National Press Club

Earth Day’s founding organizer promises historic action on event’s 50th anniversary

April 23, 2019 | By Justin Duckham |

National Press Club president Alison Kodjak and Earth Day organizer Denis Hayes react to an audience question.

National Press Club president Alison Kodjak and Earth Day organizer Denis Hayes react to an audience question.

Photo/Image: Alan Kotok

Earth Day co-founder Denis Hayes expects next year’s 50th anniversary of the annual event will spur a record-breaking level of activism.

“The 50th anniversary of Earth Day next year will be the largest, most diverse action, I believe, in human history,” Hayes said during a briefing Monday at the National Press Club.

Pointing to the growing urgency surrounding the global threats posed by climate change, Hayes said that the Earth Day Network is prepared to engage with over 3 billion people in 190 countries through a series of mass events, digital canvassing and educational programs across the public sphere.

Hayes suggested that the upcoming Earth Day could grow beyond a single event and instead take on the trappings of a worldwide phenomenon.

The longtime environmental activist, who coordinated the first Earth Day in 1970, rooted his optimism in his organization’s past success.

“We have made these kind of predictions before and often done so with some level of trepidation, and in every case it’s proven to be more modest than what actually transpired,” Hayes said. “For the first Earth Day, we hoped to have millions and in the end had 20 million in 140 countries.”

In a broader sense, Hayes emphasized that all of the factors are in place for an environmental moment of reckoning; the scientific community has become emboldened, world governments have coalesced around the issue and moral authorities, including Pope Francis, have voiced dire ethical concerns.

“When conditions are right, people are ready to demand change,” Hayes said. “It recently happened in the United States on gay marriage; it more recently happened in New Zealand on gun control. It happened globally on the ozone hole.”

While Hayes cast the upcoming event as overwhelmingly inclusive, he said the Earth Day Network is ready to reject funding from corporate sponsors with spotty environmental records.

“It’s what I refer to as a ‘giggle test,’” Hayes explained. “If you look at the source of this contribution and think ‘Oh my lord, what were they thinking?’ of course we’ll turn it down.”

Hayes’ comments coincided with the 49th Earth Day, which centered this year on halting the accelerating rate of extinction among plant and animal species as a result of human activity.

To highlight the theme, an activist, dressed as a polar bear, roamed the halls of the Club, holding a sign proclaiming, “Polar Bears Believe in Science.”

Hayes took an opportunity to reflect on the legacy of Earth Day and respond to criticism, raised by Club President Alison Fitzgerald Kodjak, that the event has become more centered on celebration than policy.

“I think if you were to ask people who are involved in movements for human rights, for peace, for any number of broad social issues, whether they would like to have a worldwide event where, even for one day, the planet focuses on their issues … I think everyone of them would leap at it. The environmental movement is blessed with this event,” Hayes replied.

He acknowledged that some Earth Day activities are small in scope, but often times set the stage for a deeper ecological discussion.

“Many of the things that it does are just introducing people to the issues,” Hayes said. “You take a 6th grader out and they take out and recycle aluminum cans and perhaps plant some trees. But that first step is a step down a long journey.”

Still, Hayes conceded, that approach alone is far from sustainable.

“We definitely want this [next] one to have an impact beyond an introductory impact,” Hayes said. “We’ve ran out of time. It’s time now to move aggressively on climate.”