Earth Day founder Denis Hayes on spring, Obama, and social networking

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Yesterdayâ''s spectacularly sunny and windy weather here in Palo Alto, Calif., was a shoutout for renewable energy of all kinds. And it was the perfect setting to hear the organizer of the first Earth Day, Denis Hayes, speak at Stanford to kick off the universityâ''s Earth Week celebration.

Hayes was happy to be back on the campus where he was a student in the late 1960s.

â''Itâ''s particularly wonderful to be here in the spring,â'' he said, â''when I can remember my own youthful spring at Stanford, that time of the year when flower buds begin to peek up and birds begin to build their nests and young people all over campus have their thoughts turn to seizing and occupying buildings.â''

Well, not so much anymore. But Hayes is a blast from my personal past; the first feature article I wrote for Spectrum back in 1980 covered his arrival at the Solar Energy Research Institute (SERI). He said when I spoke to him back then, â''Solar is important right now.â''

At the time, believe it or not, that was a controversial statement. The previous administration of the three year old institute had been thinking of solar as something that would start having an impact in 15 or 20 years, and Hayes planned to promote the existing technologies available, not just do research in new ones.

The bad news for that plan was that Carter was voted out of office after only one term, and then Reagan shut down most of the environmental efforts Carter initiated. Hayes left SERI in 1981, going back to Stanford to get a law degree and become an adjunct professor of engineering. (SERI continues today as the National Renewable Energy Laboratory.)

Hayes is optimistic about the current administration. â''Most people would not have expected the first black president to be the most environmental president in American history, bar none,â'' Hayes said.â'' He recognizes that the old false dichotomy between jobs and the environment didnâ''t make any sense, that the economy is a wholly owned subsidiary of the environment. For the economy to continue to prosper, you have to make the energy transition, the carbon transition.

IMG_3061.JPGâ''[Obama] really seems at a gut level to get this stuff. I think we may be moving to an era that has the potential, if he can keep in there for eight years, to be a bold new era.â''

Hayes urged the students scattered on the grassy lawn to go forward and do what his generation failed to doâ''to leave their children with a world that is better off environmentally.

First on the agenda? Get Congress to pass a climate bill, because, Hayes said, the rest of the world wonâ''t act on global warming if the U.S. does nothing.

How to do it? Hayes urged the students to use their social networking tools, the new technology that they have available, to get people out to every meeting local congressmen have to bring up the climate issue.

â''Iâ''ve left stuff for the next generation to do,â'' Hayes said, â''I hope you all dig into it and get it done.â''

Photos: Denis Hayes at Stanford University on 14 April 2009, Spectrum's 1980 article on Hayes taking over the leadership of the Solar Energy Research Institute. Credit: Tekla Perry

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