Denis Hayes Talks
About the Environmental Movement

by Ann Corcoran, Land Rights Letter, March 1993.

Last October [1992], Denis Hayes – chief organizer of Earth Day 1970 and Earth Day 1990 – spoke to a meeting of the Environmental Grantmakers Association on Orcas Island off Washington State. Readers of Land Rights Letter may recall that Hayes faced off with Perry Pendley of Mountain States Legal Foundation in a USA Weekend readers poll in January (see Pendley page 7).

Hayes, who is president of the Seattle–based Bullit Foundation, was the kick-off speaker in a closed–to–the–public (taped) session of the Grantmakers “retreat” entitled, “Building an Environmental Majority.” Moderator Con Nugent set the tone of the session by stating, “We start with the premise... that the current use of the earth by humans is unsustainable and that damage is done through billions of microeconomic behaviors and that stopping, modifying, or transforming those behaviors at any place along the economic spectrum from raw material to the landfill, through law or through culture is what we do in this business.”

Denis Hayes began his talk by giving a brief history of the environmental movement. “The environmental movement was conceived by a joining of the traditional conservation movement... with the forces of activism in the 1960's,” he said. The movement was officially born on Earth Day 1970 which “ushered in a period of almost unparalled accomplishment for a social movement,” a period during which many of our major environmental laws were passed. “It resulted in the image, and it was a correct image, of an unstoppable political machine,” he told the audience comprised of representatives of major foundations and corporations.

For 10 years, he said, they could get just about anything they wanted. But he went on to say that all that has changed. “Anti–environmentalists” are running for political office and the major environmental groups have become “competitive in the marketplace for members” so that they no longer coordinate their lobbying efforts – each one seeking to claim victories for themselves to generate membership. “The machinery as well as the momentum of the first decade has fallen into disrepair.”

The second area in which the environmental movement has been successful according to Hayes is in the area of lawsuits. He listed for his audience several of the environmental groups that began as litigating groups and noted that some have now broadened their focus. The early lawsuits, he said, were chosen with “enormous care” and “were successful in case after case after case advancing the movement frankly much farther than I thought it could be advanced in the courts.” But, he said, “that is running into shoals now” citing the large number of Reagan/Bush appointed judges in the federal court system. He reported that environmentalist legal strategy has now shifted to state courts.

Hayes said that the third area of success for the environmental movement is in the “financial area.” “We have clout that grows out of numbers and out of dollars that are collected.” However, he predicted that that would soon come to a “rapid decline” if Clinton and Gore were elected. People would assume, he said, that the environment would be taken care of inside government. He wondered, “... if any of the large national environmental groups have really begun planning for what could be a fairly dry desert for popular fund raising.”

However, he remarked, the exception to that was in the area of land acquisition. “We are acquiring vast amounts of land and setting it aside... The Nature Conservancy, Trust for Public Land, Conservation International all are doing extremely well.” He went on to say, “they have a stable source of funding.” Of course, he did not say that part of that stable source of funding was state and federal government coffers.

He concluded his discussion of the history of the environmental movement with the comment that “all movements ossify” and that the environmental movement has “lost much of the vitality and leadership that characterized its earliest years.” He expressed hope that it would be revitalized as a broad “majoritarian movement” rather than a “special interest pressure group.”

A broad majoritarian movement

Abroad majoritarian movement could be achieved in his opinion if the following steps were taken:

And finally, he made an interesting admission. He talked about how Americans value freedom:“... [M]any of the people including myself,” he said, “got into the environmental movement to fight faceless bureaucrats... who were making mindnumbingly stupid bureaucratic derisions. We and our values and our movement have begun to be increasingly thought of by many Americansas those faceless bureaucrats who are now making decisions that are trampling their freedoms.”

Copyright © 1993 Ann Corcoran and Land Rights Letter. All Rights Reserved

Page last updated: 6/13/05