Denis Hayes has worked longer than most on climate and energy issues. In various guises, every year for more than fifty years he has taken his vision for a sustainable human environment to the public, politicians and leaders of industry, extolling the ‘win win win’ benefits to be gained from utilising urban ecology, biomimicry and renewable energy.

A committed champion of solar power, he was appointed head of the Solar Energy Research Institute (SERI) by President Carter, but now laments subsequent American administrations’ almost instant dismissal of the industry’s potential. ‘President Reagan “trimmed” $100m off SERI’s $130 million budget and fired 1,500 consultants, including two who went on to win Nobel Prizes. It was probably the most painful afternoon of my life,’ he remembers. ‘Reagan removed the solar panels installed on the White House by Carter, and oversaw the abandonment of a US industry that had pioneered all of the commercially available solar and photovoltaic technologies that are manufactured and marketed in the world today. We abandoned an energy source that produced no greenhouse gases, no acid rain, no radioactive waste, no bomb-grade materials, had no moving parts and operated at ambient temperatures. It was just breathtakingly stupid. Had Carter been re-elected, I believe the environment would be in far better shape today.’

But all that was in the future for the young Hayes, whose journey began as an angst-ridden 21 year-old on a freezing Namibian hill during a three-year global hitchhike. That sleepless night, the realisation arrived Damascene-like about the need to design with nature. Hayes could see that Darwinian evolution made everything as efficient as possible, running on energy transactions powered largely by the sun. Later he would postulate that ‘photovoltaics in a human culture can play the role that photosynthesis plays in nature’. Mankind’s short-sighted tapping of the limited supply of fossil fuels was surely a brief episode. His life changed at that moment and he hot-footed it back to the States to resume study, eventually settling on law.


Keen to make an impact, Hayes cut his first real ecological tooth in 1969 when he took on a fledgling project for a series of environment ‘teach-ins’ across US campuses, proposed by the ecologically committed US Senator Gaylord Nelson, and turned it into a national and then international campaigning phenomenon. This might never have happened had Hayes failed to notice an article about Senator Nelson’s plan in the New York Times. Thinking that the low profile project risked failure, Hayes contacted Nelson, volunteered to organise his own Harvard campus, but ended up being asked to drop out of school and organise the project across the entire United States. 

‘With gusto’ fails to capture the intensity of the following months. Hayes took on a crack team of more than 80 people, experienced in the issues dominating the late 1960s, from the Vietnam War to civil rights. It was a tumultuous period across the world, bookended in the US by the Cuban missile crisis and the assassinations of John and Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King.

Deference to governmental and industrial authority was evaporating, replaced in part by a creeping ecological awakening thanks to Rachel Carson’s extraordinary outlier, her 1962 book Silent Spring which warned of catastrophic ecosystem breakdown. So how best to capture the pent-up frustrations of 70 million American babyboomers? Hayes conceded that the ‘teach-in’ had worked to facilitate earlier movements but now judged it passé. A new proactive vocabulary was needed and over pizza and beer a fresh concept was decided. Soon, a full-page ad in the New York Times, crafted pro bono by advertising guru Julian Koenig, announced ‘Earth Day’.

WEBthumbnail PastedGraphic 1Denis Hayes mans the phones at the first Earth Day in 1970 [Credit: EarthDay]

Analytical by nature, Hayes had looked again at the letters generated by the original NYT article. Although a good proportion came from schools, many had not. A significant number were from young women, mostly college-educated, married in single-earner households and at home with children, who appeared to be engaging with the issue for the first time. This critical revelation led to the targeting of women’s magazines, encouraging a newly identified constituency that was to be crucial both to Earth Day’s success and later civil society. ‘A significant proportion of these women who went on to be politically and organisationally involved cite initial Earth Day involvement as the spark,’ reflects Hayes. ‘Even today, the core environmental constituency remains women. Possibly rooted in an evolutionary maternal instinct, women, in general, respond much more passionately against threats to their own kids and future generations.’

Support from labour unions was also instrumental, albeit this fell away as industry faced the upheavals of the 1970s. Conscious of the accusation levelled at today’s campaigners, Hayes has always striven to diversify beyond the white middle class but concedes that such inclusivity has been difficult to accomplish. Although air and water pollution, lead paint, and pesticides have their greatest effects on the poor, they are less immediate than homelessness, inadequate health care, high crime, and poor, dangerous schools. He believes it is essential to engage apparently disinterested constituencies by making ecological concerns relevant to their tough day-to-day lives and avoiding jargon. ‘If climate activists don’t engage these groups, others will,’ Hayes points out. ‘Environmentalists and scientists tend to be very tentative, arrayed against people who in their own simplistic ways are absolutely sure of themselves. Jefferson was right, we need an aroused citizenry capable of understanding the issues.’

Then, as now, it was vital to build a critical mass. With an estimated 20 million participants across the US, this abstract ‘mass’ became flesh on 22 April 1970.


It is difficult to imagine just how intimidating it was to address an audience of one million from a 60-foot-high stage erected in New York’s Central Park. As if on a cliff overlooking the ocean, Denis Hayes remembers there were people further out than he could see, all there to celebrate Earth Day number one. ‘I don’t much like crowds,’ he admits, so perhaps he’d been more comfortable starting that day in the company of Native Americans, welcoming the sunrise on the Mall in his adopted home of Washington D.C. His day continued with speeches in New York and then Chicago and would end back in Washington speaking to unknown millions on national public television.

‘I had quite a carbon footprint that first Earth Day,’ he recalls wryly. ‘Not that the serious climatic impact of flying had really crossed anyone’s mind back in 1970. The perceived problems with fossil fuels back then were the risks of ground and water pollution and the impact of air quality on human health.’

WEBfpz 20090928 7752Denis Hayes is a committed environmental champion and campaigner [Credit: EarthDay]

These risks were enough to engage huge numbers. ‘The turnout was remarkable, not least because a mere four or five months earlier there had been little interest among young people generally and the likes of politicians about the environment,’ says Hayes. ‘It seems we’d uncorked a genie that was far bigger than any of us had anticipated.’

The wave of US environmental legislation that followed (including The Clean Air Act, Clean Water Act, Endangered Species Act, Environmental Protection Act and the Marine Mammal Protection Act) is unprecedented and had a global impact. ‘We had hoped it was a window in time that would last but, even though it didn’t, for four or five years we were effectively unstoppable,’ says Hayes. ‘With the election of Jimmy Carter as president, people thought the environment was in pretty good hands and we had by then addressed all the issues about which people felt most passionately and created agencies such as the EPA and NOAA to study, regulate and enforce these protections.’

In 1969, very few would have had an answer to what ‘the environment’ meant. By the end of 1970, millions were fully cognisant, even describing themselves as environmentalists. It was undoubtedly a profound tipping point in society.


The parallels with 2020 bear consideration. In barely 18 months, the Thunberg effect has lifted the climate change issue higher than ever before into public consciousness, combining with the headline-grabbing actions of a fledgling Extinction Rebellion to place world leaders and international organisations on the back foot.

However, Hayes warns that: ‘The current situation is so dire that it is more important to make genuine progress than to remain ideologically pure. Back in the 70s we passed the very best that we could accomplish politically, creating a framework in which tens of trillions of private and public dollars were spent improving public health and protecting natural ecosystems. The real alternative to that legislation was not perfection; the real alternative was failure.’

Ironically, it is environmentalists such as Greta Thunberg who are demanding governments keep their feet on the ground when it comes to solutions. Such worries are reflected in a new UK government-funded report by a consortium of leading academics which states: ‘Businesses and the public want to act to eliminate emissions, but exaggerated claims about the speed at which new technologies can be introduced are holding back progress. Relying on breakthrough technologies to achieve zero emissions by 2050 is risky and delays action.’ 

Lead author Professor Julian Allwood of Cambridge University added: ‘The problem with delivering climate mitigation is the tension between the government wanting to deliver solutions based on technology, and protesters and scientists asking for fast action that bites much more rapidly than we can bring new technologies into place. So although new technologies may become relevant by 2100, the number operating at scale in 2050 will be very few. Probably we’ve got to deliver on climate change with today’s technologies.’

WEB02The ‘Thunberg effect’ has lifted the climate change issue higher than ever before [Credit: EarthDay]

Summing up the current situation, Hayes concedes that, ‘the climate crisis is still not a top-tier issue on which elections are won and lost. But we’re well past the point of having to seek out the early adopters. Today, we are targeting literally everyone in an effort to boost their intensity of feeling about climate and the priority it has among their political priorities. In the long term, I hope for a massive mobilisation of resources akin to that for WWII to be sustained for several decades, producing a carbon-negative equilibrium global economy that starts curing the climate calamities. And policies that also produce a more equitable distribution of the wealth that such a massive economic transformation will generate.’

Hindsight suggests that a critical mass such as that seen in 1970 arrives in a wave which peaks maybe every twenty years. Once a generation, those who are diligently ‘treading water’ are joined by fresh surfers just as the fabled seventh wave appears. Although marred by cynical wrecking activity orchestrated by fossil fuel multinationals, which continues to this day, progress in the later 1980s led to an activity high-point culminating in the partially successful 1992 Rio Summit. A further resurgence due around 2010 was perhaps quashed by the crippling financial crisis. The Paris Agreement of 2015 certainly made a splash, but the hope is that the ripples generated from this and events such as ‘Earthrise’ will grow through 2020 – though of course, the coronavirus epidemic could now dampen the cause.

Despite current difficulties however, Earth Day 2020 will go ahead, albeit digitally. ‘The coronavirus pandemic does not shut us down. Instead, it reminds us of what’s at stake in our fight for the planet,’ reads the website. The event promises, over the course of 24 hours, to ‘fill the digital landscape with global conversations, calls to action, performances, video teach-ins and more.’ Whether this is enough to sustain momentum, time, and tide, will tell.

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