When I was a grad student at Harvard, I read an article in the NYT about an “environmental teach-in” that Senator Gaylord Nelson was promoting. Thru a friend I got a courtesy appointment with him, and flew to D.C. to learn more, and maybe organize Harvard, or even all of Cambridge.
I expected to meet with a team of like-minded organizers, but there were just a couple of people fielding the senator’s mail. My 15-minute meeting with Senator Nelson ran long, as we discussed what his next steps should be. I returned with the charter to organize Boston.
Gaylord had asked California congressman Pete McCloskey to be his co-chair. I didn’t know Pete, but we’d both gone to Stanford, and I’d been politically active there, so when Pete called some Stanford friends to ask about me, and a few days later, Gaylord’s chief of staff called and asked me if I’d be willing to drop out of Harvard and go to D.C. and organize the United States.
(I got my undergrad degree from Stanford, where I was student body president. I went to law school at Stanford. I went to business school at Stanford. I taught energy engineering at Stanford. I served on the Stanford Board of Trustees. But whenever writers write this part of my life, they seem to fixate on the fact that I dropped out of Harvard, which I attended for two months.)
I’d planned to attend law school, but was diverted the first year to a brand new program—the masters in public policy—at the Kennedy school, for a joint degree. There were just 12 of us in that class—one from each of the 12 top universities—with a student-to-teacher ratio of about one-to-one, with hugely prestigious professors who had been developing the curriculum for several years. I invited two other students to drop out with me and come to work on the teach-in. So I was not terribly popular at the Kennedy school.
My title was “national coordinator.” I quickly hired “regional coordinators,” a “K-12 coordinator,” and newsletter editor, a press relations person, and a variety of other folks to lead different aspects of the campaign. Basically, I met with the key players around the nation, helped figure out how to pull together events in all the principal cities, negotiated some key elements of the NYC even with the Lindsay Administration, and worked on messaging.
I found ways to enlist a broad cross-section of society, from the National Education Association to the NAACP; from the Church Council to the Boy Scouts. We got articles in women’s magazines, with our contact information We got local groups who were trying to stop freeways from plowing through inner city neighborhoods to get engaged in what may have been America’s first formal environmental justice efforts.
Ironically, Gaylord’s “teach-in” idea for college campuses didn’t catch fire. College students then were more concerned with being drafted and sent to Vietnam, than this new environmental issue, so I changed the focus from colleges to cities, and the name from “Environmental Teach-In” to “Earth Day.” Gaylord never liked the name change, and referred to it as the Teach-In throughout the campaign.
In the final month or two, when momentum was clearly building for something big, a number of colleges did organize teach-ins, but with the exception of the University of Michigan, college students were environmental followers, not leaders. So we went after high-schoolers, who weren’t immediately worried about being drafted.
After Earth Day, I was publicly committed to that path. I converted the Earth Day organization into a political/lobbying group. We created the Dirty Dozen campaign that defeated seven of the 12 incumbents with bad environmental records, including the chair of the House Public Works committee. THAT was a huge boost to the success we enjoyed on various lobbying efforts. That group led all environmental lobbying for the Clean Air Act and to bust the highway trust fund to make money available for public transit.
But I didn’t find the politics that fulfilling, and when I was offered a “scholar” slot at the then-new Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, I took it to study energy policy. With the Arab Oil Embargo, I was offered a position as director of the Illinois State Energy Office and Special Assistant to the Governor for the Environment and Natural Resources. When my governor’s political star dimmed, I moved on to the Worldwatch Institute where I wrote columns, articles, papers, and books. And in the Carter Administration, I became director of the new federal Solar Energy Research Institute (since renamed the National Energy Laboratory).
Within five years of Earth Day, we:
• Established the EPA
• passed the Clean Air Act (1970)
• established OSHA (occupational health and safety act) (1970)
• Environmental Quality Improvement Act (1971)
• Lead-Based Paint Poisonint Prevention Act (1971)
• Clean Water Act (1972)
• Federal Insecticide, Fungicide, and Rodenticide Act (1972)
• Marine Protection, Research, and Sanctuaries Act (1972)
• Marine Mammal Protection Act (1972)
• Endangered Species Act (1973)
• Safe Drinking Water Act (1974)
• Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) standards
• Hazardous Materials Transportation Act (1975)
• Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (1976)
• Toxic Substances Control Act (1976)
• National Forest Management Act (1976)
The environmental revolution came from the grassroots, and most of its accomplishments were fought by sitting presidents and titans of industry. Richard Nixon actually vetoed the Clean Water Act. He was crushed by the congressional override.
Earth Day led to new academic fields—environmental law, environmental engineering, environmental history; myriad new categories of jobs, tens of thousands of new NGOs, and new cultural norms. Many of us refer to our environmental values in choosing a house, car, food, and even the number of children we have.
—Denis Hayes, sometime in late 2017, I think. In Seattle.