Earth Day founder Denis Hayes says young climate activists carry the spirit of his generation

27:59Can Earth Day be badass again?

Denis Hayes can see activists of the past in today’s youth-led climate campaigns.

The environmentalist, who left Harvard University to co-ordinate the inaugural Earth Day in 1970, came of age during a period of growing understanding about human impacts on the planet. 

“We now have a generation coming up that seems to be very much in the spirit of the 1960s,” Hayes said in an interview with What On Earth host Laura Lynch.

They care passionately about climate change and “want to do something to influence and really to shape policy, to guarantee themselves the future,” he added.

Black and white photo of a man sitting at a desk. A woman, behind the desk, stands in front of a poster that reads "Environmental Teach-in April 22, 1970".
Denis Hayes, front, pictured in a file photo from April 8, 1970, ahead of the inaugural Earth Day to be held on the 22nd of that month. (CWH/The Associated Press)

The scope of the planet’s problems have changed since the inaugural Earth Day where community events were the focus. The impact of carbon emissions are understood today to be global and have led to rapidly rising global temperatures.

A cohort of young climate justice activists — such as Swedish activist Greta Thunberg — connected worldwide via social media are now pushing for faster and more concrete action on an issue they see as an existential threat.

“We have a bunch of young people who are global citizens, digital natives who are comfortable talking with their peers around the world and capable of building an international movement of, I think, real force,” Hayes said.

Earth Day every day

Axcelle Campana, 34, an environmental justice practitioner and master’s student at Portland State University, says Earth Day can be an inspiring day to mark our commitment to the climate.

But there’s a risk that organizations actively contributing to climate change, like large corporations investing in fossil fuel projects, can co-opt that message.

“If we leave a vacuum, I think inevitably there will be a commercialization, and that will be the dominant narrative and the predominant force driving what Earth Day means,” he told Lynch.

“We have to kind of step up and make it something in order for it to continue to be relevant.”

A smiling man with shoulder length dreadlocks poses in front of a waterfall.
Axcelle Campana is an environmental justice practitioner. He hopes Earth Day will eventually become a day off for people to engage in their communities. (Submitted by Axcelle Campana)

It’s a sentiment echoed by Campana’s peers.

“When it comes to action, having one day is just simply not enough,” said Lauren Wright, a 19-year-old student and climate activist from Saskatoon. She is one of 15 plaintiffs in a lawsuit against the federal government claiming it hasn’t done enough to protect youth from the effects of climate change.

Wright says the increasing frequency of significant climate events — including record-breaking wildfire seasons and disastrous hurricanes — has made it impossible for young people to ignore.

The ability to connect with other youth via social media has also made it easier to share these experiences and mobilize.

“I can see somebody who’s an activist in the Philippines telling their story about what’s happening to them right now, and then I can see something from somebody in the north of Canada who’s talking about how they’re being affected by brownouts,” she said.

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Need for agency

Maria Vamvalis isn’t surprised that young people are turning to activism.

The PhD candidate and former public school teacher researches the impact of climate justice in education. 

For many of the youth she’s spoken with as part of that work, grappling with these world-sized climate “polycrises” has left them feeling hopelessness over their futures — a shift she’s noticed in over two decades of teaching. 

“When they talk about the future, [they say] I’m not going to be living past 50,” she said. “I didn’t have that experience with young people before at all.”

Those feelings can be mitigated when youth are able to directly engage in the challenges — and feel heard.

“Climate justice can become like a social imaginary that enables them to feel a sense of possibility — like if we actually were to centre climate justice, then so many things would change,” said Vamvalis, who teaches an online course on how educators can incorporate climate change education in the classroom with the Accelerating Climate Education Project.

Earth Day, then, can be a moment to reinvigorate a sense of agency for youth worried about the changing climate, she added. 

Wright describes it as a day to “refocus.”

“Earth Day is usually just a day of reflection and education more so than physical action,” she said.

A large crowd marches on a street. Various signs are held by the marchers with messages in a non-English language.
Activists gather on April 19, 2024, in Bern, Switzerland, as part of the global climate strike. (Peter Schneider/Keystone/The Associated Press)

Evolving priorities

When he started Earth Day, Hayes and his peers were focused on smaller scale challenges, such as air pollution from power planets and expansive highways separating communities.

“For years when we were talking about climate change, all we could do was point to lines crossing on a chart sometime out in the future before we got hit with droughts and hurricanes,” he said.

“Whereas if you’ve got a plume coming out of a smokestack and everybody in the neighbourhood is coughing, the debate is much easier to win.”

WATCH | Denis Hayes in 1970 on the first Earth Day:

Earth Day organizer Denis Hayes on the 1970 event

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In Washington, D.C., the Earth Day co-ordinator Denis Hayes explained the purpose of the day’s focus on environmental issues.

The way climate activism has changed over five decades reflects a shift in our understanding of changes to the environment itself, said activist Maria Blancas.

“To have a movement that is fighting for the same things … through these different decades, I feel like is really unrealistic,” said Blancas, who was born in Mexico but grew up in Washington state in a farmworker community

“So, for me, it feels like the future issues are probably going to be very different — hopefully, ideally would be different — than what we’re fighting for now.”

Some accuse the younger generation of taking part in an activism fad borne out of social media, Wright says, but the endurance of Earth Day proves otherwise.

“I’m not a young agitator that just came out of the woodwork. There’s been decades and decades of work done by activists and centuries, since time immemorial, of Indigenous land defenders caring for this place,” she said.

Smiling red-haired person wears a green-and-white striped shirt, while standing against a beige wall.
Lauren Wright, 19, says that Earth Day is a time for reflection but that climate activism shouldn’t be limited to one day per year. (Submitted by Lauren Wright)

Looking forward

Looking ahead to Earth Day in 2050, Campana — who calls himself a “dreamer” — is ambitious.

April 22 is not just a day on the calendar, but a holiday off work and school for folks to get involved in their communities.

“We take commitment to the land and to the earth and to our home seriously enough where we actually provide the space and the time for lots of people to get involved,” he said.

Asked what lessons he would pass on youth activists today, Hayes was bashful.

“I suspect they are not waiting with bated breath for my pearls of wisdom,” he said.

“But I suppose the most important single thing I would say is don’t underestimate yourself…. Somebody is either going to have the torch passed to them, or they’re going to seize the torch, and it might as well be you.”


Posted in CBC