On April 22, 1970, Denis Hayes coordinated the first Earth Day, a seminal event in the launching of the modern American environmental movement. Thirty-five years later, Hayes is still fighting for the environment as head of the Earth Day Network, promoting environmental citizenship and year-round progressive action worldwide. Hayes is also president and CEO of the Bullitt Foundation, an environmental group located in Seattle.
TAP writing fellow Ayelish McGarvey recently spoke with Hayes about plans for Earth Day 2004. The message? Get out and vote.
This year marks the 35th anniversary of Earth Day. How has its mission -- and the environmental movement -- changed since 1970?
Our objective in 1970 was to catapult a new issue, environmentalism, onto the national, state, and regional political agenda. There were many narrowly focused groups that were fighting freeways, for example, or protesting power plants, or campaigning against the abuse of pesticides. But nothing tied them all together. They didn't think of themselves as having anything in common with one another.
The first Earth Day attempted to link these concerns under a common framework of environmental concern and launch it as a unified movement. We hoped that the groups that embraced any one of those causes would also support the others. That effort succeeded beyond our wildest dream. The actual event had over 20 million participants, which made it four times as large as any previous planned national protest in American history. It really did catapult these issues to a new level of prominence: relatively swiftly, we set up an [Environmental Protection Agency], passed a Clean Air Act, a Clean Water Act, an Endangered Species Act, and others. Within about five years, we laid out a framework for a series of sweeping changes in America -- essentially the environmental New Deal.
Thirty-five years later, we're wrestling with a different set of issues. Today, parts of that initial coalition -- folks who were worried about the impacts of environmental problems on people of limited means, people of color, the working poor, the rural poor -- have lost their prominence in the movement. Originally we involved the NAACP, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, Black Survival, and others. But the movement has not adequately addressed their concerns -- from lead paint in 60-year-old schools to a dearth of parklands in inner cites to terrible diets, these are as bad now as they were 35 years ago. Our challenge today is to take the benefits that have appeared for the middle and upper class and make sure they extend to all parts of America.
A second difference: The issues we focused on in 1970 were entirely local ones that we spun out to the national level. When you look at the new issues in this millennium, the issues we've made the least progress on are the global ones; we're in much worse shape now in climate change than we were 35 years ago, for example. We're in worse shape in terms of the epidemic of extinction. Today, we're trying to figure out how to translate the immediacy and urgency of local concern to environmental issues of global consequence that no one nation can solve alone.
What is special about this particular Earth Day? What has been planned for this year?
What many people don't remember about Earth Day 1970 is that a week after it was over, President Nixon invaded Cambodia, and environmental issues were swiftly forgotten as the nation erupted in concern over the expansion of the war in Southeast Asia. That fall, the issue came back into play through the political process. Earth Day organizers campaigned against the first “dirty dozen” congressmen with really terrible environmental records who were in districts where this could become an important campaign issue.
In the end, their efforts tilted enough votes to beat seven of the 12, including Representative George Fallon from Baltimore. He was beaten by a young guy named Paul Sarbanes, who today represents Maryland in the Senate. At the time, Fallon was the chairman of the House Public Works Committee. That defeat was noticed by everybody from the president to people running for city council. This environmental thing wasn't just a frolic out in the park but something that had political consequences.
In 2004, we have a number of elections in which environmental issues will be defining ones. Nowhere is that more clear than the presidential contest, where we have clearly the most aggressively anti-environmental president in American history running against someone with a 94-percent lifetime voting record as measured by the League of Conservation Voters. If we're going to have an impact on national policy and legislation, one way that [we] can do that is by replicating our strategy from 1970: Despite the war and bad economy, make this an election where the environment counts.
This is the theme of Earth Day 2004: If you're going to do only one thing for the environment this year, it should be to register to vote. We've built an interesting coalition to reach out into communities that are underrepresented at the polls, and [to] talk about environmental issues that are relative to them. We're not going to talk about wilderness areas in east [Los Angeles] but about threats to people's health that are the consequences of political choices being made.
You wrote in a recent editorial that, “By any criterion, George [W.] Bush is leading the most robustly anti-environmental administration in the last hundred years.” Just how far has the environmental agenda been set back during the Bush administration?
We have been historically blessed by a balance of powers that stops any one branch from doing anything that is too far outside the ordinary. What has been so important to the Bush presidency is that he appointed extraordinarily anti-environmental officials to most of the key natural-resource positions, not just at the cabinet level but at the subcabinet level as well. And we have a House of Representatives, and a Senate, and increasingly a federal judiciary, that have not put the brakes on this anywhere. It has become a juggernaut.
Ironically, perhaps the least important of these issues is the one that got the most attention: the loosening of arsenic standards for drinking water. But, essentially, America stands alone in the industrial world against significant motion regarding climate change. This administration lines up with the automobile industry in opposition to changes in fuel-economy standards -- while the rest of the industrial world is moving toward super-efficient vehicles.
Since 1994 [when Republicans gained control of Congress], we have lost the lead on solar energy. Solar cells first emerged out of Bell Labs, and the most important research and development in the world was done there using American tax dollars. But not today. The Japanese are leading in solar-cell development overwhelmingly, with the Europeans coming in a strong second. We'll produce fewer modules this year than last year. All of these other countries have very strong incentives to develop a technology; here, we have very strong disincentives.
The Healthy Forests Initiative is a beautiful job of positioning, and a terrible policy. Everyone wants to have healthy forests: Environmentalists as much as anyone want to clear up the brush and reduce the probability of forest fires. But do you pay for that with general revenues, or do you hand over vast swaths of already healthy forests for lumber companies to cut (including old growth forests) and use that as a bribe to do forest health cutting elsewhere?
It is issue after issue. It is hard to think of any area of environmental concern that today is not in worse shape than it was before this administration.
Here is a telling anecdote: European farmers are now setting up feedlots [for livestock] in the United States, because our environmental standards are lower than Europe's. Just like American companies would go to Mexico or Asia for lower environmental standards for manufacturing, we ourselves are becoming such a target.
This seems like such a bleak time for environmentalists. Are there places around the country where you can identify positive change, despite the political climate?
If you look at the state level, where initiatives are taking place on issues like climate change and energy, you can make an argument that the three most progressive states in America are California, New York, and Massachusetts. This is counterintuitive, as they all have Republican governors. Governor [Arnold] Schwarzenegger is actually dramatically stronger on these issues than even his predecessor, Gray Davis.
Putting this into historical perspective: Earth Day 1970 took place in an era when the Republican party still contained “Rockefeller Republicans,” folks like Charles Percy and Jacob Javitts, who took progressive positions on a wide array of social issues while maintaining a level of fiscal conservatism. One of these was a man named John Lindsay, who at the time was the mayor of New York. He became deeply involved in Earth Day and enabled us to put together a very large demonstration. Lindsay got the cops to support us, issued us permits in a matter of days, and helped us to find the resources to erect large stages and powerful sound systems.
Richard Nixon clearly noticed John Lindsay's participation in Earth Day. He saw that on the left, the likely Democratic nominee, Edmund Muskie, was well-positioned in the Senate to pass clean-air and clean-water legislation. Nixon realized he had to do something on these environmental issues, as he was being pinched from both sides. Consequently, according to John Erlichman [Nixon's domestic council at the time], it was on Earth Day 1970 when Nixon was watching televised demonstrations taking place across the country that he decided to go forward with creating an EPA. He was an anti-environmental president -- he didn't do it out of principle but because he was a skilled politician.
So today, I am actually hopeful when I see Governors Schwarzenegger, [Mitt] Romney, and [George] Pataki being good on environmental issues when President Bush is clearly the worst head of state on the planet in this regard. Bush must be a little worried about the Republican flank -- that has to be an optimistic note.
Ayelish McGarvey is a Prospect writing fellow.