Beyond the Bio: Denis Hayes

You can find the degrees and bullet points of the career accomplishments of the keynote speakers who will appear at the 2012 Funders' Network conference. But there's more to the stories of these diverse, complex, and nuanced individuals. The Network is pleased to debut the first in its new series of in-depth profiles of our conference keynote speakers with our profile of Bullitt Foundation President Denis Hayes. Click here for the pdf.


During the turbulence of 1960s America, many a discontented young person backpacked around the world in search of truth and enlightenment. Some returned home with Tibetan prayer beads and a few photos to store in the attic. Bullitt Foundation president Denis Hayes, however, came back with a vision that continues to challenge and transform America’s relationship with the natural world.

Understanding how Hayes’ “world-class case of weltschmerz” turned him into a central figure in the U.S. environmental movement begins in his childhood home of Camas, Wash., named for the native camas lily. Despite its botanical name, it was wholly a company town, home to a large paper mill that was the backbone of local employment. Hayes’ father was in charge of the #10 paper machine.

Hayes grew up in the dichotomy the town represented. While he was spending his childhood hiking through the spectacular natural scenery, mill workers ended their shifts by driving their cars through a mill-sponsored sprinkler to wash off paint-eroding acid precipitation.

As Hayes hiked around, “it was impossible not to notice the vast acreage of trees being clear cut. Verdant forests were transformed overnight into a barren landscape of mud and rubble.” A little slough that was next to the paper mill sometimes contained thousands of dead fish. Camas was “constantly bathed in an acrid smell of sulfur dioxide and hydrogen sulfide that poured out of the smokestacks with no pollution control.” Living in Camas meant waking up every morning with a sore throat.

Economically, there was no question that for the town, it was worth it, because the smell that sickened the populace and provided such a contrast to the stunning natural environment was “the smell of prosperity—the smell of progress.” The town identified so strongly with the paper mill that its high school sports teams are called the “Papermakers” and the mascot is a humanized mechanical paper rolling machine.

In high school, Hayes went to a National Science Foundation ecology institute, where, in between “chasing dragonflies and chasing girls,” he managed to pick up the basic principles of ecology, which he then largely forgot about.

A Vision Quest

At 19, Hayes suddenly found himself profoundly depressed by the enormous problems facing the world. “Haunted by the threat of nuclear annihilation, shocked to learn of the huge U.S. commitment to biological weapons, disturbed by the nation’s early engagement in Vietnam, and appalled by the brutal beatings of civil rights workers in the South,” Hayes felt his impotence to influence events, which left him feeling “utterly irrelevant.”


He dropped out of college and hit the road. He spent three years backpacking, traveling all over Africa, Asia, the Middle East, and Europe, exploring political systems around the world to find out for himself how the philosophies of Marx, Mao, Gandhi, and other revolutionaries had panned out. (“Not well,” he says.) But at a deeper, more personal level, he’d set out on a search for meaning. “Honestly,” he says, “I think I was just searching for a reason to go on.”

His moment of epiphany is almost cinematic. A tired young American, dirty and hungry, alone in a desolate stretch of Namibia, unrolls his sleeping bag under an inky, star-studded sky. Cue music. He doesn’t sleep. As he tracks the course of the bright moon, he contemplates all he has seen and the “why” of his journey. By the time the sun crests on the eastern edge of the desert, he has found his truth. The principles of ecology, which applied to all natural ecosystems, should also apply to the final primate—man. In the misty pink of early morning, the young American gets out of his sleeping bag and, silhouetted against the rising sun, faces his future. Fade to black.

Hayes’ recounting of this night in the Namibian desert is more matter-of-fact. “For some reason, I started thinking about that ecology institute and the basic principles that explained the functioning of ecosystems. Before we started burning coal, humans were limited to the same sustainable energy sources as the rest of life—our own food and the resulting muscle power; draft animals; wood fires; wind for sailing vessels. And we lived lives that were bounded by the same principles of ecology as govern the rest of life. With the advent of cheap energy, primarily fossil fuels, we began exercising far more dominion. We could harness the energy equivalent of the output of 500 horses to take us to the grocery store and create a world where the ostentatious waste of energy is the mark of success.”

Hayes says there was no vocabulary in those days for what we now call urban ecology and industrial ecology. “But the basic idea of designing civilization to be inherently adaptive and resilient, to find ways to function in concert with nature, made vastly more sense to me than all the musings of the economists, philosophers, and political theorists I’d been studying. It was as basic as that—the world would be in much better shape if energy efficiency and other ecological values guided human behavior, too. That night I began to sketch out in my mind the intellectual and moral framework on which I would build my life. The following morning, I rolled out of my sleeping bag having decided what I wanted to do with my life and I came back to the United States and started doing it.”


Earth Day

After his travels, Hayes graduated from Stanford, where he was student body president and an anti-Vietnam war activist, attended Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, and later graduated from Stanford Law School. During the Carter Administration, he was the head of the Solar Energy Research Institute (now the National Renewable Energy Laboratory). But he is perhaps best known for being the national coordinator of the first Earth Day in 1970, dropping out of Harvard to take the role at the request of creator Senator Gaylord Nelson.


Senator Nelson originally envisioned a series of college teach-ins. Hayes and his team renamed the teach-in “Earth Day,” moved it away from colleges and into communities, and built it into an event that brought out 20 million people. Earth Day marked the beginning of the modern environmental movement—convincing thousands of grassroots groups with a narrow focus on air pollution, land protection, pesticides, wilderness, toxics, etc.—that they were all part of something bigger.

Then, in 1990, Hayes took Earth Day international. He spent most of two years on the road, building organizations in 144 countries. Today, Earth Day is observed in more than 180 nations and is probably the largest secular holiday on the planet. “Earth Day,” Hayes says, “has led millions of people to begin to re-think their relationship to the planet in ways that have affected their choice of automobiles, consumer commodities, diets, and even how many children they have.”

Hayes also credits the first Earth Day for playing a crucial role in compelling Richard Nixon to establish the Environmental Protection Agency later that same year. Nixon was no environmentalist—he once groused to Hayes’ friend John Ehrlichman that “great nations don’t whine about a little grit in the air”—but he was an astute politician who wasn't going to ignore those millions of people in the streets. “In those days,” Hayes says of his relationship with Nixon’s White House Counsel, “you could condemn someone's policies in a morning press conference and go have drinks with them in the evening."

Just before Earth Day, Hayes very publicly declined an invitation to meet with Nixon at the White House. “Ehrlichman knew it would kill my credibility to meet with Nixon, but the president would look better when the White House announced that he'd extended the invitation. It was all just a chess game,” Hayes says, “and he thought this was a no-lose move for the Nixon. So I called a few reporters, told them about the invitation, and announced that I had zero interest in meeting with the president until he had made some meaningful commitment to the environment. In the end, declining a White House invitation became a big, positive news story for us.”

The enormous momentum of Earth Day—the largest organized event in the nation’s history—propelled Nixon and Congress into action. “In about three years,” Hayes says, “Congress passed a raft of bi-partisan legislation that fundamentally restructured the American economy. Laws passed during that period have caused trillions of dollars to be spent, in a cost-effective way, to improve human health and the environment.”

Hayes believes that Earth Day’s reach goes beyond a narrow view of the environment. “In Eastern Europe, many of the people who eventually led the Velvet Revolution cut their activist teeth on environmental things, issues that were somehow considered by the previous leaders of those countries to be not threatening. Even in China, where it would be dangerous for people to have the huge rallies you see elsewhere, people get together and have thousands of little gatherings. The first organizing conference we held for Earth Day in China, in 1999, was the first time that many of the people fighting diverse battles—from saving the pandas to stopping the Three Gorges Dam—met one another and recognized that although their battles were different, their cause was the same.”

Earth Day, however, now faces a formidable challenge rooted in its success. “Everyone loves it,” Hayes says, “but nobody funds it. I’ve been told repeatedly by human rights groups, peace groups, food groups, and others that they would give anything for an annual day to focus public attention on their issues, here and around the world. Everyone assumes that the Earth Day Network benefits from substantial philanthropic support, but it actually receives almost none.” Hayes’ campaign to take Earth Day global in 1990 was funded almost wholly by an overhead tax he put on the domestic campaign. “I slept on a lot of floors,” he says. “Thankfully, at least now we have the Internet.”

When Earth Day started, environmental problems were mostly local and regional. Today, many of the most important environmental issues can only be addressed globally. “Through dumb luck, the name we chose over pizza and beer back in 1970 for a one-time campaign is not only a powerful brand in English but a powerful brand no matter what language it’s translated into.” Hayes says that Earth Day is slowly evolving into a powerful unifying force that can transcend borders to demonstrate humanity’s common interest in the health of the planet.


The Bullitt Foundation

Viewing humans as part of the environment, not something apart from the environment, is a recurring theme in Hayes’ life. “We eat, and drink, and breathe the environment,” he says. “We pass through the environment, and it passes through us.” His view that people are the product of evolution, just like all the life that surrounds us, and that we need to safeguard the environment with which we coevolved, was a guiding principle when, in 2008, the Bullitt Foundation refined its funding focus.


Dorothy Stimson Bullitt, who created the foundation in 1952, was a trail-blazer in her own right; she was the first woman to buy and manage a television station in the U.S. When she died in 1989, Bullitt’s King Broadcasting Company was one of the most valuable private media companies on the West Coast. In 1990, the foundation received a substantial bequest from her children.

There were very few environmental philanthropies operating in the Pacific Northwest when Bullitt died, so the additional funding made it possible to fill the gap. The foundation took on issues from nuclear waste at the Hanford site (a governmental nuclear production complex on the Columbia River in Washington), to the protection of old growth forests; it supported smart growth in Portland and fought cyanide leach gold mines in Alaska. “We were spread way too thin, but we were almost alone,” Hayes says.

Hayes became president of the Bullitt Foundation in 1992; over time, more and more environmental philanthropies were created in the region.

“Overwhelmingly,” Hayes says, “other foundations were focused on the natural environment. For some, the farther away a proposed project is from the nearest human settlement, the more likely it is to get funding. It became apparent to our staff and board that the wilderness and the traditional conservation issues were getting pretty well covered. Like all foundations, we want to get the greatest bang for our buck, so we moved in a direction that was not receiving much investment from our peers.”

The shift in funding focus brought Hayes closer to his vision. “In a sense, it allowed me to return to my own roots by applying the principles of ecology to humans. Our new programs, not coincidentally, were the things I thought about all night out in the Namibian desert. Today we have a vocabulary for them: urban ecology, industrial ecology, and ecosystem services.”

Hayes also had a strategic view about environmentalism that aligned with the decision. “Public support for the environment was falling off, in part because people thought we cared more about polar bears than humans. So we decided to shift our focus to the human environment and leave the polar bears to others. People are the ones that vote, not bears, and we can’t keep losing elections. So by humans, I’m not just talking about the white, college educated, upper middle class people who love to go camping—though we need to hold on to them, too—but farmers and inner-city residents and machinists and architects. We need to rebuild the movement so that it looks like America.”

Hayes sees progress, including the increased involvement of communities of color. “The first living building in the Pacific Northwest [the June Key Delta Community Center] was put together by an African American sorority in one of the poorest areas of Portland. By focusing attention on people who are admired as role models in their communities—and college educated African American women who return to their communities are uniquely powerful role models—we can help more environmental leaders emerge from these communities. Hell, they’ve been there all along; they just didn’t call themselves ‘environmentalists’ or pay dues to the Sierra Club.”

To help assure diversity among future environmental leaders, the foundation has set up a two-year, $100,000 fellowship, awarded annually to a graduate student in the region who comes from a community under-represented in the environmental movement. “They are all superb scholars and all deeply committed to something relevant to the environment. But in addition to examining grades and test scores and recommendations, we try to identify those who truly have the capacity to inspire and motivate others—to be leaders. We use the scholarships, and the foundation’s contacts, to help catapult them ahead in their careers,” Hayes says.


The Greenest Building in the World

These days, life at the Bullitt Foundation is offering Hayes yet another opportunity to be in the vanguard and fulfill a long-held dream. “Back when I ran the Solar Energy Research Institute, we had fully designed what would have been the greenest office building in America to be its headquarters. Those plans were scrapped—along with most of my other dreams—after Reagan’s election. But I’d always held on to a desire to design and construct a building that would be a beacon of sustainability.”


That building, the Bullitt Center, is currently under construction. But like Hayes’ revelation in the desert, it took a little wandering about to find the goal.

“When Dorothy Bullitt passed away, the foundation received an interest in a conventional building in downtown Seattle. When the building sold, we suddenly went from having too much real estate in our investment portfolio to having none. In terms of having a nicely balanced portfolio we felt we should have some exposure to that sector. The conservative thing would have been to invest in a couple REITs, or perhaps a fund of REITs, but another option was to go out and develop a property ourselves.”

It was early in the sub-prime meltdown. Prices were collapsing and some well-established firms were going under. The foundation decided that rather than try to control and comprehend the increasingly uncontrollable and incomprehensible, it would invest in something local that it could keep an eye on. Hayes took the opening. “Once the board felt comfortable with owning a specific property, I began pushing hard to use that investment to really walk our talk. I’d been giving speeches for years saying that there wasn’t a single building in the United States that had been designed to meet the needs of the 21st century. Of course, speeches are easy; reality is difficult. I took every member of my board to breakfast or lunch, some of them several times, and pretty soon almost all of them bought into the concept of building the greenest office building in the world. It was one of those wonderful, ‘OK, hot shot. Put up or shut up’ opportunities.”

A Bullitt Foundation grantee, the International Living Future Institute, had already proposed the standard among standards: the Living Building Challenge. By adhering to the Living Building Challenge standards, and when possible, exceeding them, the Bullitt Center is expected to be the greenest building in the world, going far beyond LEED Platinum standards. Hayes loves the challenge.

The building also encapsulates Hayes’ vision for different model of prosperity. “I would love to see a concept of sufficiency. Everyone should have enough stuff to be comfortable and productive. That’s a relatively modest amount. Beyond that, one’s wealth and prestige should be bound up in things like education, contributions to society, creativity and taste. As in traditional Japan, cultivated simplicity becomes the highest form of elegance. We’re aspiring toward much of that with the Bullitt Center. We want to keep everything as simple as it can be but no simpler than it can be. We have designed the whole building from the ground up to work with nature. In fact, if we are successful, its impact on the site should be roughly the same as that of the Douglas fir forest that was here 100 years ago.”



A Different Vision for the World

Many years, miles, and experiences from his life-changing night in Namibia, Hayes is still pondering how to influence the world to embrace a very broad vision of sustainability. “The last politically acceptable bigotry today is patriotism. We pretend that because someone was born on one side of an imaginary line someone scrawled on a map, he is somehow inherently more meritorious than somebody born six inches on the other side of that line. In a world as interdependent—economically, environmentally, artistically—as our world, that’s just crazy. Fortunately, we are raising a generation that understands this in their guts. They are creating digital communities that span the planet, based on shared interests instead of geography.”

Despite the potential risks of technology—Hayes says he worries about “cyber fraud, cyber stalking, and cyber war”—he still dares to hope that “all those myriad tangles of global social communities may begin to evolve a real sense of individual connection to humanity, and even to the whole web of life. Perhaps humankind will even finally pay attention to the oldest and most common religious injunction—we will learn to love our neighbors.”

—by Amy Rutledge
Funders’ Network for Smart Growth and Livable Communities

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