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On 50th Anniversary, Earth Day Founder Reflects on Its Legacy

Man standing in front of building
Earth Day Founder Denis Hayes. (Photo: David Hiller)

Earth Day 2020 was expected to draw one billion people into the streets around the world, to celebrate its 50th anniversary. But founder and organizer Denis Hayes says now it is even more important to take the demonstrations to the ballot box this fall, because the job of saving the planet is not yet accomplished. VPM’s Charles Fishburne spoke with Hayes, and began by asking him about the very first Earth Day in 1970.

The full transcript of their conversation appears below.

HAYES: The demonstrations took all sorts of different forms from the most innocuous, fifth and sixth graders going out and planting trees or cleaning up a beach, to big demonstrations where folks were marching with gas masks around urban coal-burning utility plants and college students literally holding trials about the way that automobiles behaved, condemning them at the end and pounding them into smithereens with sledgehammers. A lot of it was colorful, and it was really intended to be something that would be picked up by the media and conveyed to a ever larger audience. The largest of them was in New York City where Mayor Lindsay shut down fifth avenue for more than 50 blocks. And when I addressed the crowd there up on a platform that was five or six stories high.

The 50 blocks of people stretched out ahead of me was like looking at the ocean.

FISHBURNE: There was legislation almost immediately.

HAYES: That was like the shot heard around Capitol Hill. And it lent enormous impetus to our various legislative efforts. So that later that year, in December, when they passed the Clean Air Act, we had a piece of legislation that was really far reaching. It ultimately resulted in smog-causing pollutants coming out of tailpipes, for example to be reduced by about 98%. So today, it's only about 2%, as much nitrogen oxide and particulates as we had in 1970. And that was the beginning of a wave that included the Clean Water Act and the Endangered Species Act, the Marine Mammal Protection Act, Toxic Substances Control Act, Superfund National Forest Protection Act, the Occupational Safety and Health Act, the National Environmental Education Act, Resource Conservation and Recovery Act. I mean, it just went on and on to fundamentally change the way that America does business.

FISHBURNE: Fast forward 50 years...

HAYES: We are now in almost 200 countries. There were probably more people participating in Earth Day in India last year than there were in the United States. And it has really grown to be the largest secular holiday in the world a day when millions and millions of people spend some time thinking about the planet and their relationship to it and what we can learn from billion years of beta testing various approaches by Mother Nature

FISHBURNE: COVID-19 restrictions have put a profound effect on Earth Day 2020.

HAYES: We've been working for two years around the world trying to get a billion people out into the streets on Earth Day to demand international change, global commitment to fighting climate change. COVID-19 was like the ultimate Black Swan if you were spending your time trying to build huge demonstrations. So all of these things that we had in place. Pope Francis was to address a huge crowd in St. Peter's Square with a message about climate change. We had things that were being done in soccer stadiums in Brazil and in plazas in Calcutta, we hope to have 750,000 people on the Mall in Washington, DC. All of that is now impossible in an era when people around the world are sheltering in place. Instead of 750,000 people on the Mall, it's now illegal to have more than 10 people. And you don't have much political clout if you've got 10 people at your demonstration so we're building out toward the election, and having significant voter registration drives voter education drives, get out the vote drives in the belief that this election really matters.

FISHBURNE: Is there anything about this new normal that might ultimately promote a way of life that is more environmentally friendly?

HAYES: As people have sheltered in place as a result of COVID-19, a great many of us are, most of us are staying at home if we've got jobs that allow us to stay at home, and they're not viewed as essential jobs that you have to be at your workplace at the hospital or the fire department. And as a consequence, we're learning what it's like to live without commutes, to get to work, having the congestion, the pollution, the energy consumption involved in that commute. I'm guessing that after this, a lot of us who have that flexibility will be convincing our employers to let us work from home at least say one day a week. And if that happens to that reduces your congestion by 20%, your gasoline consumption by 20%, your wasted time by 20%. And the amount of ultimately the amount of office space that is needed if one fifth of the workforce is at home every day then you can reduce your office requirements for heating and cooling and lighting by that same amount. I don't want to think that COVID-19 is going to result in huge widespread changes in human behavior. But I think in a lot of things around the edges, it's going to let people recognize that they're wasting a lot of time and a lot of resources on things of relatively little value and could have some profound changes.

Organizers are calling for 24 hours of virtual activities like teach-ins and
performances at

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