The following is a conversation between Kathleen Rogers, President and CEO of the Earth Day Network, and Denver Frederick, Host of The Business of Giving on AM 970 The Answer WNYM in New York City.
Denver: April 22 of next year will mark the 50th anniversary of Earth Day. Started in 1970, it predates the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency. Much has occurred over those 50 years, but next year’s milestone is critical as organizers look to see that the environment and climate become a higher priority with citizens across the world, particularly when it comes time to vote. And here with us this evening is the leader of all those organizers, Kathleen Rogers, the President and CEO of the Earth Day Network.
Good evening, Kathleen, and welcome to The Business of Giving!
Kathleen: Good evening. Thank you for having me.
Denver: Take us back 50 years, if you would. How did Earth Day get started? Who was behind it?
Kathleen: It’s a relatively long story. Gaylord Nelson, who was a freshman senator from Wisconsin, had long been interested in the environment dating back to 1963. He actually went on a tour with President Kennedy to show him some of the desecration of public lands and some other issues. And then, as we moved towards 1970 where there was a huge amount of unrest around the Vietnam War, the Civil Rights movement, and students became extremely active in the environment, Gaylord came up with an idea to hold an environmental teach-in around campuses. That had been done for a few years previously but had really taken off as a way for students to become engaged with each other.
He hired a young guy named Denis Hayes who took that teach-in concept, turned it into Earth Day, and the rest is a legend. He brought 20 million people out into the streets, which was over 10% of the US population. It scared a lot of people, including the President of the time who was relatively paranoid as we know, Richard Nixon, who then responded in a way, I think quite admirably and created the EPA soon after Earth Day.
If you listen to the tapes of the great newscasters of the day, including Walter Cronkite, and it’s on our website if you want to listen to it, it’s almost reverential: that 20 million people on the streets represent the largest civic engagement day in human history. It’s never been repeated; of course; we hope to in 2020.
Earth Day is the bright line that was crossed that day. It was the difference between the old environmental movement, which was about conservation and biodiversity, maybe so you could shoot them, national parks, and it became about human health and development.
Denver: That’s for sure, and then some.
Kathleen: It is. And so, it was quite extraordinary. What happened was he created EPA in three months, and because there was such a thing as bipartisan anything in our Congress, we went through what can only be described as almost a 10-year honeymoon where Republicans and Democrats, Independents of the time, got together and passed some of the most aggressive, broad environmental legislation in the world, in fact not matched by anywhere in the world.
Many of our laws that we created were exported into other countries, and they included, of course, the Endangered Species Act, Clean Air Act, and some of the other great environmental laws, and other environmental laws that were on the books – Clean Water – were dramatically improved.
I think the other thing about Earth Day that is really important to remember is that Earth Day is the bright line that was crossed that day. It was the difference between the old environmental movement, which was about conservation and biodiversity, maybe so you could shoot them, national parks, and it became about human health and development because 150 years of industrial development had left an incredible legacy.
And so that history of changing from conservation and biodiversity – all critically important issues – but really engaging people in their health really struck a chord. So, it wasn’t just students out there; it was moms, pops, kids, religious leaders, and suits; more important, it was middle class working blokes from all over the United States. New York City was shut down and the photos are remarkable – everybody’s wearing a suit.
So, it was a broad cross-section, and it was aided in the most amazing way by perfect weather all the way across the United States.
Denver: Well, that’s great.
Kathleen: April showers and all of that just didn’t happen that day.
Denver: Why is it April 22? Any significance to that?
Kathleen: Well, I think they were looking for a day during the week. I think it was a Tuesday in 1970, and they were looking for a day during the week because it was very much conceived of as a teach-in. It was sort of at the end of school classes, but before exams, and so they specifically picked that to engage students before they were caught up in the nightmare of final exams. And it actually worked really well.
So, it continues. Of course, we never changed the date. I arrived at Earth Day 16 years ago, and so it remains a critical day. In 2020, it will be on a Wednesday, so we’ve got that same sort of dynamic going.
Denver: That’s cool. And it’s also, I think, probably after Passover and Easter, so you will avoid a religious holiday, too.
Kathleen: Yes. Although those are moveable feasts. So, we’ve had a couple of Earth days that were either on or around Passover – the luck of the calendar. And so we, of course, checked a few many years ago to see when the 50th anniversary fell. Thankfully, we’re not involved in it anymore.
Volunteerism is awesome, but if we can move them away from the cleanups, planting trees… into voting and working with their local electeds, all the better.
Well, the Earth Day Network is the organization that came out of that first Earth Day. What is your charge and mission?
Kathleen: Well, it’s really interesting. Before I got there, it had a very different mission. It went global in 1990, way before my time. I came to the organization with an explicit direct ask of the board of directors, including Denis Hayes and Gaylord, which is that I was deeply concerned about the environmental movement. When I had been at previous environmental organizations, I had been involved in sort of a census of the environmental movement and who and what we are, and it was largely old and very, almost 100% white.
And so, when I went to Earth Day, I went to the board and said, “I’ll take this job,” of course, I really wanted it—
Denver: Playing your poker.
Kathleen: Poker face, exactly— “if you’ll change the mission to the following, which is: to diversify, educate, and activate the environmental movement worldwide.” And that’s what we do. We used and have used Earth Day as a major entry point into the environmental movement. It’s a great stepping stone, but we’ve worked year-round since the late ‘80s on issues such as plastics, biodiversity, climate and environmental education, which is near and dear to the mission of Earth Day, and a few other issues.
So, we’re both year-round, but we spent a huge amount of time looking for groups, seeking organizations that will be engaged. We work with everything from corporations to evangelicals, to mayors and local elected officials, just about every segment – Boy Scouts, Girl Scouts, you name it, we’re there; the Red Cross — all of these groups are critically important. Increasingly, we’re finding it easier and easier to draw them in — even groups that aren’t involved in the environment directly — to draw them into this conversation because of climate change. Everybody’s concerned; everybody’s on board, give or take a few people.
And so, it’s become easier and easier to paint a picture of taking part in Earth Day and then “Earth Day Every Day, another expression we created, and moving down that trajectory of actual activism. Those things are different. Volunteerism is awesome, but if we can move them away from the cleanups, planting trees… into voting and working with their local electeds, all the better.
Denver: Policy is everything. In addition to some of that legislation you spoke about in the 1970s, what are some of the notable successes of the Earth Day movement?
Kathleen: Well, I think, again, we have now a billion people participating in Earth Day.
Denver: That’s a pretty good number.
Kathleen: Our goal is not just to have them do Earth Day, but to pass them on into other environmental groups or other social groups. So, it’s not our goal to have them step it up and step away. A big part of our accomplishment has been feeding them into the broader environmental movement.
As I’ve said, it’s not just the 20 or so groups with budgets over $100 million that we’re interested in. Our M.O., our focus, is community building. So, all of those people that participate in Earth Day are asked to join local community groups, to join medium-sized groups because that’s really where the action is.
…if we’re expecting everyone in the world to experience climate change in order to change their minds, we might not be that far off; but on the other hand, even when they do, they’re not voting.
Denver: I’ve always been curious about this, but as you know, historically elections do not turn on environmental issues. And if you look at all the polls, climate/environment are really near the top; however, it doesn’t translate when people step into the voter’s booth. What’s the reason for that?
Kathleen: So, let’s distinguish between voting for a candidate who’s strong on climate and voting for initiatives. So if you have a green bond initiative, a parks initiative…they pass like that because people see the benefit to themselves. So, in a sense, they are voting for the environment all the time in states with initiatives, or where they have to vote on specific issues.
When it comes to picking your local candidate or your national candidate, and that includes everybody in between… you’re right; there are immediate concerns that we all have – myself included – around education, jobs, now immigration, and guns. And there are all these issues right, left, and center that take that long-term thing, even if it’s equal. I can tell you the people of Flint, Michigan and some of the other places that have experienced extraordinary environmental damage and also complete lack of both responsibility and caring by local officials, those guys aren’t there anymore.
But on the other hand, I just saw an interview with people from Sandy, and it was extraordinary. They interviewed a bunch of people from Staten Island and some other places, all of whom were conservative people, and they all rejected the idea that Sandy was part of a greater pattern of climate events. So even if it happens to you personally, you might not believe it, or you might want to, for a bunch of reasons – human psychology, anxiety, whatever it is – to just move away from the idea that you really matter to the next person who’s representing you.
So, in other words, if we’re expecting everyone in the world to experience climate change in order to change their minds, we might not be that far off; but on the other hand, even when they do, they’re not voting. So, I think it looks like people look at the candidates overall. As you know, 80%, 90% of the people make up their mind long before the debate starts, long before the primaries. And so you’re dealing with a small segment of society that are good wafflers. I mean they’re good. They’re people that actually haven’t made up their mind but are paying attention to the issues.
Denver: And are listening to the arguments.
Kathleen: Yes. They’re listening to the arguments. And those are the people that really matter.
The second point, so you have a small group of people that really matter in a small number of states. I’m not saying everybody doesn’t matter. But I’m saying the politically active states and all the money is pouring into getting that let’s call it “a handful of voters” to change, but skipping who’s voting, more important who’s not voting. And so, the other side of that coin is not just targeting undecided voters; it’s getting people out to vote.
We’ve had two major years of a very disruptive President, for better or worse; very disruptive. And so, people are not unaware of the changes that have been promoted over the last couple of years. You would think the 2018 voting would be astronomically high and for a couple of demographics, it was higher than normal. But for other groups – youth, other people – it picked up a little, but just a little bit less than 30% of youth, broadly defined…. It’s actually a huge group of people… voted, even in a very politically active year. So, we all, regardless of where you’re coming from, have a huge job to turn out people.
People are driven not just by the availability of cool technologies and by benefits to their pocketbook, but also by what governments are doing to promote modern life– in exchange from the old way to the new way.
Denver: Well, speaking of that disruptive President, he pulled the United States out of the Paris Climate Accord, which I believe was signed on Earth Day back in 2016. What has been the impact of that? Are you seeing other nations following down the same path?
Kathleen: That’s a really good question. So technically, he hasn’t withdrawn. He said he’s going to withdraw.
Denver: Right. It takes years.
Kathleen: It takes a year plus, and he has to fill out a bunch of forms. So we’re waiting to see if they actually fill out those forms. I think you’re right that it has dramatically influenced the conversation. There are a bunch of things that happen. It’s not just political leaders. It’s also what I call certainty in the marketplace.
If you have a President or leaders generally that are gung-ho — let’s say cars in the 1800s or 1900s — they’re going to put a ton of emphasis on those technologies and create a pathway and media strategy and everything to get people to adopt new technologies, seatbelts, whatever it is. People are driven not just by the availability of cool technologies and by benefits to their pocketbook, but also by what governments are doing to promote modern life– in exchange from the old way to the new way.
The green technology will dwarf regular technology. What’s going on in energy is so big compared to computers, cell phones, that this is a bonanza for whoever gets it together globally.
People like the status quo. They don’t want change — doesn’t matter if they’re Trump voters or anybody else. You have to move them, enlighten them, energize them, make them optimistic, and that’s the role of Earth Day, government leaders, and people in my community.
Denver: You’re a big fan of the Industrial Revolution, I know, and you see parallels. I guess you have a family history with that.
Kathleen: A ton of family history, and I also have done a ton of research. Can I tell you a quick story?
Denver: Please do.
Kathleen: Studebaker. Remember Studebaker? So I was doing a bunch of research because I can’t stop on this topic, and I found the minutes of a Studebaker meeting, a board of directors meeting, but the head of Studebaker company whose name was Studebaker and a bunch of other people call together all of the horse and buggy makers in the late 1800s. Studebaker made horse and buggies, and they call them all together and said in the minutes of this meeting, “You know, we really think we need to move in the direction of cars.” The majority of the rest of the buggy makers were “No. Let’s not worry about it,” and so they walked away. These were giants in their industries; it wasn’t just Studebaker. So Studebaker, at the end of the meeting, voted to move forward with cars and buggies in parallel, but put more into cars, and the rest of them were history over a very short period of time.
It’s those companies that are looking down the road and saying, “It’s inevitable.” The problem is, whether you’re talking about plastics, or you’re talking about energy efficiency, it’s everybody’s interest in the corporate community for the most part to drag their feet, to keep the status quo. What’s happening with this administration and with other parts of the world is they’re allowing them to do so. They’re not showing that we’re headed in this direction, get on board, make it happen.
I can tell you stories about my relatives from Iowa who talked about how insane it seemed to them when people from the county came to call– rural Iowa: “Let’s bring your toilets inside and do plumbing. Let’s bring that outhouse inside.” And their reaction was – I remember my grandmother telling me this – was “What an insanely stupid idea! How is that going to work?”
Denver: Somewhat disgusting, to tell you the truth.
Kathleen: Disgusting. And so, nonetheless, the county people came and said, “We’re putting in pipes. We’re putting in central systems. We can’t have this polluting the groundwater, et cetera.” But they actually needed some convincing. That’s the role of government – to figure out the technologies, make it cool, make it interesting.
I’ll give you one last one. The car industry fought seatbelts like there’s no tomorrow. Car industry was adamantly opposed to seat belts. They spent the equivalent in 2019 dollars, millions and millions and millions and millions of dollars fighting seat belts. Now, what do they do? They sell safety.
This happens. It’s human nature. It’s the same thing all the time repeating itself over and over and over again. People like the status quo. They don’t want change — doesn’t matter if they’re Trump voters or anybody else. You have to move them, enlighten them, energize them, make them optimistic, and that’s the role of Earth Day, government leaders, and people in my community.
Denver: Wasn’t it Henry Ford who said that if you poll the public what they would have wanted, it was not a car, but faster horses?
Kathleen: Exactly. Same thing Studebaker said.
…we’re using the 50th anniversary as a stage, a platform to get companies to recognize that we need to stop screwing around. We need additionality… we need broader, better commitments. And then the rest of us, not just the environmental community, the evangelicals, the Boy Scouts …everybody will get behind them. That’s the role of consumer groups, the role of the environmental community, is to put our money on the companies that are going to do the right thing.
Denver: Well, let’s stick with companies. Who are some of your partners?
Kathleen: We’re very cautious about corporations that we work with. And so some groups, some companies we work with on substantive issues; in other words, advising them on what they should be doing to improve their record. Now, truthfully, they don’t need me. They don’t need the environmental community. Sometimes they just need, instead of technology, information, or they need ideas on how to sell it to the people that buy their products, or invest in them or whatever the role of it is. And so that’s a critical role that everybody needs to play.
But we are really concerned about companies and focused on companies that will make commitments…that will take it, give us some additionality. So if a company like…pick it, Apple says “We’re going to go 80% renewable energy,” our goal is to make it 100% renewable energy. In fact, that’s the trajectory of a lot of big tech companies; but not all are on.
And so we’re using the 50th anniversary as a stage, a platform to get companies to recognize that we need to stop screwing around; we need additionality… we need broader, better commitments. And then the rest of us, not just the environmental community, the evangelicals, the Boy Scouts …everybody will get behind them. That’s the role of consumer groups, the role of the environmental community, is to put our money on the companies that are going to do the right thing.
If you want to change culture, you have to use culture.
Denver: Well, let’s talk about the 50th anniversary in 2020. One of the things you’ve done – and I’m sure a lot of these things are in development at the moment – but you have wonderful partnerships with the arts. Tell us the role they played traditionally on Earth Day, and maybe some of the things that we can look forward to come next April.
Kathleen: I think the important thing about the arts: If you want to change culture, you have to use culture. I‘ve operated under that for a long time.
Denver: Touches a different part of the brain.
Kathleen: It’s a different part of the brain, but it also influences culture. We all know that from watching the insane TV shows that we watch. We’re really influenced by this; maybe it doesn’t change what car I’m going to buy, or if I’m going to walk to work as opposed to drive one, but they’re very influential. So, the Arts For The Earth campaign is focused on bringing everybody – that’s everything from ballet to museums to architects, artists, poets, you name it — into this move.
A couple of years ago, through Denis Hayes who’s the chair of the board, he was able to get 400- or 500 cartoonists worldwide to create cartoons all around the same time related to Earth Day or the environment during the month of April.
Denver: I remember that.
Kathleen: It was really awesome; people really responded. But we’re taking this to a much higher, much more intense level. Some of the stuff we’re doing is kind of secret, and some of the things are really obvious.
We’re in a partnership with the Smithsonian. All of their 17 museums and zoos will be doing a major Earth Day activity. But we also have hundreds of other museums either signed up or about to be signed up to do exhibits. We have people, orchestras that are playing 24 hours around Earth Day from all over the world; commissioning new works — poets that are writing poetry; ballets will be commissioned. It’s a long list of artists that are getting engaged and super excited about what we’re doing.
March for Science was dedicated to convincing people around the world … They had to believe in science; they had to support science; and they had to really care about the outcomes from a science perspective
Denver: Another thing you’re doing is the Earth Science 2020 Challenge that has to do with citizen scientists. Tell us how that’s going to work.
Kathleen: I think the thing I said at the beginning, which was that Earth Day is that bright line that was crossed…science drove Earth Day. Yes, you had the Vietnam War; yes, you had all these social movements, but you had science. You had hardcore science about what was going wrong with industrial pollution, and they were everything from birth defects to rivers on fire, lung diseases…you name it. They were growing, growing evidence. Of course, Rachel Carson preceded all of this with her DDT story, which was very real and impacting people; lead and gasoline was becoming an issue. So that’s our science history, and if you look at any of the historical references, a lot of books about Earth Day, they’re all talking about the scientists drove this, and I firmly believe that’s true, although I wasn’t there.
And so, we looked at that a couple of years ago, and on Earth Day two years ago, we did March for Science. March for Science was dedicated to convincing people around the world that they should be super interested in… They had to believe in science; they had to support science; and they had to really care about the outcomes from a science perspective.
And so increasingly, it became clear to us even before March for Science that what we needed to do is go back to our roots. So we went to a bunch of groups — and honestly, this was developed on the back of an envelope in a restaurant in Delhi with the State Department — and we had a discussion about, yes there are 20-, 30-, 40-, maybe more million scientists operating in the environmental field, but what they needed more than anything was citizens to do some of that work for them. They can’t be everywhere; they don’t have all the money, and obviously, the world has long relied on citizen scientists to support what paid professionals are doing.
So, we enlisted a bunch of groups: the Wilson Center, State Department, European Space Agency, NASA, NOAA, Smithsonian — they’re all helping in different ways; UN Environment Program (now UN Environment), and we have a giant list. It’s literally hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of groups. What we’re going to do is build the largest citizen science database in the world. It’ll be all open data, and it will involve aggregating existing citizen science from around the world in air, plastics, water, a bunch of different areas…aggregating what’s out there because none of these people talk to each other. They’re all in silos; some of their citizen science is in Excel spreadsheets. It’s completely crazy.
So we’ve been we’ve spent the last couple of years with super great citizen scientists — a great woman, Anne Bowser from Wilson Center; Landon Van Dyke from State — building relationships with citizen science groups. And so, the first step is to aggregate everybody, citizen science. We have to put it through AI in order for those Excel spreadsheets to talk to more sophisticated things, layer it all up, put it through AI again. And then we’re developing apps, applications that will allow ordinary citizens to get engaged. We hope to have about 50 million people download these apps over the course of four-, five-, six months and take photos of plastics, pollinators, air pollution, water pollution, and upload this data. They’re being developed in conjunction with lots of scientists and some big tech companies to help us develop these really great apps; take a picture of plastics under certain circumstances, it’ll give you a ton of data.
And so, all of those apps will be uploaded with the same existing citizen science into one giant platform that’s being developed by Esri, which is a giant company that does mapping. They’re awesome, and they’ve given a huge amount of this for free. Some of it’s being hosted on Amazon, and we’re very grateful to them for all the work they’ve put into this, and money. And lots of other companies, big tech companies are going to be promoting it. So we’re super hoping that by the end of May or June, we’ll have a billion data points. It’ll soon — probably the end of 2020, I’m hoping — pass away from Earth Day Network into some giant consortium of citizen science groups because we’re there to promote it, push it along…
Denver: As you said, the front of the funnel… just like people getting involved in the environmental movement.
Kathleen: Exactly, use it…so let me tell you one last thing, which is really awesome. When you upload your app – you download your app, you take the picture, you upload the photo — you’re going to get a pop-up, and it’s going to tell you “click here to send a letter to…” depending on the country. Let’s say Tanzania — “click here to send a letter to your government to tell them to do something about single-use plastics.” Let’s say they use the plastics app.
Denver: Calls to action.
Kathleen: So if we can get another 10-, 20-, 30-, 40-, 50 million actions out of people, directing them in their own language to their own countries. It’ll really help build the environmental movement because you connect science with action and then civic engagement. And so that’s the trajectory. It’s been a couple years in the making. We’re all ripping our hair out trying to get this going. We’re down to the app development phase, and it’s moving along really well.
…we really believe that that’s the way to go, not continue to build a handful of big groups even though they do good work, because we haven’t built a broad enough movement, and that’s the problem now. It’s not that we don’t have great lawyers, great legislators, great regulators in both the environmental community and in the science community; it’s that we don’t have anybody behind us.
Denver: I had the pleasure of working at the Statue of Liberty/ Ellis Island Foundation and there is something about when people are part of something. When they gave their pennies at school or whatever, they feel that they’re an owner. So aside from all the practical information that’s going to come and help the science community and the environmental community, I feel like I’m part of the 50th having done that. That is absolutely great.
Tell us: What are the keys to building a movement? What do you know now that you wish you knew 16 years ago about building a movement when you started?
Kathleen: I had come from a big group–that sort of a command and control — they all are — and that’s my background. And so, I went through an evolution where I really believed that the problem with the environmental communities: a) we just talk to each other; b) you have super rich corporations that depend on non-stop fundraising and this insatiable need for cash to keep doing the good work they’re doing. But it’s tiny; it’s a small, small group of people that are worth billions of dollars.
And so I believed, and that was part of changing the mission, that it needed to go on, and I still believe it needs to go on at the community level to be authentic. Whether it’s voter registration, or whether it’s citizen science, whatever it is… environmental action, it has to be tied as a first step absolutely to community groups, and they’re starving for money. Some of them you know are not 100% great. Some of them don’t have the kind of corporate structures that make donors comfortable.
But we’ve been in the business of giving money to community groups for a long, long time, and we know because we’re in 192 countries, yes, it gets screwed up once in a while; for the most part, it doesn’t. We have to be tough when we’re giving away our money, but we always tie it to performance standards. But, honestly, it’s so rare that they don’t rise to the occasion, and if you have community engagement, then you’re going to have success. And so that’s our entire point of view.
And so we really believe that that’s the way to go, not continue to build a handful of big groups even though they do good work, because we haven’t built a broad enough movement, and that’s the problem now. It’s not that we don’t have great lawyers, great legislators, great regulators in both the environmental community and in the science community; it’s that we don’t have anybody behind us. So you’ve got to put your money where your mouth is and invest in community groups, and that’s what we do.
Denver: That’s fantastic. I had a similar conversation with somebody in the international development and humanitarian field—
Kathleen: I bet they feel the same way.
Denver: They feel the same way because they know that most donors were afraid of making a mistake because it’s going to reflect badly on them. But they also know that all the great work is being done by these local groups; but they can’t get money because they don’t have a five year history, or whatever the case may be. But you have to be afraid to make a mistake, because most of them are doing the kind of work that nobody else is doing and getting incredible results.
Well, let me close with this, Kathleen. What do you hope will come out of the 50th anniversary of Earth Day, which is quite unlike anything that has happened in the previous 49?
Kathleen: First of all, we didn’t talk about this, but we have decided and we’re being led by the youth groups that are going to be striking in New York in a couple of days. We really believe that there has to be a day of civic action on Earth Day, which is a Wednesday, April 22.
And so, we are slowly but surely putting together a campaign called Earthrise, which we hope will bring out millions of people the way Dennis and Gaylord did in 1970, and at least demonstrate to global leaders that there’s more than a couple hundred thousand people behind them… that this is broad, diverse, everywhere.
And so, our big goal for 2020 is to, yes, we’re in love with Earth Challenge; we have something called The Great Global Cleanup — we hope to have a hundred million people doing cleanups… all those stepping stones. But at the end of the day, two things matter: demonstrating and voting. Both of those things are key to Earth Day 2020 and what we’ll be focusing on.
Denver: Well, Kathleen Rogers, the President and CEO of the Earth Day Network, I want to thank you so much for being here this evening. What do you want people to do today, and what do they need to do to get ready for April 22, 2020?
Kathleen: Volunteer, sign up, register to vote, register others, and get ready for April 22.
Denver: Thanks, Kathleen. It was great to have you on the program.
Kathleen: Thank you for having me.
Denver: I’ll be back with more of The Business of Giving right after this.
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