Forty-five years ago today as a 17-year-old growing up in the Philly area I hitchhiked down to Fairmont Park to take part in the first Earth Day, April 22, 1970. I had been reading The Environmental Handbook, created for the event. For all the problems it depicted it also portrayed remarkably hopeful possibilities for building a sustainable world. In the midst of the fractures of the Vietnam War era, there was a ray of sunlight in all this.
Sitting on a grass hill on a sunny day with the Philadelphia skyline in the background, I heard an inspiring line-up. Where else could you see Allen Ginsberg and Edmund Muskie on the same stage? The range embodied the essential significance of Earth Day, the unification of what had been many disparate movements – wilderness and wildlife preservation, anti-pollution, opposition to freeways, worker safety, etc. – into a unified “big tent” environmental movement that led to an environmental revolution.
More than two dozen environmental acts were passed in the wake of Earth Day, laws to strengthen protections for clean air and clean water, the Endangered Species Act, the law that mandates environmental impact statements for large projects. It was the foundation for the environmental protections we have today. Earth Day planted the seeds of my own work as a sustainability writer and advocate from the 1980s to today.
A young man was there that day. I’m sure he was on stage but I can’t say I recall him. It was Denis Hayes, the first organizer of Earth Day. He was travelling by train up the East Coast with Muskie, Ginsberg and the crew visiting different rallies. I later made my way to Seattle and came to know Denis as president of the Bullitt Foundation. Denis has wryly shared with me his ironic feelings about being primarily known for something he did in his 20s. But those in the know understand he’s done a lot more since.
As Jimmy Carter’s solar energy head, Denis shaped what is now the National Renewable Energy Laboratory. When Ronald Reagan came in to rip the solar panels Carter had installed off the White House roof and tear down the renewable energy programs Carter had started, Denis successfully preserved the core of the most important research efforts. We owe a great deal of today’s clean energy revolution to the seeds he planted, and saved.
As president of Bullitt Foundation, Denis was a seminal funder of climate work in the Northwest, how I got to know him. Safe to say without important start-up and continuing funding from Bullitt the regional climate movement would not be the powerful presence it is today.
Over recent years Denis led construction of the world’s greenest office building, the Bullitt Center, which generates its own energy from a solar roof and its own water from a rain-gathering system. It is a true zero-energy building. He also has a new book out, Cowed: The Hidden Impact of 93 Million Cows on America’s Health, Economy, Politics, Culture, and Environment.
Though most people might know Denis from Earth Day, clearly he’s never stopped being a sustainability pioneer. So it was a pleasure to see him give a short talk at the Earth Day Climate Action Festival at Seattle Central College on this 45th Earth Day. Under a sunny sky, and appropriately for the heavily youthful crowd, Denis called on a new generation to seize the day.
"Today we’re talking about passing the torch to a new generation,” he started. “That has probably never happened in history.”
Instead, the new generation is going to have to wrestle the torch out of the grasping fingers of those who hold it now. Much as his and my generation had to seize its own day, “The new generation is going to have to struggle.”
Denis overviewed the environmental crisis that was emerging in the years before the first Earth Day, pollution, pesticides, freeways ripping through cities, and compared it to China today. These were national struggles that yielded national victories.
“What you have facing you today is very different that what was facing us,” he noted. “You’re addressing global issues,” such as climate, ocean acidification, overfishing, migratory species. To address these, “We have to come together not as a nation, but as a people.”
Denis called to a moral obligation to stand up for the poorest. “Those who have done the least to change the planet will suffer the most.”
“The important stuff is always done by young people,” Denis said to the young crowd. “This is not just a rally. This is the beginning of a revolution.”
Truly we need as profound a global sustainability revolution as the environmental revolution spurred by the first Earth Day. And many young people are coming to the fore to make it happen. Denis is still in the fight, and so I am and many of our generation. But it is the young who are our hope and inspiration. You will seize the torch, and our aging bodies will keep up with you as long as we can. Now as then – For the Earth.