Q’s With Denis Hayes, Co-Founder of Earth Day, President Of Earth Day Network
AP Photo / Charles W. Harrity – When We Was Fab:
Denis Hayes, co-founder of Earth Day and then head of Environment Teach-In, poses in the group’s office in Washington, D.C., as he coordinates activities for the first Earth Day on April 22, 1970.
Some 50 years ago, after witnessing the ravages of a massive oil spill in Santa Barbara, Calif., Sen. Gaylord Nelson from Wisconsin came up with the idea for a national day to focus on the environment. He persuaded Pete McCloskey, a conservation-minded Republican Congressman, to serve as his co-chair and recruited a 25-year-old named Denis Hayes from Harvard University as his national coordinator. Hayes built a national staff of 85 to promote events across the land. Since then, Hayes has remained an active and forceful steward of environmental causes as Earth Day has become the largest secular observance in the world.
To interview Hayes, Pollstar enlisted Michael Martin, executive producer of the historic Earth Day concerts and rallies on the Washington Mall from 1990-95 and who has been involved with subsequent Earth Day events. Martin originated the concept of live event greening at these events and continues to lead the music industry’s sustainability efforts. He is the founder and CEO of Effect Partners and r.Cup.
Michael Martin: What was your role in launching the concept of Earth Day and how has that impacted your life?
Denis Hayes: I was recruited initially to organize environmental teach-ins at the nation’s colleges and universities. But the team of crack organizers I hired couldn’t find much interest on most campuses. So, I made the decision to move the focus away from colleges and out into communities, and to change the name from Environmental Teach-In to Earth Day. Working largely with young women volunteers between 25 and 35 across the country, most of whom had not been involved with anything like this before, we managed to build momentum for environmental marches, rallies, protests, and other events in virtually every city, town and village in America.
Earth Day has become the world’s largest secular event; in its early days how many people were participating?
The first Earth Day was entirely a U.S. event. We had official crowd estimates from police in some major cities, but of course there was no one counting all the individual noses from coast to coast. The news wire services, adding up estimates from their stringers across the country and from K-12 school systems and universities, concluded that more than 20 million people participated. That made it the largest organized secular event in American history.
What happened as a result of Earth Day 1970 and what has the impact of Earth Day been since then?
Probably the most impactful consequence of Earth Day was a tsunami of legislation: Clean Air Act, Clean Water Act, Occupational Health and Safety Act, Marine Mammal Protection Act, Endangered Species Act, Safe Drinking Water Act, Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) standards for cars, Federal Insecticide, Fungicide, and Rodenticide Act, Resource Conservation and Recovery Act, Toxic Substances Control Act, National Forest Management Act. Additionally, the EPA was established, and we banned lead in gasoline and in paint. We also banned DDT, saving the bald eagle and many other species from extinction. The decade following Earth Day changed the direction of the United States economy more profoundly than any other episode in history, except perhaps the New Deal. The environmental revolution came from the grassroots up. Beyond public policy, many people changed the food they ate, the cars they drove, the jobs they performed, the stocks they held, and even the number of children they had, for environmental reasons.
How much was music a part of Earth Day?
Music has always been a part of all American movements. James Taylor, Carole King, and Pete Seeger were environmental stalwarts from the beginning. Of course, at smaller local gatherings, local performers often led crowds in sing-alongs to build a sense of solidarity and give the crowd a break from speeches. As time went on and entertainment became an expected component of all social change efforts, music grew to be integrated to large Earth Day gatherings.
How did you feel as media and live events became a bigger part of Earth Day and its space in modern culture?
It is politically important to have huge events, for example on the National Mall in Washington, D.C. Talent helps build enormous gatherings and relieves the intensity of speech after speech. The Internet can help link diverse small rallies and marches together on Twitter and Instagram, as with the student climate strikers; but nothing compares with the impact of 750,000 protestors on the National Mall.
Is there a particular artist that you drew inspiration from in those early days of environmental activism? Or today?
Obviously, I love everyone who performs at an Earth Day event. I feel especially warmly to those who learn enough to briefly talk from their hearts to their fans about the theme. In the early days, some of them came with lyrics that were right on target. Like Joni Mitchell,
They took all the trees,
And put ‘em in a tree museum
And they charged the people
A dollar and a half to see ‘em
Doesn’t it always seem to go
You don’t know what you’ve got
Til its gone
They paved paradise
And put up a parking lot
Or Marvin Gaye:
Whoa, ah, mercy mercy me
Oh things ain’t what they used to be, no no
Where did all the blue skies go?
Poison is the wind that blows from the
north and south and east
Whoa mercy, mercy me,
Oh things ain’t what they used to be, no no
Oil wasted on the oceans and upon our
seas, fish full of mercury
At recent events, John Legend has been outstanding, and Questlove and the Roots knocked it out of the park at our March for Science. A few years ago, Dave Matthews stopped by my office to talk about climate change, and I was really impressed with the intensity and intelligence of his questions. It reminded me of sessions with Robert Redford 40 years ago – Bob would not talk about anything in public until he was confident that he understood it thoroughly. He knew his fans would take his views seriously, and he owed it to them to be right.
Paul Morigi / WireImage – Green Day:
John Legend, one of Hayes’ favorite Earth Day performers, at The Earth Day Climate Rally at the National Mall on April 25, 2010, in Washington, D.C.
Much of the attendance and growth of the major Earth Day rallies and concerts have been driven by the musicians who have agreed to donate their time to help the cause. Which memorable musical moments do you recall?
At Earth Day events, I’m generally roaming the perimeter, dealing with problems, and reassuring speakers who have never before addressed a crowd of hundreds of thousands.
I often miss most of the action. But some of the powerhouses in recent years included Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr, performing together for the first time since The Beatles broke up. In 1990 – the year we took Earth Day international, Bruce Hornsby, Natalie Merchant, Indigo Girls, Michael Stipe from R.E.M., Ziggy Marley and several others
were essential to the success of the major Washington Mall event. At our 40th anniversary, John Legend and Sting were amazing, as were Usher and Gwen Stefani in 2015. Over 100 high-profile artists have contributed to the success of Earth Day, and we thank each of them for their critical support.
Pollstar is read by the leaders of the live music industry. Is there any message of inspiration you can share about how important it is for artists who have a platform to speak out and support critical causes such as Earth Day?
As environmental issues have grown
more global and more complicated, speakers have tended to be scientists and politicians. That’s unfortunate. Very few scientists
can communicate well with crowds of ordinary citizens. And activists tend to be skeptical of almost all politicians. Performers – whether movie stars, comedians, or musicians – relate to audiences for a living. And their fans genuinely care about the causes they support. We provide easy crowds: everybody at an Earth Day rally is going to favor a healthy, resilient, sustainable world for their kids!
Of course, don’t overdo it. Those at the rally don’t want you to read a 1,000-word essay on carbon taxes or stranded assets or photoelectrochemistry. I urge musicians to think of their remarks like an acceptance speech at the Oscars. Make a brief, clear, emotionally honest statement and move on. Artists who do that can really move the needle.