Chatting Green with Original Earth Day Organizer Denis Hayes

We are thrilled and honored to have Denis Hayes join us for this Earth Day edition of Chatting Green.
Denis has dedicated his life to environmental causes for over 50 years. He was the original national coordinator of the first Earth Day in 1970, and is responsible for growing it into a globally recognized holiday. Since that time, Denis has built an incredible resume of teaching and environmental advocacy, and has been recognized around the world for his work. He has been profiled in numerous well-known national and international publications, and in 1999 he was selected by Time magazine as one of the “Heroes of the Planet.”
Today he serves as CEO of The Bullitt Foundation in Seattle, where he oversaw design and construction of the Bullitt Center, the greenest commercial building in the world.
Photo of Denis Hayes speaking to an Earth Day crowd in 1970
You were the principal national organizer of Earth Day in 1970, and have since watched it grow into a global holiday. Since that first April 22, over 50 years ago, when you awoke before dawn to join in a sunrise ceremony with Native Americans on the Washington DC mall, you have seen countless environmental protections established, then rolled-back, only to be brought back again in some form. The Biden administration so far, seems to be making addressing the climate crisis a priority. Do you think we have finally turned a corner toward meaningful, lasting change?
The Biden Administration is off to the best climate start of any US President in my lifetime.  Presidents Clinton and Obama both spent essentially all their initial political capital trying to bring about (much-needed) improvements in American health care. In effect, they prioritized the medical needs of their current constituents over creating a viable future for the planet.  Climate—for all their supportive verbiage—was treated as a second tier issue for both.   
Biden, to my surprise and delight, has assembled a superb climate team and he teed up the issue immediately upon his inauguration. He has made clear to his cabinet that he wants all major policy issue to be guided by climate implications. He has emphasized that he wants equity and social justice to be central to his climate policies. And he has asked Congress for a lot of money to invest in long-term structural change (i.e. infrastructure). 
All that said, the answer to your actual question is No. 
Joe Biden is the president, but his party’s control of Congress is  razor thin, and on climate some coal state Democratic Senators have made clear that they intend to strictly limit any serious progress. Meanwhile, conservatives have taken control of not just the Supreme Court but the entire federal judiciary, and the Federalist Society’s implants are fiercely hostile to regulation and to government activism in general. 
Moreover, America tends to swing like a pendulum on the environment.  In the early 1970s, virtually every green bill was passed with overwhelming support:  Clean Air, Clean Water, Endangered Species, Marine Mammals, Toxic Substances, National Forests, etc.  Then, in 1980, President Reagan installed James Watt and Anne Gorsuch to launch an anti-environmental jihad, and his attitude toward renewable energy was much like Cato’s attitude toward Carthage. Twelve years later, the nation elected the pro-environment Clinton and Gore.

We have an opportunity right now to make progress.

We have an opportunity right now to make progress. President Biden seems to recognize that he needs to do just as much as possible immediately; lock in those gains; and use them to reassert some American climate leadership internationally.  But I’m dubious about anything bringing about “meaningful, lasting change” until the grassroots environmental community has built a larger, much more intense base of climate supporters.  
Photo of Denis Hayes standing in front of The Bullitt Center
The impact of the first Earth Day was unexpectedly massive due to grassroots organizing. Can you speak to the potential power and influence of grassroots organizations like Go Green Go, and those in our listing, in effecting change?
In American democracy, lots of different force vectors can influence policy:  Economic interests; academic and scientific experts; ideological values.  But the most powerful force, when it is aroused, is public sentiment. Most average Americans get their attitudes from those around them.  “Grassroots” is merely organized popular sentiment.  Historically, huge public events were a signal to everyone else that an issue should be taken seriously—whether the war, civil rights, the environment. In the case of the environment, once people started seriously paying attention to it, opposition to environmental improvement disappeared for a while. In 1969, a popular sentiment was that “Pollution is the smell of progress, the smell of prosperity.”  By 1971, that sentiment had changed to “Pollution is the smell of poison.”  That was the result of 20 million people taking to the streets, many of them wearing gas masks, protesting their deteriorating quality of life.  
Citizens power is greater today than then.  Now with Twitter, TikTok, Facebook, etc., it is easier (for better and worse) to disseminate messages and organize support.  To the extent that climate is on the global agenda today, it is because tens of millions of grassroots activists—mostly youthful—took up the cause of climate justice as their number one priority and demanded action.

In American democracy, lots of different force vectors can influence policy:  Economic interests; academic and scientific experts; ideological values.  But the most powerful force, when it is aroused, is public sentiment.

Photo of the solar roof of the Bullitt Center looking upwards
Your career is long and storied. You’ve received numerous accolades for your contributions. Your latest work however is with the Bullitt Foundation in Seattle where you oversaw the design and construction of the world’s greenest building – The Bullitt Center. Can you tell us a little about your work there and it’s focus in the Pacific Northwest?
Let me address those topics separately.  The Bullitt Foundation is a grant-making philanthropy that seeks to make the Emerald Corridor—the swath of land west of the Cascades from Portland, OR to Vancouver, BC—a model of urban resilience and sustainability. We include the farms, water supplies, forests, and other natural capital that make cities viable. We fund grassroots groups to aim to make Portland, Seattle, and Vancouver into healthy, prosperous models for a rapidly urbanizing global population.  Social justice has always been integral to our mission.  We did an inventory of our climate grants a couple of weeks ago in response to an inquiry from Donors of Color about climate justice and found that we gave about one-third of our grants, and about one-third of our grant money, to groups led by people of color.  
The Bullitt Center was a passion project of mine.  I wanted to locate the Foundation in offices that reflected its values. I wanted us to walk our talk.  But although there were lots of LEED Gold and some LEED Platinum buildings in Seattle, they all fell far short of my hopes.  I met with several large developers to ask why and, to a person, they said that such a project wouldn’t pencil out.  It would be too expensive to build. Furthermore, they claimed, many of the things I’d sought, such as net zero energy, just weren’t possible for a multi-story office building in cloud-covered Seattle.  
So I persuaded my board to let me try to prove them wrong.  The Bullitt Center is six-stories tall and net energy positive using only sunlight from rooftop photovoltaics. That includes all the energy for our tenants’ computers and printers and task lights, as well as all building operations. Part of our secret is deep efficiency; we use one-seventh the energy we would use if the building were built to code. The Center gets 100 percent of its water for all purposes, including showers and potable drinking water, from rain, stored in a huge cistern in the basement. I contains no materials that are toxic, carcinogenic, endocrine-disrupting, or otherwise unhealthy for its tenants or for the workers who built it.  100 percent of the wood used in construction is FSC-certified. 
The Bullitt Center is the most comfortable, well-lit office building in the city.  Yet it cost no more to construct per square foot than other Class A office buildings.  We chose not to sheathe our lobby in Carrara marble. We don’t have granite counter-tops in our kitchenettes. We have no fancy sculptures in our courtyard.  Instead we  spent that money on solar panels, triple-paned windows that open automatically, externally mounted Venetian blinds, etc. We completed the building on time and under budget; it has always been fully tenanted; and it operates in the black.  We were seven or eight years ahead of our time, but the real estate market around the world today is starting to demand similar buildings.  Young people want to work in places with daylighting and fresh air and constructed using healthy building materials.   
Photo of Solar roof of the Bullitt Center
The Pacific Northwest seems to be pretty progressive with their outlook on environmental and climate issues. In Ohio, on the other hand, our state government is a grossly gerrymandered, one-party super-majority, that has eliminated renewable energy standards while bailing out a failing fossil fuel energy company (ie. First Energy, HB6). Even still, we have many committed environmental advocates and organizations in Ohio, and renewable energy markets can’t be ignored forever. But our fight is definitely up hill. How do we progress in the face of such denial and obstinance?
The cities of the Pacific Northwest are pretty progressive by U.S. standards.  But the rural areas of the NW, especially east of the Cascades, tend to be extremely conservative, and they have locked in substantial political power in the state legislature.  The tensions are palpable, in part because the cities (with their Microsofts, Amazons, Starbucks, Boeings, Expedias, Nikes, Intels, etc.) pay the lion’s share of state taxes but the rural legislators resist urban initiatives.  Washington has a Governor, Jay Inslee, who has won office three consecutive times on a platform dominated by climate concerns—but so far he has been unable to get any meaningful climate legislation through the state legislature.  (As a consolation prize, though, President Biden has adopted all the key features of Jay’s climate platform, when he briefly ran for President!) 
I have no simple silver bullet to offer Ohio, except what we’ve been saying for 50 years.  Organize! Don’t spend most of your time chatting up your allies. Go outside your comfort zone and meet with those who have not already staked out their positions.  Send your most knowledgable and articular members to give speeches to Rotaries, Chambers of Commerce, school boards, and every other potential audience — and gather names and email addresses afterward.  Reach out of environmental clubs at colleges and universities, and find the people who are interested in community outreach.  
Listen respectfully to anyone who will talk with you. Talk with them, don’t talk down to them. You might be appalled by demonstrably false Q-Anon propaganda they spout.  Many of them won’t even talk with you.  But when someone is willing to meet it usually means they are wiling to exchange thoughts. 
Battling climate change—which could be have been cheap and relatively painless if Reagan had not killed all of President Carter’s initiatives around energy efficiency and renewable energy—is now going to be painful, expensive, and require decades. Coal miners with 8th grade educations have understandable fears about their futures and the welfare of their families. You need to be able to provide honest, persuasive, common sense answers. 
Finally, of course, walk your talk. Try to lead a life of integrity that is congruent with your values and anticipates the future you want to build. I have never spoken with a climate denier who didn’t mention the corporate jets flying into Davos to bemoan global, or the thousands of delegates flying to climate COPS and being conveyed to their luxury hotels in stretch limos.  Your opponents will be exquisitely sensitive to any hint of hypocrisy.  

Organize! Don’t spend most of your time chatting up your allies. Go outside your comfort zone and meet with those who have not already staked out their positions.

Green building concepts
Are there any environmental or climate projects, technologies or policies you are watching these days, that we should keep our eyes on?

Scores of them, ranging from mounting concerns over emerging viruses and antibiotic-resistant bacteria to the devastating losses of intact ecosystems and all the plants and animals that depend on them to the collapsing populations of so many pollinators.  I’m an environmentalist; my list of environmental worries is endless.  But let’s focus on climate and energy.  


As a result of bold decisions by the Chinese and Europeans, the prices of solar modules and giant offshore turbines have fallen dramatically. The cost per watt of a solar panel today is 97 percent less than it was in the Carter Administration.  Now we are seeing the beginnings of similar and performance curves with batteries and smart micrograms.  I expect that quite rapidly the world will make a total transition to electric buses and electric delivery vans. 

To achieve a truly rapid transition to deep green buildings, I think we will need a grassroots movement demanding very stringent building codes. Incentives and accolades are just too slow.  99 percent of the buildings in the world are built to meet building codes—meaning they are the worst building you can construct without breaking the law. We have to toughen those laws, and in the US that will be the result of local and state activism.  
We are learning more and more about the interaction of the oceans with climate.  Some geoengineering advocates want to shade the stratosphere so that we can move at a more measured pace in scaling back our consumption of fossil fuels, ignoring that the same CO2 is acidifying the oceans.  And recent research suggests that bottom trawling is disturbing huge volumes of carbon previously requested in the ocean floor.  
However, the big climate issue is the lack of any international consensus of what burdens will be borne by which nations in order to stand any chance whatsoever of holding global temperatures to no more than a 2 degree C rise over pre-industrial temperatures—and the utter lack of any credible enforcement mechanism. Voluntary commitments are obviously not the answer when we are asking nations to keep hundred of trillions of dollars worth of fossil fuels buried and unburned. We don’t have a credible enforcement for any environmental issue, including the proliferation of nuclear weapons.  My guess is that it will need to be something drawing upon the mechanisms of the World Trade Organization, where truly painful international economic sanctions are imposed for violations of rules.  Inside a country, something an EPA or a Department of Justice, can enforce anti-pollution laws.  The challenge facing us—in the face of ever-increasing claims of sovereignty in this era of hyper-nationalism—is to devise an enforceable international climate strategy.  
Photo of Denis Hayes, CEO of The Bullitt Foundation
What gives you optimism for the future with regard to climate and environmental protections?

1.  I suppose it’s fair the call me an optimist, but I’m a skeptical optimist.

2.  We have faced serious challenges before and responded at scale.  World War II, for example.  Such a mobilization is possible when the overwhelming majority believe the threat is sufficiently dire.  It is possible—it is not guaranteed!
3.  Regardless of objectively reality, I will always force myself to be hopeful, because, in Darwinian terms, there is no survival advantage to pessimism.  

…there is no survival advantage to pessimism.

4.  I’m now 76.  But I have a daughter, a son-in-law, and a granddaughter.  All of them will be carrying on this fight long after I’ve reached the end of the line.  As will hundreds of millions of others! I’m hopeful that they will succeed where my generation—for all its strenuous efforts—has fallen short.