He coordinated the first Earth Day 50 years ago. She led one of the most memorable climate protests in recent memory. Grist brought together Denis Hayes, president and CEO of the Bullitt Foundation and the organizer of the first Earth Day, and Varshini Prakash, cofounder of the Sunrise Movement and a 2018 Grist 50 Fixer, for a conversation about the environmental movement’s past, present, and future. They traded insights on how to drive action and what the coronavirus means for climate activism — and even dropped in some cause for optimism. And get this: April 22 is Prakash’s birthday. Because of course it is.

Grist founder Chip Giller moderated the conversation, which has been edited for length and clarity.

In the beginning …

Denis, starting with you, would you share a bit about your awakening to green issues?

Hayes: I’m good to dodge the first question about green awakening because that happened to me in a long, complicated, three-year hitchhiking tour around the world.

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OK! Was it immediately clear to you the impact that Earth Day would have in 1970?

Hayes: By the time we got around to what became Earth Day, I’d already decided that I wanted to devote my career to bringing principles of ecology into human life. Did we expect that it would come to what it is today as an event? No, we didn’t think that there would be an Earth Day in 1971, much less in 2020. Earth Day was like the March on the Pentagon, the Poor People’s March, the Selma to Montgomery March. It was to be a one-time event to crystallize public opinion and hopefully influence political figures and public policy. But not to become, if you will, an annual event.

Varshini, what ignited your passion around climate?

Prakash: Ever since I was kid, I just had a deep appreciation for nature. I would spend all my time outside making mud pies and building forts and so on. I think it was the first connection I had to something that was bigger than myself. Almost something that was close to God in my understanding of it as a 7-, 8-, and 9-year-old.

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When I got older, I became rudely awakened to the ways in which the world was just being degraded in front of us. Learning about these giant trash piles in the ocean and learning about farmers committing suicide in India, and the climate crisis.

I remember a very distinct moment when I was 14, realizing the thing I want to do in my life is fight to make sure that we have a world that is clean, that is safe, where people have their needs met. That is the only way that I could live in this world and be happy with myself.

Different eras, similar approaches

Varshini, would you describe Sunrise’s theory of change? It’s intricate, and I wonder if there are parallels to 50 years ago.

Prakash: We have a threefold theory of change. One is that we have to build people power. What that looks like is, essentially, a very active, very vocal, disruptive force of young people.

The second part of it is political power. It’s great to have [Democratic Representative] AOC, it’s great to have people like [Democratic Senator] Ed Markey in office. But we are going to need a critical mass of those people in office who are enthusiastically and vociferously supporting things like the Green New Deal if we want to pass legislation and sort of institutionalize a lot of the movement energy around the Green New Deal for years to come.

And the third is a little bit more amorphous, but it’s called “the people’s alignment.” Essentially, we need a new common sense, a new set of values in this country that is predicated on the notion that all people are equal, that everyone’s life actually matters, that some people are not disposable.

Denis, what do you think about Varshini’s approach based on your observations over the last 50 years?

Hayes: To an extent, I think it’s returning to much of the mentality that we had in the early days of the movement — some of which had sort of atrophied and is now being brought back with the incredible vitality and commitment from young people jumping in.

Talk to somebody in 1968 or ’69 about the environment, they wouldn’t really have known what you were talking about. So we had to get attention focused on this, and the lumping of all of these separate strands of concern to one united fabric that would be big enough and important enough to really deserve people’s attention. And in that, we were successful beyond our expectations. I mean, we had one out of 10 Americans participating in Earth Day — obviously some much more aggressively participating than others, but 20 million people in the streets out of a little more than 200 million people. And by the end of 1970, if you’d ask people, 75 percent of Americans said that they were environmentalists. It was quite a sea change in American perceptions.

Prakash: Denis, I have a question. A lot of what we were preparing for this Earth Day — which is no longer happening as scheduled — was training thousands of young people to basically learn the skills of how to strike and engage in civil disobedience. We need big solutions in this moment. We need urgent solutions in this moment. And we are ready to do what it takes to get our politicians and people in leadership to understand this. I’m kind of curious, was that part of the ethos back in 1970?

Hayes: It was more trying to do things that will gather substantial press attention. Events were colorful and photographic. So for example, on several college campuses they would hold trials and they’d bring in a professor of law who would take the pro-automobile case and the anti-automobile case, as though the automobile is the defendant. And then it was always found guilty of having lead in the gasoline coming up into the atmosphere. Afterwards, the kids would pound the automobile, always an old clunker, and just demolish it with sledgehammers. In fact, the way that they paid for the event typically was you paid a dollar to be able to swing a blow at an automobile.

Prakash: That’s interesting. There was a pretty deep sense of creative action that actually shifted the conversation in the broader public, right?

Hayes: Creative action, but also within the context. To be really fair about this, there was also a role there for fifth-graders and sixth-graders to go out and clean up beaches and plant trees. That’s just fine. We wanted to have everybody participate in the way that they felt most comfortable participating.

Sunrise Movement activists in the midst of a sit-in at Representative Nancy Pelosi’s office in 2018. Sunrise Movement

Denis, when do you think things became more separated or severed? At some point, the environmental movement gained a reputation for not working with labor causes and for standing separate from civil rights activists. Was that an outcome of the ’80s?

Hayes: Yeah, it began, I think, in the ’80s. Up through the ’70s we had close relations with a handful of unions: the United Auto Workers; oil, chemical, and atomic workers, ironically; steel workers. But unions, candidly, just became more and more conservative. Their workers just drifted that direction and the leaders followed them. In 1970, we could have people pounding automobiles with sledgehammers and have Walter Reuther, the head of the United Auto Workers, supporting us — in part because he had been the head of the United Auto Workers for so long. He was so beloved by his membership that he could lead them pretty much where he wanted to. And he was a pretty progressive guy. He marched with Martin Luther King. He marched against the war in Vietnam. And he was with us on air pollution.

With regard to the diversity issue, it’s somewhat more complicated, and we bear more of the responsibility there. The folks that we had that were diverse in the first drift, they were almost all local. I flew down and I met with the head of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and the NAACP. They all said, “Yes, we understand about lead paint. We understand about rats in ghettos. We understand about freeways in neighborhoods. But we’ve got crime problems. We’ve got lousy schools, we’ve got segregation, we’ve got poor health-care systems. We’ve got people being thrown in prison. I mean, we’re going to be there with you, but we’re not going to be leaders in this because of other priorities.”

And then finally, underestimated but it’s enormously important: We got most of our money from direct mail. It turned out that the people who responded to direct mail tended to be college-educated white people, principally female. And that became what the movement looked like.

The coronavirus effect

Let’s talk about the current moment. How has the coronavirus crisis affected the effort to tackle climate change?

Prakash: We have to tackle the immediate, short-term relief for people who are on the frontlines of the crisis. And at the same time, we have to sort of pair that with longer-term structural solutions to the problems of our time. If anything, the coronavirus crisis, like any other crisis you could imagine, whether it’s climate or something else, has essentially laid bare the existing inequalities, the existing structural issues with our country — whether that is around race, or around income, or around gender, whatever it may be. We have 22 million people unemployed, we are careening into a recession, a possible depression.

I think the huge opportunity in this moment is that the role of government right now is actually deeply being called into question. People are asking, “What is the government’s duty to its people, to the people who live here, to citizens, to also undocumented immigrants? What is the government’s duty to create social safety nets to protect workers, to protect individuals who are making huge sacrifices in this moment?” I think we’ve got to continue to ask that question.

If we actually want to tackle the climate crisis, what is essential in this moment is popularizing the notion that it is the government’s job to protect people, to save lives, to support people in the midst of crisis. I think that’s one of the big, seismic shifts that needs to happen concretely, if we’re actually going to weather the storm and be able to make the massive changes that it takes to solve the climate crisis, and do so on an organized, swift, urgent, macro scale.

Hayes: Two other things I’d like to say about COVID-19. One is that it has brought home very clearly to people that there is a role for expertise, there’s a role for having somebody that knows the facts. And if you just ignore those facts, if you ignore that expertise, the cost can be enormously high. That’s a really important lesson for climate, where we don’t have the equivalent of a World Health Organization or a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The second is that, almost without debate, we passed $2.2 trillion for phase one of addressing COVID-19. $2.2 trillion is almost three times the defense budget. It’s twice as much as we spend on social security. It equals two-thirds of all revenue collected by the government. It’s just a gigantic number that was passed essentially without debate. Everybody understands the climate is vastly bigger, more important, and potentially vastly more destructive than COVID-19 could be. And yet we constantly run into these things and say, “We just can’t afford to do that.” I think we’re coming out of this with a sense that if we can afford to do it there, we can certainly afford to do it to save humanity.

On forging alliances

What’s giving each of you hope right now?

Hayes: I had a piece in the AARP Bulletin talking about a great alliance, where you bring in the people who have retired. They often have some resources. They’ve got time on their hands. Many of them were idealistic people in the ’60s and ’70s, and now have the capacity to make a contribution. If they meet with somebody like Varshini they will come out of it energized and realizing that there really is a reason to hope, because there’s all of this power that’s coming up through the ranks. Not so much advice as the fact that I think there’s a chance that we can make it happen.

I will mention in passing that my wife sarcastically pointed out that, in the arc of my career, I went from Bachelor of the Month in Cosmopolitan to the AARP Bulletin.

Prakash: Wow! Denis, you really snuck in that little tidbit. Make sure you print that. That’s very important information.

Prakash: The thing that I was going to share: We’re trying to elect this fantastic candidate for Senate to beat Mitch McConnell in Kentucky. His name is Charles Booker. He’s really brilliant and people should look him up. I was on a call to get young Sunrise members around the country to basically call voters in Kentucky and tell them about Charles Booker and get them out to vote. There was a 14-year-old who was the phone-bank captain for Lexington on that call. She shared her story about what it meant to be building political power in the state of Kentucky, where the Democratic Party has disinvested so completely. And the person running tech on that call was a 12-year-old volunteer who has been supporting a lot of our electoral campaigning.

It is those moments again and again and again, where you see 14-year-olds, 16-year-olds who can’t even vote yet volunteering their time, getting other people to vote, engaging in the political system — and saying, “I will be a part of this, no matter what.”

Clarification: We originally misidentified Denis Hayes as the founder of Earth Day.