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Air Like Split-Pea Soup Spurred First Earth Day, Organizer Says

Denis Hayes of the Bullitt Foundation
A file photo of Denis Hayes, president of the Bullitt Foundation and coordinator of the first Earth Day 40 years ago. Source: Bullitt Foundation via Bloomberg

Earth Day spurred a movement that grew from street protests to a sea change in corporate behavior, said Denis Hayes, national coordinator of the first such event 40 years ago today.

It also helped redirect trillions of dollars in U.S. spending toward cleaner air and water, species preservation and steps to slow global warming, Hayes said in an interview yesterday.

Hayes, 65, was a graduate student at Harvard University and former student body president at Stanford University when he was hired by Senator Gaylord Nelson, a Wisconsin Democrat, to organize the first Earth Day. Millions of people were drawn into the streets by issues ranging from the dangers of leaded gasoline to the encroachment of interstate highways on cities. Corporations were nowhere to be seen, he said.

“If people behaved today in the corporate world the way they routinely, almost universally behaved in 1969, they’d be thrown in the slammer,” Hayes said in an interview. “Descending in an airplane into Los Angeles was like dipping into a bowl of split-pea soup, just ghastly.”

Hayes is now president of the Bullitt Foundation, a Seattle-based group that promotes sustainable development. He spoke yesterday at a conference organized by The Carbon War Room, a group of entrepreneurs formed by Richard Branson, the billionaire founder of Virgin Group Ltd., that promotes wealth-generating solutions to environmental challenges.

Profit-Driven Movement

The environmental movement, characterized in the 1970s by people working out of their garages to “save the world,” has become dominated by profit-driven companies, Hayes said.

“Last year was not a wonderful year for the American economy, particularly the things that require capital formation, and the solar industry grew 37 percent,” Hayes said. “One thing we have now as an asset that we didn’t have then is this large industrial base, constantly growing, that is trying to do things green.”

In the four years after the first Earth Day, Congress passed laws to improve air and water quality and protect endangered species, and founded the Environmental Protection Agency to enforce new regulations. The laws triggered the most important transformation of the U.S. economy since the New Deal, Hayes said.

During the administration of President Jimmy Carter, Hayes led the Solar Energy Research Institute, now the National Renewable Energy Laboratory in Golden, Colorado.

“Denis Hayes and a cohort of friends and associates brought 20 million people out into the streets,” said Kathleen Rogers, president of the Earth Day Network, a Washington-based organizer of today’s Earth Day events. “And I’m reminded constantly that he only spent $125,000 to put it all together.”

‘Dirty Dozen’

The environmental movement became a political force in the months after Earth Day when it developed the first “dirty dozen” list of members of Congress with poor environmental records who were seeking re-election, Hayes said. Seven of the 12 were defeated that fall, including Representative George Fallon of Maryland, who headed the Public Works Committee. Fallon was defeated in a Democratic primary by Paul Sarbanes.

“If George Fallon could be defeated on the environment, than anyone could be defeated on the environment,” Hayes said.

After that, Clean Air Act amendments opposed by industry passed Congress.

“It changed the American culture,” Hayes said. “People who in 1969 would have thought of the acid rain coming down on their cars, the sulfur dioxide they were breathing, as the smell of progress came to think off this as an insult to the integrity of the biosphere and a threat to their own health.”

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