By: Martha Issue: Vision Section: Community
A Lifelong Environmental Advocate
Denis Hayes, the founder of Earth Day and current president and CEO of the Bullitt Foundation, has devoted his life seeking to harmonize human needs and desires with the planet’s ability to support mankind. Utilizing every available venue to educate and evangelize, including articles, books and speaking engagements, and when necessary the courts and legal system, Hayes promotes the application of the principles of the science of ecology to the design of human ecosystems.
So, what does that mean?
The science of ecology’s fundamental principal is that everything is connected to and dependent upon everything else. Nothing survives when the delicate balance of clean air, water, food, sunshine, predator and prey is disrupted. We do not know the precise tipping point for any given species to become extinct, but we know extinction is a fact. The million dollar questions then are: What is the tipping point for extinction of the human race? What are the key tipping points of other species along the way?
Progress And Its Impacts
Progress is generally seen as a good thing. The Industrial Revolution is often touted as a major inflection point of progress that brought massive changes in agriculture, manufacturing, transportation and economic policies. It brought people out of rural living into urban environments and created the middle class. It also brought mass production of goods, making them affordable to this new middle class. It brought improved transportation, enabling rapid movement of goods from coast to coast and border to border.
However, progress has a significant downside, specifically the unintended consequences of rapid change. The Industrial Revolution brought an extensive increase in population, consumption, and the associated waste. It brought massive increases in pollution of every type—including air and water—from the base source of energy production all the way through the production, distribution, and disposal of these mass produced goods.
It is through examining the impacts of unbridled economic gains that Denis Hayes’ vision of balancing human wants and needs with ecological science came to fruition.
Hayes’ work was spurred by his childhood community and the signs of progress that were literally sickening the residents and surrounding environment. Growing up in the Pacific Northwest, he witnessed massive deforestation in the name of economic growth. The deforestation brought environmental issues such as erosion and water pollution. The paper mill that dominated his hometown introduced excessive air and water pollutants that cascaded to human impacts, including respiratory illnesses.
Hayes dropped out of college and traveled the world, visiting developed and undeveloped countries. He witnessed firsthand what Charles Darwin wrote about in The Origin of Species, “All life on the planet is capable of adapting up to a certain degree then it will fail and become extinct.” This knowledge and message has been shared and published for over a hundred years from Henry Thoreau to Jared Diamond. Hayes returned to the United States and set out on his life’s mission, to make sure people understand that societies will collapse if not nurtured.
Ecology And The 1960s
Hayes’ work as the national coordinator of the first Earth Day started in the mid-1960s, a period of time when big business was at odds with workers and the environment; when citizens were at odds with all levels of their government; and when governments were at odds with each other. The 1960s saw the impact of DDT, Lake Erie being nearly killed by industrial and agricultural runoff, rivers in Ohio spontaneously combusting, and the introduction of Walmart and the promotion of mass consumption.
Mass media, specifically television, was also introduced into the family home in the early 1960s. With television came news, video footage and the education of large numbers of people to the issues of the times. There were widespread calls to action. The 1960s became the decade of protests. The time was ripe for Hayes to share his vision of harmonizing the needs and desires of mankind and earth.
As Hayes described the emerging period, “It was the Environmental Golden Age.” After the first Earth Day held April 22, 1970, President Richard Nixon saw an opportunity to engage the 20 million people in the streets who spanned all electoral demographics. He created the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) with an executive order and signed the landmark Clean Air Act of 1970. Additional legislation over the next few years included numerous bills specific to water and marine life, and most notably the Endangered Species Act in 1973.
Current State of Affairs
Since the 1960s and 1970s, environmental awareness has ebbed and flowed—recently tilting more to the ebbing than the flowing. Politics have grown more contentious, corporations more powerful in terms of guiding public policy, constituents more distracted and disengaged. However, Hayes has stayed with his mission for the past forty-plus years.
Hayes notes, “Environmental issues are global in nature. The institutions involved in driving change are slow, as they should be. I have faith that the issues are sufficiently important that the changes we need to see will come.”
Hayes is accurate in his assessment that change, albeit slowly, is occurring. Earth Day has expanded to over 190 countries, environmental awareness is on the radar of people around the globe, and food and sustainable energy issues make the news cycle on a regular basis.
The protestors of the 1960s are industry leaders of today. They come to the boardrooms and executive suites with more knowledge and understanding of the complex interrelationships of raw materials, production, distribution, consumption, disposal and the environment than their predecessors. They are also faced with new and different issues never before seen—genetically engineered foods, peak oil, widening education and wealth gaps, and the rise of Second and Third World countries into First World consuming nations. The net result of the additional challenges facing the globe is that Hayes’ vision has expanded to include them. For example, he argues, “We now need to not just reduce carbon emissions, or even to just reach ‘net zero,’ but we need to actually pull large volumes of CO2 permanently out of the atmosphere.”
The Vision Going Forward
We have come full circle forty-plus years later, with Time naming The Protestor as Person of the Year in 2011. The tools for information dissemination, especially video footage, have improved with the introduction of social media, crowdsourcing, and flash crowds. The Internet offers near real-time communication between constituents and members of Congress, and local and state representatives. The ability to engage the average person has become as easy as a few key strokes and clicking send.
Hayes’ progress has not stopped since those early days. He continues his educational outreach efforts through the Bullitt Foundation. He remains active on the speaking circuit, spreading his vision of using ecological science to map growth and development of human ecosystems.
You can get a taste of Mr. Hayes’ low key, yet impassioned style, by watching him deliver a brief synopsis of his vision and the driving factors behind developing Earth Day at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=idKB0vrZwX4. Hayes will be sharing his thoughts and message as keynote speaker and honorary chair of the 4th Annual Global New Energy Summit being held at the Broadmoor Hotel in Colorado Springs, April 9-11. In addition to his honed vision, Hayes brings deep knowledge specific to energy issues to the Summit. He wrote a bestselling book, Rays of Hope, which was influential to energy policy decisions during the Carter Administration. He was director of the Solar Energy Research Institute, known today as the National Renewable Energy Laboratory. And he taught energy engineering and policy at Stanford University for five years. To attend the Global New Energy Summit visit http://www.globalnewenergysummit.org/.
To learn more about the Bullitt Foundation visit http://bullitt.org/. Martha Young is principal at NovaAmber, LLC, a business strategy company based in Golden. Young has held positions as industry analyst, director of market research, competitive intelligence analyst, and sales associate. She has written books, articles, and papers regarding the intersection of technology and business for over 15 years. She has co-authored four books on the topics of virtual business processes, virtual business implementations, and project management for IT. Young can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @myoung_vbiz.