Creating ‘super green’ cities

Earth Day founder Denis Hayes, a Camas native, will discuss building more sustainable cities at virtual Feb. 23 Clark College Foundation event

Camas native Denis Hayes speaks at the ellipse on the National Mall in Washington D.C. in 1970. Hayes coordinated the first Earth Day in April 1970, and has been working to build more sustainable communities ever since. He will discuss creating "super green" cities at a free, virtual event hosted by Clark College Foundation Alumni Relations on Feb. 23. The event is open to the public, but participants must register online in advance. (Contributed photo courtesy of Denis Hayes)

A native son of Camas — Earth Day founder and internationally renowned environmental advocate Denis Hayes — will lead a discussion about building more sustainable communities at the Clark College Foundation’s virtual “Creating Super Green Cities” event on Tuesday, Feb. 23.

Hayes, a 1962 Camas High graduate and Clark College alumnus, will discuss how the Pacific Northwest might take the lead in building healthier human ecosystems.

It is a topic that has intrigued Hayes, 76, since his days at Harvard’s Kennedy School in the late 1960s. Back then, however, “the environment” wasn’t something on the radar of most college or political activists.

“In late 1969, had you asked the question, ‘What do you think about the environment?’ I think the most common response would have been, ‘What is the environment?'” Hayes told The Harvard Gazette in April 2020.

That began to change in 1970, when Hayes, who had left Harvard to work with Wisconsin Sen. Gaylord Nelson, an early champion of environmental policies, coordinated the first Earth Day celebration. That inaugural Earth Day, held on April 22, 1970, attracted an estimated 20 million people nationwide and sparked the beginning of a cohesive environmental movement.

Since then, Hayes has become a leader in the sustainability movement and fight against climate change: expanding the Earth Day network to more than 180 countries; leading what is now known as the National Renewable Energy Laboratory under the Carter Administration; being named Time Magazine’s “Hero of the Planet” in 1999; leading the Seattle-based Bullitt Foundation, which is focused on protecting and restoring the environment in the Pacific Northwest; writing “Cowed: The Hidden Impact of 93 Million Cows on America’s Health, Economy, Politics, Culture and Environment” with his wife, Gail Boyer Hayes, a former senior associate at the Environmental Law Institute; developing the Bullitt Center, which opened on Earth Day 2013 and remains one of the most sustainable commercial buildings ever built and a beacon of light for anyone interested in environmentally friendly construction technologies.

Hayes was a popular figure in 2020, when Earth Day celebrated its 50th anniversary. In interviews with media throughout the world, Hayes talked about his environmental advocacy work and said his childhood days in Camas showed him the value of protecting the planet.

“Camas is in one of the most spectacularly beautiful and biologically diverse parts of the planet,” Hayes told the Post-Record in 2015. “But the mill filled the air with unregulated poisons, it poured enormous volumes of toxic effluent into the river, it mowed down the surrounding the Douglas fir forests in devastating clearcuts, losing rich topsoil and decimating fragile ecosystems.”

Hayes talked to the Post-Record last week about his experience growing up in Camas.

“When you were playing sports and meeting people from other schools, and you mentioned you were from Camas, they would invariably talk about the stench coming out of Camas,” Hayes said. “We had a reputation for quite some time for (the paper mill’s) uncontrolled sulfur dioxide and hydrogen peroxide. There were no pollution controls (at the mill) when I was growing up … people woke up with sore throats and the rain mixed with acids and would pit the roofs of automobiles.”

Most people never stopped to ask, “If it’s doing that to the cars, what the hell is it doing to my lungs,” Hayes said. “It just didn’t occur to everybody how bad this was.”

Hayes said even he didn’t realize the extent of the environmental destruction happening in his hometown until he left Camas.

“Somewhere along the line, it occurred to me that it must be possible to make paper without destroying the planet,” Hayes told the Post-Record in 2015. “And that basic insight, writ large, has been a recurrent theme in my career – applied not just to paper but to industrial civilization.”

Although environmental policies have changed quite a bit since Hayes’ childhood in Camas of the 1950s and ’60s — especially after the advent of the Environmental Policy Act, which sought to regulate the manufacturing, processing, distribution and use of harmful chemicals and other pollutants, passed in 1970 — Hayes said there is still much work to be done to help protect the environment for future generations.

To fully shift into a model of sustainability that will help stop climate change’s destructive path, Hayes said we need to have national and international legislation and policies that put the environment first, but added there are many things people can do in their own lives, and in their own towns, to help heal the planet.

Young people, especially the “Gen Zers” in high school and college today, are more focused on environmental issues than any generation since the 1970s. Hayes said he would encourage young people to bring this passion for the planet into their schools, homes and even to their local officials.

“City councils in general tend to be fairly responsive and receptive to students who have genuinely done their homework,” Hayes said.

He said young environmental advocates — along with their parents, because, as Hayes put it, “one of the best assets we have on our side is that virtually everyone wants to be a hero to their kids,” — could approach city councils and school boards with information about lighting upgrades, electric school buses, more sustainable cafeteria meals or green building codes that would go a long way toward protecting the local environment.

“Locally, regionally and at the state — those are the places where you can actually bring about change,” Hayes said.

Looking toward the future, Hayes said he remains focused on building more sustainable urban environments and on national and international policies that tackle climate change.

“The climate platform (Washington state governor) Jay Inslee put together for his (2020) run for the Democratic presidential nomination was just superb,” Hayes said. “It was the finest thing I’ve seen by any aspiring leader in any nation in the world — better than the proposals coming out of Denmark and the Netherlands.”

He said he also believes President Joe Biden, who recently recommitted the United States to the Paris climate agreement and canceled construction of the Keystone XL oil pipeline — which would have endangered hundreds of rivers, streams and aquifers, including the Ogallala Aquifer in Nebraska that provides drinking water for millions of Americans and makes up 30 percent of the nation’s irrigation system — is making strides to protect the environment.

Still, there is much work to be done, Hayes said.

The Clark College event on Feb. 23 will discuss how people can protect the environment by promoting responsible human activities and sustainable communities with green, “living” buildings in the Pacific Northwest.

The virtual event, set for 5 to 6 p.m. Tuesday, Feb. 23, is free, but participants must register in advance at clarkcollegefoundation.org/super-green-cities.