Earth Day: The Worldwide Environmental MovementApr.18.2019
Throughout history, people have sought connections with nature. In particular, designers have observed nature, investigated its materials, and abstracted its forms and qualities.
The Garden of Secrets, a collaborative project between TEALEAVES and UBC Botanical Garden, dives into the realm of plant-inspired biomimicry and biophilic design with the goal of celebrating nature beyond its edible, visual and medicinal properties.
Denis Hayes is the founder of Earth Day Network. Earth Day Network’s mission is to diversify, educate and activate the environmental movement worldwide. Growing out of the first Earth Day, for which Denis was the principal coordinator, Earth Day Network is the world’s largest recruiter to the environmental movement, working with more than 75,000 partners in nearly 192 countries to build environmental democracy. Denis reflects on the successes and struggles so far, and how he is gearing up for the 50th Earth Day anniversary in 2020.
Can you tell us about the first Earth Day?
Before the first Earth Day, we had hoped that it would be comparable in size to some of the anti-war rallies and some of the civil rights rallies. Those were almost all single events in a particular location, like the Poor People’s March in Washington D.C. or the march against the Pentagon. What was different about Earth Day was that it wasn’t in 1 city or 5 cities or 20 cities, we had events ultimately in, I think it’s safe to say, every city, every town, every village, every crossroads in the United States. When the news services started reading the things from their stringers across the country, they were flabbergasted at the immensity of this event. We had the three television networks, ABC, NBC and CBS, that’s all we had back in 1970 plus public television. But the three big ones were in New York.
For complex reasons having to do with Richard Nixon’s southern strategy of the split of the Republican Party, the Mayor of New York decided he was going to ride the environmental wave. It was a guy named John Lindsay. His contribution to the event in New York was just extraordinary. He basically got us the great lawn on Central Park. He shut down Fifth Avenue for the day. It was just astonishing how important it is to have the mayor on your side when you’re doing a large urban event and you can contrast that to a few other places where the mayors were not so supportive, but we got that support in the place where all the news media were.
What Earth Day’s major contribution did was to weave together a group of issues into a coherent value system that people can buy into. What Earth Day did was to pull all of those various strands together and weave them into the fabric of modern environmentalism so that instead of having 100 diverse, very small interest groups trying to get something done, we had a movement that went after one issue after another to get something done.
What kind of challenges did you face when trying to coordinate the first Earth Day, especially in a pre-social media era?
Trying to communicate broadly to an audience when there were no websites. There was no email. There was no texting. There was no Instagram, no Twitter. For us to try to reach Americans, we had to use broadcast media and that meant we had to get past the gatekeepers and intermediaries and get stories placed. We would pitch a story and with a remarkable number, I mean with hundreds of these places, they picked it up and found out some way to write a story. To our great good fortune, they would put our street address or our telephone number at the bottom of the story to let people who were interested to know how they could contact us; that would never happen today. This was just a matter of sending out a a lot of messages through these broadcast media and then harvesting the messages that came back in. Then we created these packets of materials that we would send out to people and tell them who was doing what and make suggestions for how they might organize things.
With all of those assets, we were able to get a message out despite the fact that we didn’t have the aspects of the digital world that we have today. A really interesting question going into the 50th anniversary of Earth Day and 2020 is how we can take advantage of social media and how we can stop those who would want to fight us of taking advantage of the social media to crush this embryonic effort to unite the world around these issues the way we’ve united some of these divergent forces within the United States with the first one.
Everyone has a role to play, from scientists, marketers, engineers, how can people contribute towards a sustainable future with diverse backgrounds in differing levels of society?
The interesting thing about environmental issues is that they touch every aspect of society. There are roles in solving it for founders, for engineers, for business executives, for bankers, for scholars. Not only is there a role for each of them but if they don’t play their individual roles we’re going to fail. It’s also sufficiently big and sufficiently complicated that instruction from the top isn’t going to work. You have to somehow get a vast cross section of society to care about the issue and to commit themselves to doing whatever it is that they should be doing to make it better.
People may take the environment for granted because global warming is not yet tangible. What are some ways we can bridge this gap?
You know, we humans pay a lot of attention to our senses. If we can see something, smell it, taste it, touch it, it becomes tangible and real to us. You have to talk, if you can’t talk about the phenomenon itself, you have to talk about its consequences. We can’t see climate change. We can see hurricanes. We can see floods. We can see tornadoes. We can see forest fires. We can see droughts. We have to draw those connections and say, “This is what we’re talking about when we’re talking about climate change.” For all kinds of phenomena that are out there now that are potentially enormously destructive, we’ve got to somehow get something that is tangible, that can be seen or touched. We talk a lot about the problem of the oceans, people can’t see anything beneath the surface of the ocean. It looks exactly now as it did 500 years ago if you’re running a skiff on the ocean. You need something like the photographs in National Geographic of the birds that have died and their carcasses have rotted away and what you have is the image of the bird filled with all of the plastic that it has eaten over its lifetime left behind. Or the fish kills, the shark kills, the whale kills and all of their horrible goriness. I prefer things that are pleasant and attractive too but I think you only stop this kind of barbarity by forcing people to confront it and to demand changes.
Do you think the loss of biodiversity in plants could adversely impact innovation?
We are losing an enormous amount of biodiversity, plants and animals, around the world as we wipe out rainforests and plant mono-cultures in place after place. For many things we’re looking to plants either initially, commonly, or directly for the substances that are produced within plants but then taking those substances, manipulating them creatively, trying to mimic some of their characteristics of other things. Learning something unique about the chemistry on them. If we never discovered the plant before it goes extinct, we’ve lost that capacity for knowledge. There are a vast number of environmental and public health reasons that you want to maintain as much biodiversity as possible and you want to understand all of these diverse things that are out there. It will, I think, have very negative effects upon huge amounts of the economy and human society if the current trends continue.
What could one learn from visiting a botanical garden and how could they inspire others?
People only care about things that they can see and touch and feel and experience. By exposing them to individual species and broad microbe ecosystems within botanical gardens, you help create an understanding of how the world functions and how we need to protect it. On top of that, just in order to play upon people’s self interest I hope that an increasing number of botanical gardens will talk about all of the unexpected fruits that we get. I don’t mean fruits in a literal sense but all of the unexpected benefits that we get from plants and from the magnificent biochemistry that plants do for us.
What is one key message you would want convey?
There was a period of time when people tended to think of the environment of having its champions, like Superman and Wonder Woman that were going to be out there running the Environmental Protection Agencies and the federal government and United Nations environmental program and state departments of ecology and they would take care of us. That’s over.
In a huge number of environmental agencies at all levels today, you find folks whose conscious mission is to shred the environmental protections that we’ve tried to build over the last 40 years. In that kind of an environment, you can’t go home, kick back, quaff a couple of beers and count on those environmental champions to be doing your work for you. We’re in a period right now where it’s the responsibility of each person who cares about passing on a beautiful, resilient, healthy planet to their kids and grandkids to get out on the streets and fight for it, to master the material, to really know what it is that you’re talking about and then go out and organize champions. I personally would love to have you do a lot of that on Earth month in 2020. That will be the 50th anniversary of Earth Day, it will be the completion of the arc of my career, probably. I probably can’t push it much more than 50 years.
But if we can get people to be focused upon environmental issues and with all of the noise that consumes our social media and our news media these days, but focus upon the big important things, then I continue to think that there’s enough social intelligence among most people to mobilize them to save the world. What we did in 1970 was to somehow rise above the din for long enough that it was able to create the fabric of modern environmentalism. We can’t do it anymore in one day. One day is one news cycle. But if we can do this and have it last for four, five, six weeks on issue after issue with people who are deeply committed and deeply knowledgeable about the problems and about the solutions, then I think we can come into this fall of 2020 re-energized and making serious progress toward a sustainable planet again.
Your story is an incredible one of persistence, what advice would you give to young environmentalists today?
Don’t grow old. It’s possible that when looking at a snapshot in time at the world, to become very depressed about things. We’ve known about climate change for a very, very long time. I gave my first address, it was a keynote talk to the American Association for the Advancement of Science talking about the case for solar energy and listed as one of the three or four most compelling reasons for it, climate change in 1980. It’s 37 years later and we’re in so much worse shape today than we were then and it’s really hard not to get pretty damn depressed about it. Environmental talks rather frequently sound like litanies of disasters. There is, in Darwinian terms, no survival value in pessimism. You have to somehow be hopeful. Sometimes you have to reach pretty far to grasp that hope. But if there isn’t any hope than nobody’s going to do anything to improve things. The most important advice I would give to aspiring environmentalists is find reasons for hope and be up front about the problems but don’t end with just the problems. End with the solutions.
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