SEATTLE — One day in the fall of 1969, Denis Hayes, a graduate student at Harvard, snagged a 10-minute meeting with Gaylord Nelson, a United States senator from Wisconsin who had been talking up his idea for a national teach-in about environmentalism.
In recent days, Mr. Hayes has drawn a connection between the coronavirus and climate change, and the failure of the federal government to effectively deal with either one. In an essay in the Seattle Times, he wrote that “Covid-19 robbed us of Earth Day this year. So let’s make Election Day Earth Day.” He urged his readers to get involved in politics and set aside national division. “This November 3,” he wrote, “vote for the Earth.”
The power of activism to spark political change was at the core of the first Earth Day. In 1970 some 20 million people across the United States, from thousands of schools, colleges, universities and communities, took part in demonstrations, marches, environmental cleanups and even a mock trial of automobiles that ended in smashing a car with sledgehammers. New York City closed down parts of Fifth Avenue and 14th Street for its celebration.
The enormous turnout — one tenth of the population of the United States at the time — and the enthusiasm for change led to unprecedented action from the federal government. Congress passed the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act and the Endangered Species Act, and President Richard M. Nixon, a Republican, created the Environmental Protection Agency.
“This is the major thing that turned Nixon around, scared the hell out of him,” said Ralph Nader, the consumer advocate, in a recent interview. On that first Earth Day, he spoke at the University at Buffalo.
And while Mr. Nader fully credits Senator Nelson, one of the nation’s leading environmentalists at the time, with providing the inspiration that brought Earth Day about, he said, Mr. Hayes and his young colleagues “provided the perspiration.”
Early last month, at a Mexican restaurant in Seattle, the first United States hot spot of the coronavirus outbreak, Mr. Hayes worked around the no-handshaking protocol with a good-natured, mock-courtly bow. He still has the intense stare of the young man in those long-ago photos, but leavened with geniality; the once-dark hair is gray and sparse.
Over several hours of conversation he described the path that took him from small-town Washington state to a personal mission to change the world.
Born in Wisconsin, Mr. Hayes moved with his family at age 6 to Camas, a cozy town by the Columbia River where “everybody knew everybody.” His father worked at the hulking Crown Zellerbach paper mill.
Young Denis could hop on his bike and ride out to spectacular natural landscapes. But environmentally, the town “was an unconstrained disaster” because of the mill. “There was no pollution control of any kind,” he said. “When they discovered that the acid rain was pitting the roofs of automobiles, they put a carwash at the end of the parking lot.” Sore throats from the smoke were common, as were fish kills in the Columbia.
He attended a couple of colleges, reading widely in political and economic theory but without satisfaction. Over the next three years’ time, he traveled across Asia and much of Africa, Eastern Europe and the Middle East, working when he needed money for the next leg and living on peanut butter and oatmeal, and the occasional cup of coffee loaded with all of the sugar and cream on the table. “It’s a whole lot better to look back on than to actually experience,” he said.
One night in the Namib desert, in southwestern Africa, he had what he has called an epiphany after seeing the Etosha Pan, a large hollow where water collects after rains. He marveled at the diversity of animals. “It was a truce,” he said, before “they went back and killed one another as they needed to.”
On a meditative night in the desert, in a state of mind heightened by his “terrible diet” and the desert chill, “It just came together in my mind that we’re animals and we didn’t abide by the principles that govern the natural world,” he said.
He woke up the next morning with a purpose. “I wanted to devote my life to advancing principles of ecology as they apply to human beings and to human communities, to human processes.”
He returned to the United States, attended Stanford and after graduation, gained acceptance to Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government. But then came the conversation with Senator Nelson, which Mr. Hayes initially hoped would lead to a class project. He soon dropped out of Harvard and persuaded several classmates to come with him.
They set up shop in ratty offices above a burger stand in Dupont Circle. Early on, the group realized that the Senator’s initial idea for a “teach-in” might not generate much enthusiasm. A progressive ad man, Julian Koenig, who had come up with the “Think Small” ads for Volkswagen and other groundbreaking campaigns, suggested a punchier name: Earth Day. It stuck.
The young Mr. Hayes burned with a fire that clearly charmed a New York Times journalist, Gladwin Hill, who described him as a man who “hops around the country like an ecological Dustin Hoffman, preaching mobilization for environmental reform with sober but evangelical militance.”
Mr. Hayes explained his principles of ecology, of rejecting unbridled growth that strips away the world’s resources, causes pollution and harms people. “The ecological freak is not questioning his share of the pie so much as he is questioning how we’re getting our flour,” he said. “The problem isn’t technological; the problem is a matter of values.”
These days, Mr. Hayes doesn’t use phrases like “ecological freak.” But the fire is still there.
“This was not an anti-litter campaign,” he recalled. “This was talking about fundamental changes in the nature of the American economy.” The cause that drew 20 million people into the streets was, he said, “in some ways much more profoundly radical” than the anti-Vietnam War movement.
Michael B. Gerrard, a Columbia University law professor and director of the school’s Sabin Center for Climate Change Law, said that “Earth Day was, to the environmental movement, like a caterpillar transforming into a butterfly and taking flight.” It changed lives, including his: He was a student at Columbia and covered the first Earth Day for the campus newspaper. He calls that day “one of the steps along the path that made me decide to make a career as an environmental lawyer.”
In the years after the first Earth Day, Mr. Hayes served as a senior fellow at the Worldwatch Institute in Washington, D.C., and President Jimmy Carter made him director of the Federal Solar Energy Research Institute in Colorado, where he promoted solar power from an institution with nearly 1,000 employees and a $130 million budget.
That was when he first heard about climate change, in discussions with scientists at the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder. “I was asking, ‘How certain are you of all this?’ The answer was, ‘You’re never certain of anything,’ but that their level of certainty was at the 98 percent level.”
He began dovetailing concerns about climate change with his promotion of renewable energy. In January 1980, he delivered an address to the American Association for the Advancement of Science and said that the continued use of fossil fuels would lead to warming of Earth’s atmosphere. That would have “many adverse consequences for life as it now exists,” he warned, such as sea-level rise, inundated coastal farmland and communities, disrupted weather patterns and food production, among others.
Time is short, he warned: “because of the rather long lead time needed to convert from one energy source to another, a decision to reduce fossil fuel use swiftly after the year 2000 would have to be made today.”
Forty years later, the science has only grown clearer. But the effort to address the problem has barely begun.
1980 also brought the election of Ronald Reagan, whose administration slashed the institute’s budget and encouraged Mr. Hayes to seek new employment opportunities. He got a law degree from Stanford, practiced law, taught, and he and his wife, Gail Boyer Hayes, raised their daughter, Lisa.
The younger Ms. Hayes, now a lawyer for a high-tech civil liberties group in Washington, the Center for Democracy and Technology, said that “the values and the culture of the mission behind Earth Day were a part of every day of my childhood,” including their vegetarian meals. One of her childhood friends was surprised by her first meal there: chilled gazpacho and tofu.
“She was not a fan of this dinner,” Ms. Hayes recalled with a laugh. The friend even brought it up in her wedding toast.
In 1992, Mr. Hayes went to Seattle to advise the Bullitt Foundation, which had tens of millions of dollars from the estate of Seattle radio and television pioneer Dorothy S. Bullitt to spend, but no strong sense of purpose. He recommended a focus on investing in regional environmental issues; the board asked if he would like to run the foundation.
He now works on the top floor of Bullitt’s innovative headquarters. Opened on Earth Day 2013, it has been called the world’s greenest building. Costing $32.5 million, it has solar panels that produce more energy than the building uses and blinds that automatically arrange themselves to provide shade and maintain temperature. A geothermal heat pump system provides warmth that radiates from the floors and rainwater collected in a 56,000-gallon cistern is purified for drinking.
“Do you want to see the bowels of the building?” Mr. Hayes asked.The basement holds the composting units for the toilets, which he now admits were not a great idea for a downtown office building. While the composting works as advertised, getting rid of the resulting waste requires trucking it out of town. He is planning to replace the toilets, chalking that problem up to the spirit of experimentation.
Mr. Hayes has announced plans to wind the foundation down by 2024. He said he has promised his wife, Gail, who is a retired lawyer and author, that they will move “someplace sunny” in his own retirement.
Jamie Margolin, a high school student who founded Zero Hour, met Mr. Hayes at his office last summer. She found him serious about her activism and goals, and recalled him saying, “People love Tweeting about activism but they don’t like funding it.”
In that first meeting, she recalled, “I had no clue who this man was. I got home and looked his name up and said, ‘Oh, my God, I’m so stupid!’”