Do you really want to make a difference? Randy Hayes, Executive Director of Foundation Earth believes that our solutions must be commensurate with the problems at hand. Each of us can be powerful in creating change, as he well knows from many years of environmental activism. Randy recommends that we act with the understanding that the earth is comprised of multiple interactive systems, a concept embraced in the science of ecology. We can choose to manage brush fires, which will reoccur in other locations, or we can try to affect systemic change, which is our best hope for solving global issues such as climate change or other large scale issues.
“It is not enough to care, it is really about what you do!” The legendary activist, Randy Hayes is the Executive Director of Foundation Earth. He is former president of the Rainforest Action Network (RAN), which he founded in 1985. “I’m somewhat of a lightning rod,” Hayes says, “I get called a radical a lot. Webster’s definition of radical is ‘a root.’ Radicals get to the root of the problem. From that perspective, I’m proud of that label.”
Mr. Hayes was born in West Virginia and raised in central Florida. After attending Bowling Green State University in Ohio, he lived on a Hopi Indian reservation near Flagstaff, Arizona. While there, he founded a group called “Friends of the Hopi” which sought to outlaw coal mining on tribal land.
In 1973 Randy enrolled at San Francisco State University, where he earned a degree in environmental planning. His Master’s thesis was a documentary film titled The Four Corners: A National Sacrifice Area? The film examined how coal and uranium mining on the Colorado plateau was allegedly harming the region’s American Indian population.
Randy Hayes has served as a Board member of the Turning Point Project, a coalition of more than 100 nonprofit organizations including Greenpeace, the Earth Island Institute, and Friends of the Earth. He is also an Advisory Board Member of the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society, an eco-terrorist group founded by Paul Watson. Hayes has been arrested eighteen times for participation in civil disobedience.
Huey Johnson: If you had memories of experiences and lessons learned what would you reflect for young people coming into the field?
Randy Hayes: Well that the brush firefighting has got to be connected to deeper systemic change. What’s evolved in life over say, billions of years of evolution on planet earth is not this or that, but the relationship of things, right, systems. The young people really need to understand a general systems theory and that’s what the discipline of ecology really is.
Ecology doesn’t study an individual this or that but it studies the relationship, the ecology of relationships of a system. And so if your activism is meant to promote systemic change, the first simple question is what system are you talking about changing? In the case of a hydroelectric dam in the Amazon, if we want to call that a brush firefight, how do you connect that fight to some larger set of changes? Hydroelectric dams for the most part are around electricity generation, right? And so that’s the energy system. You know and just stopping any one dam might mean it just pops up over here and so a more comprehensive approach to say how is a society – do 7 billion of us use a lot less energy? How do we produce the energy we are going to use renewably and not waste it? You know and how are we going to get rid of the bad forms of energy? All of that needs to be done at once but at least talked about. So yeah, you could campaign to save a particular valley or a particular tribe in the Amazon around the hydroelectric dam but you can raise these larger systemic issues and call for a more comprehensive policy against the wrong kinds of energy.
One of the earliest environmental conferences of consequence to me was the one in New York City, the Fate of the Earth Conference where you were a speaker. And a line that I use in virtually every speech that I’ve given subsequent was one that I got from you. And you just simply said “Our solutions have to be commensurate with the scale of problem.” You know as common and simplistic as that might be it’s the first time anybody had put it so clearly to me. You know, and you need big solutions to big problems.
Huey Johnson: Any reflections on what could be done about climate change?
Randy Hayes: Climate change is a symptom of a problem, not a problem to solve. And for me, a better way to talk about the problem we’re trying to solve is humanity’s lack of respect for the life support systems of the biosphere, the way which nature works, you know nature’s ways; you know the principles of ecology and the laws of nature. You know and so how do you get, how do you help get humanity in sync with the ways of nature? If we teach that lesson in the midst of a climate change fight, then that’s the deeper lesson that I think people need to learn.
Extreme weather events are going to be a necessary component to create the context for the bigger change that we need. I really feel that the next few decades are going to be a bit of a roller coaster or maybe a better image is a bit of a staircase down as there’ll be economic meltdowns and recessions or ecological problems that occur, extreme weather events. And as that occurs, it’ll represent also an opportunity for people to learn the deeper lessons about building more greater degrees of self reliance.
Can we ecologise the economy? Can we ecologise capitalism in deep and meaningful ways or at least buy enough time to come up with a better ism? And I actually see a shift in the global economy from this monoculture of industrial society’s economy where virtually everything is manufactured in China and places quite distant to a realignment of networks of bioregional economies. If we had primarily global trade and art culture and ideas, you know that’s, I think that’s sustainable over time. It’s possible, you know the question is, how do we amass the political will?
If we’re serious about these issues, if we take our own rhetoric seriously that these are life and death issues, then we have to make, you know pretty precise pointed commitments. And one way to do that, at least for me, is around nonviolent civil disobedience and being willing to put my life on the line so to speak around these issues and to use that as a tactic to get attention. When I would get in sort of my Earth First mode of operating around David Brower, you know he’d say “Randy, don’t give up on humanity,” you know and so I’m not giving up on humanity but we’ve got to rise to the occasion and it’s going to be no small feat but it’s also a real honor to work on these kinds of issues of consequence. And we aren’t smart enough to know if we have enough time or when these windows of opportunity will open up, but there are occasions where great changes happen quite quickly to revolutionize the way in which we relate to this planet.
Huey Johnson: Congratulations on having the vision and courage to take on a problem of that scale.