Born in Wisconsin in 1944, Denis Hayes was raised in Camas, Washington. At age eighteen he enrolled at Clark College in Vancouver but dropped out after his sophomore year. “It was a classic identity crisis,” he recalls. “I was totally wrapped up in misgivings about the [Vietnam] war, the production of nuclear, chemical, biological weapons. All I knew was that I didn’t want to go on with my life the way it was.”
After leaving college, Hayes spent the next three years hitch-hiking through Asia, Africa, Europe, and the Middle East. He then returned to the U.S. and attended Stanford University, where he was elected student-body president and became an anti-Vietnam War activist. On one occasion, he helped lead more than 1,000 students in a campus takeover of a weapons-research laboratory.
After graduating from Stanford in 1969, Hayes enrolled for the fall semester at Harvard Law school. He dropped out that December, however, when he heard that Democratic U.S. Senator Gaylord Nelson was seeking someone to put into action his idea for a nationwide day of coordinated workshops, lectures, and rallies about environmellittntal issues. Nelson commissioned Hayes for the job, and over the ensuing four months Hayes worked with the senator and with Stanford University professor Paul Ehrlich to organize the first-ever Earth Day celebration, which was held on April 22, 1970. Some 20 million people in the United States participated in the events of that day. Earth Day has been celebrated annually on April 22 ever since, and Hayes, as board chairman of the Earth Day Network, has maintained a prominent role.
April 22 also happens to be the birth date of Vladimir Lenin, who served as Soviet Russia’s head of government from 1917-24. Citing the very obvious anti-capitalist, pro-socialist orientation of so many leaders in the radical environmentalist movement, radio host and meteorologist Brian Sussman claims that Hayes, Nelson, and Ehrlich decided to hold their Earth Day rally on Lenin’s birthday after “careful consideration.” Writes Sussman:
“Environmentalists have always admired Lenin. He was the first disciple of Karl Marx to capture control of a country, and the opening act of his seven-year reign commenced with the abolition of all private property—a Marxist priority. Despite overseeing a bloody civil war, a devastated economy and a citizenry without hope, Lenin made it a priority to implement his signature decree, ‘On Land.’ In it he declared that all forests, waters, and minerals to be the exclusive property of the state, and he demanded these resources be protected from use by the public and private enterprise. Selling timber or firewood, mining minerals, or diverting water for farming was strictly prohibited.”
But Hayes offers a different account of why April 22 was the date chosen for Earth Day:
“This whole thing was envisioned by Senator Gaylord Nelson as a campus teach-in, so it was all about making sure this would be attractive enough to the largest number of college students. He chose the date before he hired me. He came from Wisconsin, which has cold winters, and he wanted to find a date late enough in the year that a teach-in wouldn’t be snowed in, but early enough that college students wouldn’t be cramming for final exams. And he wanted it to be in the middle of the week so people wouldn’t be away on weekend trips. So, he chose a Wednesday near the end of April, and that Wednesday happened to be April 22.”
On the morning after the first Earth Day in 1970, The New York Times published an article titled “Angry Coordinator of Earth Day,” which quoted Hayes boasting that five years earlier, he had moved overseas because “I had to get away from America.” The piece also noted that Hayes had forbidden his organization to produce any Earth Day bumper stickers. “You want to know why?” Hayes asked the Times reporter. “Because they go on automobiles.” (Hayes has long sought to diminish Americans’ reliance on automobiles, on the theory that their carbon emissions contribute heavily to potentially catastrophic climate change.)
In 1970 Hayes was highly pessimistic about how the earth’s allegedly worsening climate would affect the worldwide food supply. In the Spring 1970 issue of The Living Wilderness, he stated: “It is already too late to avoid mass starvation.”
In 1979 Hayes was appointed by President Jimmy Carter to direct the Colorado-based Solar Energy Research Institute (SERI), a U.S. Energy Department initiative that focused primarily on renewable-energy research and development.
Viewing Ronald Reagan’s election as U.S. President in 1980 as a disastrous moment for the environment, Hayes said in an interview ten years later: “We were unprepared to deal with a James Watt [Interior Secretary], an Anne Gorsuch [Environmental Protection Agency Administrator], an Ed Meese [Counselor to the President]. It was a weird kind of consciousness. I mean, you can`t get any more anti-environment than James Watt, a man who genuinely welcomed Armageddon. They just bulldozed us.” In a separate 1990 interview, Hayes said: “What happened to the environmental movement during the ’80s made me realize that its constituency wasn’t broad enough or strong enough to withstand Reagan. We got rolled.” “About six months into the Reagan administration,” Hayes recalled in 2013, “they came to SERI, and they reduced our $130 million budget by a little more than $100 million. They called it a trim. They fired all of our consultants, that was about 1,500 people, including three who went on to win Nobel Prizes later, and about a third of the staff. It was probably the most painful afternoon of my life.”
From 1983-88, Hayes was a professor of energy engineering at Stanford University. In 1985 he earned a J.D. from Stanford Law School and then spent five years as an environmental attorney in Silicon Valley.
In 1992 Hayes was named president of the Seattle-based Bullitt Foundation, a notable funder of radical environmental organizations. He remains the Foundation’s president and CEO to this day.
In 1996 Hayes was one of the original 130 co-founders of the Campaign for America’s Future, along with such notables as Mary Frances Berry, Julian Bond, Robert Borosage, John Cavanagh, Richard Cloward, Peter Dreier, Barbara Ehrenreich, Betty Friedan, Todd Gitlin, Tom Hayden, Roger Hickey, Patricia Ireland, Jesse Jackson, Joseph Lowery, Frances Fox Piven, Robert Reich, Mark Ritchie, Arlie Schardt, Susan Shaer, Andrew Stern, John Sweeney, and Richard Trumka.
In 2002 Hayes joined a number of fellow environmentalists—including Brent Blackwelder, Randall Hayes, Fred Krupp, Carl Pope, Kathleen Rogers, Mark Van Putten, and Mark Ritchie—in signing an urgent “Call for Action” which cited “deep concerns about the uneven distribution of … economic gains among and within countries, the growing pressure on natural resources, and increasing pollution.” Most importantly, the document demanded a reduction of American “global warming pollutants,” the development and deployment of “renewable energy technologies,” and “increase[d] U.S. assistance to developing countries to protect their environments and the global environment.”
Hayes strongly supported his longtime friend John Kerry in the 2004 U.S. presidential race, stating that “the future of America very much depends upon defeating [Republican incumbent] George W. Bush and electing someone with the capacity for greatness.” By Hayes’s telling, Kerry possessed the ability to help America “lead the world into a super-efficient, renewable-energy era, ending the oil stranglehold and putting the brake on climate change.”
In an April 2015 interview with Greenbiz.com, Hayes lamented: “Nothing has been particularly effective yet at persuading any governments to accord climate change the priority, the urgency, that it demands. It has been a dreadful failure, not merely of Earth Day — which held its first large concentrated focus on climate in 1990, or even of the overall environmental movement — but of Homo sapiens. The changes already baked into the atmosphere will diminish the human prospect and unravel big parts of the web of life.”
In 2018, Hayes spoke out against the use of disposable plastic bags: “Until ending ‘one-way’ plastics becomes a political priority around the world, [their manufacture] will continue unabated. Meanwhile, we nevertheless each should ‘be the change we want to see.’ The world produces at least a trillion plastic bags each year. Don’t be part of this gigantic waste stream that makes a one-way trip from the oil well to the dump.”
In a 2019 interview, Hayes blamed America’s social and economic inequities for the fact that nonwhites traditionally have accounted for a small percentage of environmental activists:
“On that first Earth Day, we had African-American groups protesting plans to plow freeways through their dynamic inner-city neighborhoods. But the big crowds were overwhelmingly white and middle class. If you were a poor person of color, you had a lot of other problems and not a lot of extra time. So although the poor have always suffered the worst environmental conditions, only in times of true crisis have they tended to include the environment near the top of their priorities.
“The environmental groups themselves were part of the problem. They all raised most of their money through direct mail. Poor people tended to respond to personal requests, not direct mail, so they weren’t on the mailing lists that were traded and sold. Groups tended to emphasize the issues that got the great mail response, so they wound up emphasizing issues that appealed to middle-class, college-educated white people.”
In 2019 Hayes said that the window of opportunity for saving the environment was closing rapidly:
“It is already far too late to avoid many of the ravages of climate change—intense storms, forest fires, droughts, etc. The question today is whether we—and the entire rest of the world—can make a swift enough transition to the ultra-efficient use of 100% renewables to avoid tipping points where climate cycles produce feedback loops that are self-reinforcing, like wide-scale emissions from warming methane hydrates. That will be an enormously heavy lift; some would say it is highly improbable, if not impossible.”
Hayes has long viewed capitalism as an economic system that is inherently destructive of the natural world. “Under communism,” he has said, “prices were not allowed to reflect economic reality. Under capitalism, prices don’t reflect ecological reality. In the long run, the capitalist flaw—if uncorrected—may prove to be the more catastrophic.” To address this problem, Hayes has proposed a remedy: “America has a mechanism to deal with things that are not well-served by the market. It’s called government.”
During his career as an activist, Hayes has been a high-ranking official and/or governing board member with such organizations as CERES, Children Now, the Energy Foundation, the Environmental Grantmakers Association, the Federation of American Scientists, Greenpeace, the League of Conservation Voters, the National Programming Council for Public Television, the Ruckelshaus Center, the World Resources Institute, and the Worldwatch Institute.
The author of more than 30 books and pamphlets on environmentalism, Hayes has received awards for his activism from many organizations including the American Solar Energy Society, the Commonwealth Club, the Global Environmental Facility of the World Bank, the Humane Society of the United States, the Interfaith Center for Corporate Responsibility, the National Wildlife Federation, the Natural Resources Council of America, and the Sierra Club. Time magazine once selected Hayes as one of its “Heroes of the Planet.” The National Audubon Society named him as one of its “100 Environmental Heroes of the 20th Century.” And Look magazine designated him as one of the “100 Most Influential Americans of the 20th Century.”