We are challenging the ethics of a society that, with only 6 percent of the world's population, accounts for more than half the world's annual consumption of raw materials.
"We are building a movement," he continued, "a movement with a broad base, a movement that transcends traditional political boundaries. It is a movement that values people more than technology and political ideologies, people more than profit.
"It will be a difficult fight. Earth Day is the beginning."
I first met Hayes in 1990, near the office in Palo Alto where he was planning the 20th anniversary of Earth Day. He'd continued his environmental work inside and outside government, at one point running the National Energy Laboratory under President Jimmy Carter. Earth Day 20 was shaping up as a gigantic event, one that would ultimately involve 200 million people around the globe. Earth Day was becoming the largest secular holiday on the planet.
Hayes was excited about the event, which he was running this time without the moderating influence of a U.S. senator. And he was aiming for a much more activist message in fact, at that point, he was pretty clear that the U.S. environmental movement was running out of time.
"Twenty years ago, Earth Day was a protest movement," he told a crowd of more than 300,000 in Washington, D.C. "We no longer have time to protest. The most important problems facing our generation will be won or lost in the next 10 years. We cannot protest our losses. We have to win."
And now another 20 years have passed and by many accounts, we are not winning. Climate change continues, and even accelerates; an attempt at a global accord just failed; and Congress can't even pass a mild, watered-down bill to limit carbon emissions.
And Hayes, now president of the Bullitt Foundation, a sustainability organization in Seattle, thinks the movement has a serious problem. "Earth Day has succeeded in being the ultimate big tent," he told me by phone recently. "To some rather great extent, is had some measure of success."
But he noted that "in American politics these days, it's not the breadth of support, it's the intensity that matters. Environmentalists tend to be broadly progressive people who care about war and the economy and health care. They aren't single-issue voters. And somehow, the political intensity is missing."
Hayes isn't advocating that environmentalists forget about everything else and ignore all the other issues or that the movement lose its broad-based appeal but he said it's time to bring political leaders and policies under much, much sharper scrutiny and to "stop accepting a voting record of 80 percent."
It's hard today to be bipartisan, and compromise is unacceptable, Hayes told me. "I was probably right [in 1990]," he said. "If what you're aspiring to do is stop the greenhouse gases before they do significant damage to the environment, it's too late." At this point, he said, it's all about keeping the damage from turning into a widespread ecological disaster.
"I would like to see Earth Day 50 be a celebration," he said. "I would like to see by then a real price on carbon, nuclear power not proliferating, and a profound, stable investment in cost-effective, distributed renewable energy." But for that to happen, "we need to have a very intense core of environmental voters who realize that these threats to life on the planet are more important than a lot of other things."
Tim Redmond is the author, with Marc Mowrey, of Not In Our Back Yard: The People and Events that Shaped America's Modern Environmental Movement (William Morrow, 1993) which can still be found in the remainder bins of a few used book stores.