10. Denis Hayes
Photo: Francis Zera
Next time your child tosses a plastic bottle into the recycling bin, thank environmentalist Denis Hayes. Hayes helped to organize the first Earth Day in 1970 — when the United States was recycling about 7 percent of its trash. More than 32 years later, Earth Day is the biggest secular holiday in the world, with some 180 countries participating. (The United States now recycles about 34 percent of its waste, says the Environmental Protection Agency.)
It’s clear we’re more aware than ever of the environmental issues that affect our children’s health. Hayes, a grandfather, is a driving force behind the movement that brought them to our attention. His advocacy led to curbside recycling, now standard in many parts of the country, and he has promoted the teaching of ecology in schools. The “green” movement continues to grow stronger. On April 23, one day after Earth Day 2012, the U.S. Department of Education announces its first-ever Green Ribbon awards, given to schools that have met a high standard of teaching environmentalism and practicing recycling.
Short & Sweet: 3 Answers From Denis Hayes on Environmental Consciousness
Parent & Child: Where did your environmental consciousness stem from?
Denis Hayes: I grew up in the Pacific Northwest on the shores of the Columbia River. It’s just stunning, and I spent most of my time outdoors. The town I grew up in was a paper mill community, and in those days, there were no restraints on the sulfur dioxide or hydrogen sulfide that came out of the stacks. There was a constant stench. Occasionally, there were fish kills where thousands of fish would be asphyxiated by [the chemicals]. You could see a terrain of rapidly eroding ugliness, where the previous day it had been a spectacular forest.
P&C: You’ve enjoyed great success. What are you most proud of?
Hayes: That environmental values have become mainstream. That set of values surfaced way back with Teddy Roosevelt in the Progressive Era, and largely just got crushed with the modern approach to industrialization. Now, I think people do very much care about themselves, about their children, and about their community — but also about their planet.
P&C: But the environmental problems with the earth can seem simply overwhelming.
Hayes: In the end, we just have to do our best with the knowledge that there are millions and millions of other people out there, also doing their best. In the aggregate, our best is important. All of those other millions are counting on us, so we have to do our part.
This interview has been edited and condensed.