Calling the failure to address global warming “arguably the greatest failure of my generation,” Bullitt Foundation President Denis Hayes told an audience of high school students Saturday night that they must be the ones to pick up the challenge.
“Don’t expect anyone to pass you a torch,” he said during his keynote address at Washington State University’s Imagine Tomorrow energy competition for high school students. Power is an aphrodisiac and no one in power wants to give it up, he said. “Every one of you has a torch out there with your name on it. It will be up to you to find it, seize it and carry it to your destiny.”
Hayes, who founded Earth Day in 1970 at the age of 25, went on to become one of Time magazine’s “Hero’s of the Planet” because of his work on renewable energy. About 500 people attended his talk at the Beasley Performing Arts Coliseum as part of the awards ceremony for the Imagine Tomorrow competition.
Hayes told the high school students that this was the period of their lives when they are most open to new ideas. Pursue your interests, he told them, because while they have no way of knowing what will bear fruit in later life, the seeds planted right now are crucial.
As an example, Hayes talked about his own circuitous route to finding his life’s passion. As a high school student he was interested in science and pursued several research projects, including one involving particle accelerators and another involving cobalt. But, between his junior and senior years of high school he attended an ecology program.
Before that he knew nothing about ecology and after that he didn’t think much about it either, he said. But about a year and a half later, he said, lying in a sleeping bag one night, looking at the stars, some of what he’d learned at the ecology camp came back to him and he suddenly made a connection between human beings and animals and what it meant to live in harmony with the environment.
“It was the turning point of my life,” he said. “I woke up knowing what I was going to do.”
In his talk, Hayes then fast-forwarded to recount a talk he once gave to a plenary session of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. Global climate change is coming, he said at the time, and work must begin immediately to reduce CO2 emissions or the die will be cast.
He gave that talk in 1980, he said, about 10 years before many of the students in the audience were even born. At that time the United States’ renewable energy industry was the envy of the world. Passive solar buildings were being designed; fluorescent bulbs were available and so were electric cars.
America stood on the brink of an energy revolution, he said he thought at the time, but then he added, “I have never been more wrong about anything in my life.”
Hired by President Jimmy Carter to head the Solar Energy Research Institute (now the National Renewable Energy Laboratory), he was fired when President Ronald Reagan took office. That started an obstructionist stance to renewable energy by the U.S. government that spanned nearly 30 years and persisted through the next four presidencies, he said.
Right now, he said, the renewable energy industry is about where he would have predicted it would be by 1985, and that is only because of continuing efforts by foreign researchers, including those in Japan, Denmark and Germany.
Hayes compared what has happened in the renewable energy industry with what happed in information technology. In 1980, he said, a personal computer held 64 kb of memory and was basically a glorified typewriter. But the government, specifically the Department of Defense, recognized its potential and invested heavily in the technology, eventually making it affordable to a mass audience. Thirty years ago no one could have predicted where we would be today, he said.
“What we have done in the information realm is entirely available in the energy realm,” he said, “except in one realm we had the government behind us and in the other realm we had the government against us.”
For more information about the Imagine Tomorrow competition, go to