Denis Hayes’ hope for the future of Earth Day continues to be surrounded by passion and intensity that he hopes becomes institutionalized.
“Something that’s not really trying to change society, but rather, remember something that took place and treated with honor,” the Camas native said.
Hayes, Earth Day’s primary national organizer in 1970 and lifelong environmental activist and advocate, will lead a Zoom discussion at 5 p.m. today about how the Pacific Northwest can be a leader in building healthy human ecosystems at Clark College Foundation’s “Creating Super Green Cities” virtual event.
The event is free and open to the public, but registration is required through the Clark College Foundation website.
It’s approaching 51 years since Hayes first organized a grassroots nationwide rally called Earth Day to bring public awareness to environmental problems. The event in April 1970 drew 20 million people across the United States and is celebrated annually on a global stage.
Hayes has continued to be a champion in the fight against climate change through environmental advocacy work. Since 1992, he has been president of the Seattle-based Bullitt Foundation, which funds Pacific Northwest environmental- and climate-related organizations.
Hayes said in a phone interview last week with The Columbian that there wasn’t much activism around the environment prior to 1970, but rather, independent groups of people who shared passions around various issues, such as birds, oil spills, air pollution and anti-freeway coalitions. Earth Day’s creation brought a collective awareness that led to a tsunami of legislation, such as Clean Air amendments, and Clean Water and Endangered Species acts.
“What 1970 did was to take all these individual strands,” Hayes said, “and weave them into a fabric of modern environmentalism. All of these things are related. If you can about one, you ought to be working on the others as well.”
Hayes attended Clark after graduating from Camas High School in 1962. Growing up in Camas in the 1950s and ’60s, he saw firsthand the toxic consequences between industry and nature living in the paper-mill town. He still remains connected to his hometown and to Clark County. Camas School District’s Hayes Freedom High School, an energy-efficient alternative school built in 2010, is named after Hayes.
As the COVID-19 pandemic approaches one year, he feels optimistic it will change people’s relationship with the planet. Hayes said he spent two years planning an international event for Earth Day’s 50th anniversary, yet because of COVID-19, he had to settle for social media campaigns and virtual events.
At 76, Hayes said he’s inspired by decades of progress and a universal respect for environmental values, but knows there’s still more work to be done. What gives Hayes hope is a new, diverse generation of activists — “the youth quake” he said — paving the way.