Ecology Must `Capture the Heart'
INTERVIEW: `EARTH DAY' CHAIRMAN
MEDFORD, MASS. — TWO years ago, Denis Hayes decided the time was ripe to unearth Earth Day. But he had little idea just how far the environmental seeds he planned to scatter would reach. Mr. Hayes is best known for his orchestration of the first Earth Day, the largest planned demonstration in history, with an estimated 20 million participants. Now, 20 years later, he and his staff are working to create a crescendo of involvement: a projected 200 million participants in 135 countries on Sunday, April 22.
The idea for Earth Day 1990 occurred to Hayes two years ago. The Bhopal and Chernobyl disasters, the ``homeless'' garbage barge, and extensive debate over the greenhouse effect ``created a climate where a mega-event might be doable,'' he says. ``The time seemed right to create international solidarity among environmental groups.''
For example, 15,000 Czechoslovakian students will replant a valley devastated by acid rain with acid resistant birch and beach trees on Earth Day 1990. In Berlin, a ``peacetrees'' program will plant 9,999 trees within the former border zone. And in England, shoppers will remove unnecessary packaging material and return it to the store where the product was purchased.
With an air of confidence, and words as rushed as his itinerary, the forty-ish lawyer says in an interview that he strongly believes that technological solutions exist for all environmental problems. ``We simply have to create enough momentum, enough citizen pressure'' to solve them, he says. But gathering such momentum in a consumerism-saturated United States gives him pause.
Moments earlier, he had told a standing-room-only audience at the New England Environmental Conference that ``12 million card-carrying [environmentalists] is not enough.'' It's time to ``capture the hearts of America.''
The US environmental movement is too elitist, too upper-middle class and white, he says. For it to succeed, it must attract that segment of the population for whom recycling is ``just a little bit weird,'' and educate them to realize that not to recycle is ``just a little bit irresponsible.''
He gives an example of the environmental consciousness that must be built: When the Earth Day 1990 offices opened last year, everyone who drank coffee brought his or her own mug to work. They took them to the local restaurant. There, the person behind the counter would measure the coffee into a Styrofoam cup, pour it into the mug - and throw the cup away, says Hayes in a blurt of laughter.
Six months ago, the restaurant made a switch: ``Not only did they fill up our cups, but they have signs posted in all of these stores now that if you bring in your own cup, you get coffee for 20 cents less,'' he says. ``It's a slow educational process,'' he adds.
When asked about the ``inconvenience'' of environmentalism, he says ``it's no more inconvenient to use an efficient bulb than an inefficient bulb,'' or a detergent that is lower in phosphates. In many cases, being environmentally aware is merely changing habits, he says.
HAYES links the origins of Earth Day to the 1969 Santa Barbara oil spill. Concerned by the disaster, then-Sen. Gaylord Nelson (D) of Wisconsin proposed a series of environmental ``teach-ins'' on campuses (a play on the ``sit-in'' Vietnam war protests). Hayes heard of the idea, requested a meeting with the senator, and dropped out of Harvard University Law School to become the project's director.
But the environmental movement really sprang from a desire to consolidate the anti-war, women's, civil rights, and conservation movements, he says. ``We were reaching toward a new political realignment,'' what he calls a precursor to the Green Party.
Considered a key player in launching the US environmental movement, Hayes continued his commitment with a stint at the Worldwatch Institute, the Smithsonian Institution, and as director of the Illinois State Energy office. During the Carter administration, he directed the Solar Energy Research Institute (dissolved under Reagan). Today, he teaches engineering at Stanford University and is a lawyer in a San Francisco firm.
One of his next projects is participation in a nonprofit ``Green Seals'' program to help consumers make ecologically sound purchases. He hopes the project, which will establish environmental standards for consumer products, will ``start a revolution in purchasing.'' Manufacturers who meet product standards can display a green seal on their products.
As for future Earth Days after this one, ``there are people who want to do that, and more power to them if they want to, but I think it's stupid,'' he says. ``We have enough things like St. Patrick's Day and Mother's Day.''