The Founder of Earth Day: An Interview

Denis Hayes on Organizing the First Earth Day

The Founder of Earth Day: An Interview

In 2020 Earth Day will have its 50th Anniversary, how far have we come?

50 years in, Earth Day founder Denis Hayes reflects on what it took to get a movement off the ground before the world wide web, and what it takes to push the movement further in the age of social media. See how you can get more involved at and read the full interview below.

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.

-Denis Hayes

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 pulled all of those various strands together and weaved 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.

What is one key message you would want convey?

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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