______ SOLAR TODAY® april 2010 VOl. 24, NO. 3 The organizer of Earth Day 1970 looks at the holiday’s past and future — and his own.
francis zera photography
By DENIS HAYES
hoek to Capetown. it was a lonely crossroad, and
no one picked me up. Dusk came. i walked out
over a hill, laid out my sleeping bag and tried to
fall asleep as a full desert moon flooded the sky.
i’d studied ecology. its principles explained
the behavior of all organisms, from butterflies to
elk. Ecological rules applied to monkeys, orang-utans, gorillas and chimpanzees. as i lay wide
awake at that obscure crossroad in Namibia, i
asked myself, “What about the other primates?
What about us?”
Ecology boils down to mechanisms to make
super-efficient use of energy from the sun, and
behavior to ensure the survival of species. Until
the 18th century, those principles largely shaped
human society as well. For energy, our ancestors
relied on physical labor, draft animals, wood fires
and the wind.
With the invention of Newcomen’s coal-fired
steam engine, everything changed. abundant fossil energy gave industrialized man an opportunity
to ignore many principles of ecological design.
Fuel was so cheap that we began substituting
energy for labor, for materials, for good design.
We substituted energy for human ingenuity.
Fossil fuels brought rich benefits. But by the
1960s, they had begun to impose extraordinary
costs. We had awful air pollution, strip mines, oil
spills and gridlock. Moreover, a decade earlier,
M. King Hubbert had forecast the peaking of
domestic oil production in the United States for
1970, to be followed a few decades later by the
peaking of world oil.
My insight that night in Namibia was that
we should reexamine how ecological principles
might apply to humans. How could we build an
advanced civilization, with surpluses to support
the arts, science, education and political freedoms,
in a world powered directly and indirectly by ener-
gy from the sun? Were we wise enough to become
as energy efficient as the rest of creation?
as the moon bisected the sky, i was struck by
how many human problems might be solved by
reorienting our societies along ecological lines.
i spent that whole night recalling concepts like
carrying capacity, equilibrium, climax communi-
ties and collapse — and applying them to the
i had found my life’s work.
i continued my travels, looking for lessons
from older cultures. Back at school, i spent my
junior and senior years learning from people like
paul Ehrlich, Don Kennedy, David potter and
M. King Hubbert.
although i remained deeply concerned with
the issues of the day, and partook of the Bay
area’s rich menu of protest demonstrations, i
now viewed most popular causes as symptoms
of a deeper ailment. The fundamental disconnect
was between economic organization and envi-
ronmental limits. Our economy required endless
growth. National accounting cared only about
annual throughput, not accumulated value. Our
diet relied on targeted monocultures instead of
diverse, resilient systems of agricultural produc-
tion, resulting in severe disruptions of the nitro-
gen cycle, the hydrological cycle and the carbon
cycle. Competition for resources produced a
regular cycle of armed conflict.
above all, we had grown utterly reliant on
an energy system divorced from the influx of
sunlight that powers all other life on the planet.
We were increasingly reliant on fragile, distant,
politically charged sources of oil, at mounting
financial, environmental and military costs.
after my 1969 graduation, Sen. Gaylord Nelson invited me to coordinate a nationwide “
Environmental Teach-in.” Over time, i broadened
its focus away from just college campuses and
into communities, and rebranded it “Earth Day.”
The event put 20 million people on the streets
and ushered in an era of dramatic environmental
progress. Within three years, Congress passed
the Clean air act, Clean Water act, Safe Drinking Water act, Endangered Species act, Marine
Mammal protection act, Superfund act, Safe
A recipient of the Charles Greeley Abbot Award and
a Fellow of the American Solar Energy Society (ASES),
Denis Hayes is a meber of the ASES Board of Trustees.
He is president of the Bullitt Foundation and chair
emeritus of the International Earth Day Network.
James R. Schlesinger, the first energy secretary,
with Hayes, who served as the first director of
the lab now known as the National Renewable
After my 1969 graduation,
Sen. Gaylord Nelson invited
me to coordinate a nationwide “Environmental Teach-In.” [Rebranded Earth Day],
the event put 20 million
people on the streets and
ushered in an era of dramatic