In 1970, headbands were in, Simon & Garfunkel topped the charts, and Denis Hayes, a graduate student at Harvard, read about a fledgling environmental movement. Determined to volunteer, he flew to Washington, DC, with the intention of organizing Earth Day at Harvard. Instead, he became the organizer for Earth Day across the entire United States.
Inspired by the role of teach-ins in anti-war and civil rights protests, US Senator Gaylord Nelson started the Earth Day movement as a “national teach-in on the environment.” The movement swiftly gained popularity, and today Earth Day is celebrated in more than 190 countries.
We sat down with Denis Hayes to discuss the first 49 years of Earth Day, the evolution of the movement, and how energy—and efficiency—play a huge role in climate action and a sustainable future.
What was it like to be the national coordinator of the first Earth Day?
It was like riding a Tesla with the pedal to the floor. The acceleration was from zero to 1,000 in a matter of months. Early community meetings often had fewer than a dozen people. But April 22, we had 20 million participants, with more than one million in Manhattan alone!
My hope—in some large measure realized—was that Americans would come to see that they had a “right” to a clean, healthy environment, and that the law would guarantee that. The first Earth Day was passionate and intense, and it led directly to a wave of change. Clean Air Act. Clean Water Act. Endangered Species Act. Marine Mammal Protection Act. EPA and NOAA. Superfund. On and on…
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