Earth Day, and the Irish American Who Started It

Earth Day founder Denis Hayes stands in front of the headquarters for Hayes's Bullitt Foundation in Seattle, the most energy
efficient office building in the world. (Photo: Bullitt Foundation)

By Irish America Staff

On April 22, 1970, millions of people participated in events across the country in the first celebration of Earth Day. According to a New York Times article about the event, more than 2,000 colleges participated, 10,000 K-12 schools, and a couple thousand towns. The wire services tallied the total participation at 20 million across the U.S. Today, Earth Day is the most widely celebrated secular holiday on the planet, with more than 193 nations participating.

The first Earth Day was primarily organized by a man named Denis Hayes, whose paternal grandparents emigrated from Ireland and eventually settled in Wisconsin. Two generations later, Wisconsin’s democratic senator, Gaylord Nelson, acted as a mentor to Hayes, and compelled the 25-year-old environmental activist to get to work organizing what would be one of the most successful nation-wide demonstrations in the country to date.

“There were no computers, smart phones, email, texts, Twitters, postings, etc., so organizing involved an enormous amount of telephoning, mimeographing things and shoe leather,” Hayes told GreenBiz in 2015. “Organized labor, and in particular Walter Reuther and the UAW, were strong supporters of the first Earth Day.”

It would take two decades for Earth Day to go international, and in the interim years, Hayes directed the federal Solar Energy Research Institute under President Jimmy Carter. He also taught engineering at Stanford, was a senior fellow at the WorldWatch Institute, and has been called by Time one of the Heroes of the Planet. Today, he is the CEO of the Bullitt Foundation in Seattle, and oversaw construction of the most energy efficient building in the world, the foundation’s headquarters, which is entirely self-sufficient, powered by solar panels on the roof, and boasts composting toilets.

Since 1992, the Foundation has granted more than $200 million, developed the Bullitt Center, permanently protected $100 million in ecologically valuable lands through a revolving loan fund, funded the preparatory work to protect nearly 300,000 acres in national monuments, invested in emerging leaders, and endowed several professorships. It has played a leadership role in emphasizing JEDI (justice, equity, diversity, and inclusion) elements in green grantmaking.

“We’ve worked hard to establish a model of deeply sustainable development in this region, and we are now approaching the point when we must pass the torch to the next generation of environmental philanthropists,” Hayes said.

When asked if small local events, particularly those at schools, lead to meaningful action by GreenBiz, Hayes replied with his trademark dry humor:

“First, 100,000 or so schools in the U.S. alone engage students on environmental issues on Earth Day. When we unleash 30 million little green guerrillas on their parents – most of whom really want their kids to admire them – it produces a lasting result.

“Second, every religion recognizes that humans are flawed and will never be sin-free. Still, sacramental acts help to solidify values. I’m not one of those folks who poor-mouths tree planting or beach clean-ups – they are a physical manifestation of a value system and they cumulatively add up to changed personalities.

“In my neighborhood, a great sense of community has been built by a handful of retirees who organize volunteer activities, e.g. eliminating invasive species and planting natives. In the process, people talk about lots of other issues and sometimes recruit new activists. This happens in hundreds of thousands of places each year.”

Earth Day has evolved since it’s initial year, and as it moved toward the 50th anniversary in 2020, Hayes said. “You come in with a tailwind when you have the 50th anniversary of anything, and in this instance we hope to move it away from a day and into a full month of different kinds of things circling the world, everything from protecting big game on the Serengeti to talking about the impacts of poverty and war on the global environment to what have you. Just keeping this stuff in the public attention long enough in our increasingly attention-deficit-disordered digital world to have people think about it and ask what it means for them.”

Putting it bluntly, Hayes said, “Listen up, you couch potatoes: each recycled beer can saves enough electricity to run a television for three hours.”  He added, “I feel more confident than ever that the power to save the planet rests with the individual consumer.”  ♦

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