Air Date: Week of April 16, 1999
Steve Curwood talks with Denis Hayes, organizer of the first Earth Day in 1970, about preparations for Earth Day 2000, which Mr. Hayes predicts will be "the biggest planned event in the history of the world."
CURWOOD: This is Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. Not so long ago, there was no organized environmental movement in the United States. Sure, various environmental issues had their champions, but most people weren't making the connection between love for the great outdoors and the toxic waste at Love Canal. Even in 1970, many of the major conservation organizations didn't see the need to join the fight for clean air in our cities. All that changed on April 22nd.
ANNOUNCER: This is a CBS News Special. Earth Day: A Question of Survival, with CBS news correspondent Walter Cronkite.
CRONKITE: Good evening. A unique day in American history is ending, a day set aside for a nationwide outpouring of mankind seeking its own survival. A day dedicated...
CURWOOD: More than 20 million people nationwide turned out for the first Earth Day, creating a new movement almost overnight. At the center of this event was Denis Hayes, a young man who left Harvard Law School to generate concern for the environment on an unprecedented level. His rhetoric at the time, at least, seemed fiery.
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 of this country or any other country...
CURWOOD: Denis Hayes has toned it down since 1970, but only just a bit.
HAYES: Earth Day 2000 is going to be the largest planned event in human history.
CURWOOD: Preparations are now underway for Earth Day 2000, and Denis Hayes says no stone will be left unturned.
HAYES: We expect worldwide to be operating in every single country in the world, every principality, every (laughs) territory. We're hoping to get a half a billion people, 500 million people, participating.
CURWOOD: Now that's a modest ambition there (Hayes laughs), the largest event in human history?
HAYES: Event in the sense of pulling people into a campaign that you're deciding a year in advance, that this is an issue that we need to focus concentration on and get people out doing something, yes.
CURWOOD: How are you going to do that?
HAYES: Well, for one thing, we're choosing, as we always do, a topic that resonates naturally. I mean, in 1970, what we were trying to do was to clean up the air and the water that were making our cities unlivable. And that was something that was enormously popular with people but not with some companies and not with politicians and the people won. In the year 2000, we've chosen a theme that similarly resonates, which is that we have an energy system that was designed for the 19th century, and now that we're moving into the 21st century it's time to start making those changes that will make things efficient and powered by healthy, benign, renewable resources.
CURWOOD: You're going to get a half a billion people excited about energy?
HAYES: (Laughs) Well, there are a lot of positive and negative reasons. The negative ones are of course that our current energy system is changing the climate of the world. It's the source of most of the urban air pollutions that are making many of the world's cities unlivable. The positive side is that as we move to a different set of energy sources and higher levels of efficiency, we produce a system that has more jobs, is much more compatible with an information revolution, and is the kind of system that is widely popular with people whenever they're given a choice.
CURWOOD: Now, how realistic do you think it is to think you're going to get the attention of a half a billion people?
HAYES: I think it's exceedingly realistic. We have some assets in the year 2000 that simply weren't available in 1990, when we got 200 million. And the most important of those will be the electronics revolution. We are going to be relying very heavily upon e-mail listserves and upon the World Wide Web to build our organizations in various countries. And that's essentially free. In 1990, when we were located in Palo Alto, what we did was go to Stanford University, find somebody who could speak whatever they speak in Azerbaijan, bring them into our office at 3 o'clock in the morning, they'd make some telephone calls and hope there was somebody at the other end, and it was that kind of organizing.
CURWOOD: Now, the year 2000 is an election year, and what help, if any, do you expect to get from the major candidates for Earth Day 2000?
HAYES: One of the problems with the environmental movement has been that some of, like, if you will, African-Americans and organized labor, it's become almost a captive constituency of the Democratic party. We would like to find some Republicans following in the mold of John Chaffee, and Jim Jeffords, who have prepared themselves to become ardent environmental champions. Richard Nixon was not a wild-eyed enthusiast of the environment, but by getting enough public pressure behind environmental values, even Richard Nixon was able to be brought over. You may recall that Nixon himself came up with the idea of an Environmental Protection Agency.
HAYES: Submitted it to Congress, and then signed it into law after Congress passed it overwhelmingly. Earth Days that have traction, Earth Days that come up typically in years that have zeroes in them, and of course we've got a year now with 3 zeroes in it, always focus upon issues where the political system has failed to reflect the will of the vast majority of the public. You take any kind of poll today and you ask people, "Do you want to get most of your energy from coal, from nuclear power, or from the sun?" and you get 80% saying let's get it from renewable resources, the sun and the wind. But there's very little evidence that anybody in Washington hears that or believes it, and we're going to try to convert it to reality.
CURWOOD: Denis Hayes organized the first Earth Day in 1970 and the 20th anniversary in 1990. He's currently preparing for Earth Day 2000, and he spoke to us from NPR headquarters in Washington, DC. Thanks for talking with us, Denis.
HAYES: It was my pleasure, Steve.
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