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Our times are similar to those which launched Earth Day in 1970. But can anything trigger an end to our apathy and political fatigue this time around?


To try listing all of the impressive bullet points in Denis Hayes’ career as an environmentalist is like trying to count all the sunflowers in a 30-acre field. Let’s just say it begins with his national coordination of the first Earth Day in 1970, which was to influence millions of people and later spread to more than 180 countries, becoming the largest secular holiday on the planet.

Hayes was only 25 years old then, but within the decade would serve under President Jimmy Carter as the head of the Solar Energy Research Institute (today called the National Renewable Energy Laboratory). He’d also practice law, teach at Stanford University, serve on gobs of boards and earn recognition from scores of nonprofits, including the Sierra Club and the National Wildlife Federation.

Now 67, Time magazine’s “Hero of the Planet” circa 1999 is president and CEO of Seattle’s Bullitt Foundation, which encourages sustainable development as a core mission, and is currently in the process of constructing “the greenest commercial building in the world.” It’s a $30 million project that aims to yield an energy- and water-neutral space that incorporates everything from geothermal and solar energies to sustainable and non-toxic materials, with a goal to “still make sense 250 years from now.”

As it’s built, Bullitt will freely share information about the project, hoping others will replicate it. The foundation will also share a database of more than 350 chemicals common to construction that are toxic at some point in their life cycles, all of which will be avoided there. Hayes notes that he had one employee work for more than a year and a half just to identify all those chemicals, in the process spurring some manufacturers to clean up their formulations.

It’s just this type of positive change that defined the inaugural Earth Day so many years ago. People from all camps and political parties and backgrounds found common ground. Congress acted. Legislation such as the Clean Water and Clean Air acts were passed, and the Environmental Protection Agency was born.

As inspiration worth remembering today: Change did occur on a grand scale, and it all started with people in the streets.

In the following interview, he discusses the era of that change, as well as today’s efforts and initiatives.

Q: Were you surprised by the overwhelming participation in the first Earth Day in 1970?

A: I’d hoped we might be something that was, if we were really lucky, comparable to the Vietnam moratorium, which was in maybe a dozen cities across the country and probably had a million, maybe more than a million, participating. Compared to that, [the engagement in] Earth Day was vastly greater.

But the momentum was building sufficiently by March and going into April. We knew that it was going to be very big. ...

The one point where I actually did have the first sort of startled response was, I went up to New York and addressed the crowd that the New York organizers had put together. Mayor [ John] Lindsay had given them the great lawn on Central Park and shut down Sixth Avenue, and it was a million people. And the first time that you climb up onto a 40-foot-high stage and glance out at a crowd of a million people, stretching way beyond where your eye can see the end, that is pretty awesome.

Q: Vietnam was such a hard-fought campaign. I’m told that there was something different when Earth Day came around, that it was so positive. Can you contextualize it for those of us not around then?

A: It was the end of the ’60s, which was a remarkable decade in American history and in Western history. We had student riots all over Western Europe, on a wide variety of issues. And in the United States, the anti-war movement was moving into a phase where basically nothing had worked to end the war, so people were moving out of the mass demonstrations and getting really depressed.

We’d driven a president out of the office in 1968 — gotten rid of Lyndon Johnson, only to find ourselves with Richard Nixon — and basically you then had this shift over to The Weathermen and Symbionese Liberation Army and other groups that were relatively small and relatively violent — bomb factories in a lot of places.

The Civil Rights movement similarly had begun, with Southern preachers talking about Gandhi-esque passive civil disobedience. They got the shit beaten out of them by Southern sheriffs, using police dogs. And young people who were deeply committed to the values were lying there and suddenly watching their girlfriends being assaulted.

At some point, that too devolved in a different direction from the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and more toward the Black Panthers. And the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee started carrying guns. And then students were taking over dormitories at Cornell [University], carrying carbines.

Earth Day, while it had clear values of things that it was promoting, also had clearly demarked lines between the things that it opposed, and much of what it was all about was this difference between how we were measuring ourselves as a nation — in some large measure then, by gross domestic product.

The things that really counted as a nation ... simply weren’t encompassed in this economic thing. The progress that we were bringing was, in a great many ways, the stuff that left people less happy, less fulfilled, less healthy.

So what we did with Earth Day organizationally was create a home for most everybody that was prepared to affiliate itself with those sets of values without forcing any particular issue on anyone. Which is to say if you were an inner-city community that was about to have a freeway torn through your neighborhood, then you needed an Earth Day that had to do with fighting freeways. If you were in a place [where] the disappearance of bird life due to DDT and other pesticides was the big issue, then you did it about that. Much of America was focused upon clean air in part because it was so easy to dramatize by having everybody wear gas masks.

From the world population explosion to saving a local thicket, there were thousands of issues that people seized upon. In a sense it was a unique form of organizing, in that as long as you subscribed to the central tenets of what it was about, you got to fashion an event that could be a march, a demonstration, a litter pick-up, a teach-in, could be anything on whatever issue you chose that reflected those values. That just unleashed a level of creativity. It was almost a crowd-sourced event.

Q: How did your dissent of the war inform your environmental dissent?

A: As a preface, let me say that most of the national organizers of Earth Day cut their teeth in the antiwar movement or the Civil Rights movement or Hispanic Rights movement. So they brought the organizing skills and the contacts that they had, and as a consequence when we talked about the environment, the speeches talked about the defoliation of Southeast Asia — the complete ravaging of the fertile mangroves and replacing them with barren forests of bamboo, just because that’s what grew up after you fire-bombed everything with napalm.

The war was an important part of Earth Day. As was racial injustice, rats in the inner cities, lead paint on poor people’s houses that was peeling off and being eaten by infants, and on and on.

It was not a displacement of one set of issues, it was an expansion of the kinds of things we were talking about. We’re moving into an area now with all kinds of social networking and technology, some of which I probably don’t even know about, that are hugely powerful and effectively free. In a little bit of interregnum, we don’t know what’s going to come out at the end of it, and most of the stuff has thus far not been terribly effective except to calling attention to things. Though that itself is an important thing to do.

In those days though, organizing was mostly a matter of sweat equity. It was the simple business just like you do with the ground forces in a political campaign today. It’s a matter of compiling names, finding out who actually delivered on things that they promised, building Rolodexes, getting telephone trees. ...

It was a matter of committing yourself to working for peanuts to try to bring about something that was good. But there were no great secrets about it, other than if you’ve been through it a few times, you know enough to get crowd insurance. You know enough to have Port-O-Potties lined up, you know enough to have some people trained as the folks who’ll suppress violence if it breaks out in the crowd, and that kind of stuff.

Q: In a teaser for the upcoming documentary film about the fossil fuel industry, Greedy Lying Bastards, you are featured saying, “The only way that in the United States the climate issue will be resolved, I’m afraid, is not by courageous leadership on the part of our leaders, it’s gonna be by the people rising up and demanding it. That’s the only thing that can overcome the forces arrayed against them.”

A: A whole lot of the displacement takes place by getting consumers to make more intelligent choices — it’s not all about political power. In a sense, it’s like doing in energy what was done when computational technology and informational technologies got rid of everything from carbon paper to traditional telephones to typewriters to what have you. They basically just got preempted by something that was better. I think some of that will be occurring in the energy space as well.

The difficult thing is that our policies have generally been designed to try to get people who are current major players in that space to bring in new technologies. And by and large, the major players have such enormous investments in the existing technologies that they’ve had very little incentive to do something that would pre-empt them.

Q: Addressing that particular comment about “rising up,” and speaking as the man who took Earth Day to 180 countries, how do you think we should start organizing? You just spoke of the times 42 years ago, but what about today? How do we combat green fatigue?

A: It’s not just green fatigue. It’s fatigue. There’s a whole generation of Americans now rising through the ranks that are as depressed about the effectiveness of government as they were back in the 1960s.

Where in the 1960s that led us to non-governmental protest, the current youth — with very notable exceptions, sociologically, generically as a category, the Millennials — tend to be much more into individual actions. Into stuff like going out and building a house for Habitat for Humanity or planting some trees or picking up some litter or something, as opposed to organizing demonstrations.

Because they just don’t have much hope that the political system will be responsive. That’s the sort of stuff that bobs and weaves constantly in the yin and yang of political processes. We will get through this period as well.

Ordinarily the kinds of things that are the crystal in the supersaturated solution that causes a fundamental change to happen when you drop that crystal in tends to be some big, dramatic event that the media focuses on for a very long time. And mobilizes enough people who are just so upset by the status quo that they are susceptible to being organized to demand change.

That is the sort of thing that historically I would have expected to come out of a Gulf oil spill. I would have expected to come out of a Fukushima. ...

But by and large, as these have come through, the solution has not been supersaturated, and these things have not caused that yet to happen. And in part because the fatigue goes from everything to sub-prime housing to the collapse of the economy, very high unemployment rates, all kinds of international threats, some of them environmental ... It’s just difficult to get something that captures the attention long enough in a way that motivates people by letting them really recognize how immediate it is to their own wellbeing. If the Gulf oil spill didn’t do it, it’s really difficult to figure out what would.

Q: When is the tentative finish date for the new Bullitt Foundation building?

A: The end of November. We hope to have the building ready for occupancy before the beginning of next year.

Q: Are you sure that you’ll actually be the greenest in the world?

A: I don’t know any other building that has done all of these things, and I do think that the challenge that we’re going for, the Living Building Challenge [see ilbi. org], is the toughest set of building standards out there ...

The difference between a really good building and an average building is stunning. A LEED Platinum building versus a conventional codemeeting building, even in a city with pretty tough codes, is really big. But then we’re taking this additional quantum leap, and we use less than half as much energy as a LEED Platinum building. So we’re just trying to figure out what we can do to push the envelope as far as we can figure out ways to do it today. Actually in your state, the new building that was done by NREL [the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, in Golden] is just a supergreen building. They’re fabulous.

They’re gonna be on the energy front. They’re doing the same sorts of things we’re doing.

Q: I read on your website that this building is based off your philosophy of mimicking nature. That “in nature, the more efficient an organism is in its use of energy and materials, the more likely it is to survive and succeed.”

A: In terms of biomimicry, we did not literally build it in the shape of a Douglas Fir tree. But we’re trying to learn from how nature functions and derive things and then put that into something that also meets the tests of human functionality. In a sense, what we’re trying to do is have the plot of ground on which the building sits function somewhat the way it would have back when it had that native Douglas Fir forest on it.

The trees would have gotten all of their energy from the sun, and that will be true here as well. And the water that fell on it would not have gone cascading down the Puget Sound through a storm sewer system; it would have been absorbed into the soil. That’s what we’re doing as well. There would have been no toxic materials transported to the site or generated on the site, and that’s what we’re doing as well. It doesn’t look like a Douglas Fir forest, but it achieves many of the same goals, using many of the same biological processes. 

Q: Of all the places we could put resources now, you’ve chosen to take on commercial buildings. Why?

A: We’re taking roughly a third of our total investment portfolio and placing it into a real estate investment. We’ll be using one half of one floor of a sixstory building.

Everything else will be a lease. We’ll be using it as a source of income to make grants off of ... That just seemed to us to be a great way to use leverage. ...

But if 10 years from now, this is the only thing like this that has been built, then it was a mistake. Because this is a mission-oriented investment. We could get a higher rate of return on any number of other things that we could do. ... In order to be able to build this building, which would have been illegal under any number of regulations in the Seattle building and regulatory context, the city council passed an ordinance that said as long as you are [reaching] a very high percentage of the goals of the Living Building Challenge, you’re exempted from a variety of those prescriptive regulations. Well, that’s not just for our building, but for anybody else that wants to do this.

And the whole thing is to try to begin to shift Seattle and through Seattle, then Portland and Vancouver and from the Northwest, have the thing spread. When we’re being really ambitious about where we’re going, we’d love to have this spread internationally.

... China over the next 25 to 30 years is going to be moving an estimated 350 million people off of agrarian areas into urban areas. If they do that right, it’s a great opportunity to be having a wonderful beneficial impact on the world.

... What we’re trying to do, and what various people are trying to do elsewhere, is build models that the Chinese can look at and hopefully learn from. We’ve got a team coming over to tour our building this fall from NDRC, the leading Chinese regulatory agency that oversees all building and development in the country. We had one of our contractors go over and address a huge Chinese building conference about what we’re doing ... We’re really hoping to have this thing ricochet around in a way that causes change far beyond our one little building.

Q: In 2009, you proposed a “progressive consumptive tax,” where instead of taxing income, governments would tax based on how much someone consumes. And you suggested a cap on carbon emissions that would use an auction system. Have either of those ideas gained traction?

A: The progressive consumption tax has not worked anyplace. There are things that are slightly akin to it in some of the value-added taxes in Europe and Asia. They’d be relatively easy to tweak them to be more. But no ...

The global economy right now is in my view utterly dependent upon Americans consuming like crazy, often beyond their means ...

You travel anywhere, and you find that countries are investing across the board in a brighter future. In America, it’s all about reducing tax rates to give more money to people to be able to spend on current consumption of goods that they don’t need that are generally imported from China. It’s a horrible thing. But it would have the salutary effect of dramatically diminishing that if you had a progressive consumption tax, and unfortunately the conventional economic view of how the global economy ought to operate is just flat-out flying in the face of that. It’s hard to get any support.

With regard to creative approaches to carbon, we actually had two senators — Maria Cantwell and Susan Collins — who did sponsor an alternative to the conventional, and in my sense, not terribly smart, cap-and-trade legislation that was defeated. I think theirs was substantially better. However, they had a total of two votes for it.

Q: You once said, “If you aren’t hopeful, then you don’t have a chance.” Is that a good point on which to end here?

A: It absolutely, fundamentally is true. It all actually traces back to a paper that I wrote when I was a teenager. It had to do with revolution potential in the world, and why some places you have what we’d now think of as an Arab Spring, and in other places a huge depression and nothing ever happens.

I spent a lot of time — I was 19 years old — roaming around in South Africa, and the fundamental thing that came out of all of that was the difference between, say, the revolution in Algeria or in Kenya and South Africa, was that in South Africa, over the quasi-peaceful revolution in India, was the existence of hope. People just don’t do anything if they’re absolutely convinced in their hearts that they will be crushed.

The Africans in South Africa at that point, they certainly had their small revolutionary things in the ANC [African National Congress], but by and large the vast population was convinced they’d be crushed for whatever they did, and for good reason. So it became almost a guiding, worldwide, lifelong belief.

Environmentalists have a tendency — and I’m as guilty of this as anyone — to describe all of the bleak threats on the horizon that leave you feeling like “Oh god, it’s time to go commit seppuku, it’s all over.” But if you don’t leave people with hope, then things are really are hopeless.

—This story originally appeared in the Colorado Springs Independent.

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