EcoIQ Home
EcoIQ MagazineOpinion

EcoIQ Magazine Home Feature Articles News Briefs Resources Reviews Opinion Back Issues Publisher Page

Opinion Articles:

Damn the Torpedoes & Torpedo the Dams

Preparing to Live in the Next Millennium

How Profit Shapes Urban Space

  Doubling Co-Generation A Productive Idea

By Denis Hayes
Chairman, Earth Day 2000

[Excerpted below are portions of a speech made by Denis Hayes to a Foundation for Global Community event on October 27, 1999 in Palo Alto, California.]

Te tend to think of eras with great leadership as eras that have great challenges, and that different people if placed in different circumstances might have moved from mediocrity to greatness. People that we look back upon as having been great in different circumstances might in fact -- if not presented with the challenge of World War II or the challenge of the Civil War or the challenge of the Great Depression -- never have risen to the heights that we remember.

When you look at the stock today of candidates (for President) -- which pretty much across the board seems to be shy of greatness -- it may a function of what is perceived as a lack of challenges. The evil empire is sort of a joke. The economy is robust. Itís not carrying everybody along with it, but things are proceeding in ways that are not causing mass consternation, certainly among makers of public opinion.

Iíd like to make the case tonight that thatís just as flat wrong as it could be. In fact, the challenges that we look

"The challenges that we look back upon -- heroic things like World War II -- may in the grand scheme of things be no more than footnotes in history."

back upon -- heroic things like World War II -- may in the grand scheme of things be no more than footnotes in history. We are facing a couple of challenges right now that will dwarf them in their historic impact.

If 200 years ago you had walked around the streets of Europe and said, "What do you think at the close of the 20th century people would remember about this period?" I would guess some large fraction of the people would have said the Seven Years War, known as the French and Indian war in the United States. It was a big thing. It affected what was to be the structure of different colonial empires in the future. It redefined boundaries in Europe. It led to some major historic realignments. It changed the map. This is an unusual audience, but Iíd guess that even in this audience we would be lucky to find a handful of people who could give a coherent paragraph about the Seven Years War.

When we think about this period today, we think about something that nobody really noticed as being important. We think about the industrial revolution. It had massive, sweeping impacts on every aspect of life, but was not noted at the time as something that was of that kind of consequence.

The other thing would have been this remarkable experiment by the little colonies on the other side of the Atlantic with a form of government that would franchise not immediately half of the population but ultimately the entire population to be able to have control over their national destinies. Sweeping impacts, and in the last couple of decades the spread of democracy in one form or another (with differing levels of perfection) throughout the planet has been one of the truly important developments.

So what is it about our period that people will remember 200 years hence?

"For the first time in history, one species has developed the ability to change the entire world."

I obviously have at least as good a chance of being wrong as the Europeans 200 years ago. So, let me focus on one....

For the first time in history, one species has developed the ability to change the entire world. Thatís a fairly profound thing. Lots of species do lots of things in limited environments. For most of history, humans have not been one of those that make really profound changes. A hundred twenty years ago in the Pacific Northwest where I live the human impact was probably less than the impact of beavers. Thatís certainly changed.

In parts of the world, humans have had big impacts on broader environments. Going back to the cradle of civilization, the hanging gardens of Babylon, the Tigris Euphrates Valley, a place of such vast agricultural abundance and surplus that people had leisure time to be engaged in arts and science, was turned by human activities into a barren wasteland that is now known as Iraq.

But not until recently have we had a thermonuclear stockpile capable of bringing on nuclear winter. Not until recently could we drill holes in the ozone layer, fundamentally changing the way the atmospheric chemistry and the influx of radiation would affect the entire planet. Not until recently could we change the climate. Not until recently did we have a sufficiently far reach to be able to literally trigger the greatest epidemic of extinctions that the world has seen in the last 25 million years.

Human kind has become a geophysical force, and that fundamental change I think is something that should summon up in us the greatest leadership possible. It is potentially one of the great tragedies of the world, the great tragedy of our era, if somehow as this dawning realization occurs we find ourselves led by individuals failing to have the courage to do what needs to be done.

In 1970, Earth Day was an event with consequences. Some of them were just fortuitous, some of them were mysterious even to people on the inside, and some of them were calculated and strategic. We set out to do something, and we got it accomplished....

Earth Day 1970 hit an enormously responsive chord with a great many people, and left in its wake two fundamental ideas. One, biology is very important. Youíd think that wouldnít need to be said, but basically biology was one of those things out there, one more subject you study, like 19th century poetry. But biology is fundamentally important. Weíre part of this biology, and we depend upon

"There is an increasing disconnect between what we are measuring as progress and what people get satisfaction from, enjoyment from, take pride in."

a whole lot of other critters, and they depend on us. As youíre trying to define public policy, you ought to be considering its biological impacts, or more specifically, its ecological impacts.

The second was that there is an increasing disconnect between what we are measuring as progress and what people get satisfaction from, enjoyment from, take pride in. These measures of progress, mostly summarized in things like Gross Domestic Product, were exploding. They were exploding in ways that were making cities unlivable, making rates of certain unnatural diseases skyrocket. We were dramatically lowering what came quickly to be referred to as the quality of life.

Today, we are moving into the year 2000 at a time when in American society, in fact in most societies around the world, people have come to think of the right to a safe, healthy environment as a fundamental right. People would assign it a higher value than some of the rights that are enshrined in the constitution. But this is not enshrined in any place except the public consciousness: We have a right to a healthy, safe environment. That wasnít there when I was growing up. I grew up in a paper mill community. I woke up just about every morning with my throat on fire from the sulfur dioxide fumes Iíd been breathing all night, and which my father proudly pointed to as the smell of prosperity. There has been a sea shift in public consciousness -- a sudden reversal. Today, thatís not the smell of progress, thatís the smell of poison. We changed that.

That shift in consciousness lead to a wave of legislation -- the clean air act, the clean water act, the safe drinking water act, the endangered species act, the super fund, on and on and on. And in about 30 months, it completely redefined many of the ways America does business, that America operates, and acted as a model for the way that much of the rest of the world operates. Its benefits have been so widespread and are so astonishingly popular that they are now essentially beyond challenge.

We are trying in the year 2000 to create another Earth Day with consequences. Weíve decided to take on a huge theme... (and weíve focused on) global warming.

You can put it on a bumper strip. You can spin it optimistically. This is not just the melting of Antarctic ice sheets, the elevating of the worldís oceans, the spread of diseases into places where they would not now be, the undermining of world food productivity, the acceleration of extinction, and the rest of the stuff you hear in a typical environmental address. It is also about solar cells and fuel cells and the hydrogen economy and serial hybrid automobiles. All of these are things that are actually pretty attractive as a way to live, and in some important ways far more attractive than the current way we have to live. They are things that can bring a different kind of prosperity and allow us to have a level of comfort and productivity and pride and creativity and the other things we all strive toward as a species in a context that has a future, as opposed to one that is diminishing the prospects of the planet.

So thatís where we decided to go with Earth Day 2000 -- to focus upon global warming and the positive alternatives

"The evidence is sufficiently compelling on climate change that we can no longer avoid confronting it directly on a policy level."

to that, super efficiency and accelerated revolutionary shift to renewals. This is a topic that is not without opposition.

If you live outside the United States, you tend to be kind of puzzled by the United States, where global warming seems to be a gigantic debate: Is it? Isnít it? In most other places thatís just not true. The science is pretty straightforward now, as far as any kind of non-experimental science ever can be. Essentially all of the major professional associations that wrestle with this stuff around the world, the World Meteorological Society types of organizations, even the conservative ones like the American Geophysical Union (which has never taken a political stance on anything before), have said now that the evidence is sufficiently compelling on climate change that we can no longer avoid confronting it directly on a policy level. This was a revolutionary change.

Whenever there is a new study -- and thereís a new study every two or three days now, talking about one new thing here, one new thing there, all of it mounting evidence -- in the third paragraph of the news story there is always a quotation that says, "Well, the evidence is not conclusive. We should wait till weíve got it all linked together and itís absolutely clear." And the quotation always comes from one of the same seven people. These people are in the employ of the American Petroleum Institute, the Western Fuels Association, the National Coal Association, the Edison Electric Institute, or the Local Climate Coalition.

Yes, there is some uncertainty. Thereís uncertainty about all kinds of feedback loops, thereís uncertainty about all kinds of pacing. Thereís uncertainty about various aspects. But there will be uncertainty until we have changed the planet, and once we have changed the planet, weíll have no clue how to change it back -- though weíll know itís going to be a really long time coming, and that weíre going to have a vastly smaller human population and vastly impoverished planet before we get it done.

The evidence is now, I think, sufficiently compelling that itís time to act. Acting means moving toward a far more attractive set of technologies than are currently widespread, and ones that donít employ the products of the American Petroleum Institute, the National Coal Association, and so on....

I had lunch with William Clay Ford IV, the chairman of Ford Motor company, a couple of months ago. In the course of the conversation, we talked about the new Ford Excursion, and he was surprised to find that I was deeply offended by its very existence. Weíre talking about a vehicle now that gets on a level surface at a reasonable rate of speed 12 miles per gallon, that if it were one half of one inch wider would have to have running lights across the front. And in the course of it, with a twinkle in my eye (I hope), I asked him when he was planning to introduce it in Germany. And he kind of chuckled, and the conversation moved on because theyíre not planning to introduce the Excursion in Germany. If you pulled one into a service station in Germany and said the magic words, "fill Ďer up," it would be $240. Thereís no market for an Excursion in Germany. But there should be no market for it in America. There is because our gasoline,

"80 percent of Americans now believe that global warming is real. This huge elaborate expensive public relations campaign has failed to convince them that this is a debatable issue."

even though prices have gone up in the last couple of months, is still cheaper than bottled water. As long as it is, weíre going to be doing the wrong things....

In 2000, weíre working with two enormous assets. First, 80 percent of Americans now believe that global warming is real. This huge elaborate expensive public relations campaign has failed to convince them that this is a debatable issue. But it remains a global issue, and most people have no clue about what you can do about a global issue, and so there is a sort of psychological denial. They donít quite deny that it exists, but it canít get into that front part of their brain where theyíre trying to rationally figure out what to do about it. And so youíve got this latent, potential army of allies that view this as a kind of third tier issue because itís not practical to figure out something you can do about it.

The second huge asset is that if you ask people "Do you want your kids to have a society that is powered by coal, a society that is powered by nuclear, or a society that is powered by renewables, just everybody says renewables. A solar, wind, bio-fuels combination has all kinds of advantages that are intuitively obvious to everybody. I mean, youíre talking 90 percent positive responses. Yet, it is a third tier issue. What can you do about it? Most people canít afford a (very expensive) system to stick on top of their house. If thatís what it costs, you just canít get it done. Youíve got to change what is possible by changing the price of things.

So, with those two assets, what we need to do is pull this from being a third tier issue, a non-starter issue, something that no one who is running for president, governor, senator, or anything is even talking about, and catapult it into a top tier issue. Whether youíre running for the Palo Alto City Council or for the presidency of the United States, youíll have to tell us what you are going to do about this. And it will be one of those things on the basis of which people will make up their minds....

If we can do that, we will have a model for other issues like the collapse of bio-diversity, like world population, like these thermonuclear stockpiles that weíll be taking on on Earth Days in years in the future. If this is going to work, it will work because people like you make it work. This is a thing that is going to be people powered. Itís going to be coming from the grass roots. Itís going to take the form of demands by people who are just fed up with the current situation, and I hope that will include every one of you.

Denis Hayes is international chairman of Earth Day 2000. He is president and CEO of the Seattle-based environmental Bullitt Foundation and chairman of the board of the Energy Foundation. He also chairs the development committee of the National League of Conservation Voters.

He was selected by Look magazine as one of the 100 most influential Americans of the 20th century and by the National Audobon Society as one of the 100 environmental heroes of the 20th century.

EcoIQ Magazine appreciates the assistance of the Foundation for Global Community in providing video and audio tapes of Denis Hayesí speech, as well as the editorial and transcription assistance of Sandra Mardigian and Nick Cabell.

EcoIQ Magazine HOME | Feature Articles | News Briefs | Resources
| Opinion | Back Issues | Publisher Page Site Home | | EcoSpeakers Bookstore |

© Copyright 2000-2008 EcoIQ