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Denis Hayes and the Cascadia Sustainability Movement


By Miles Knowles

When it comes to managing sustainability issues such as climate change or diminishing fossil fuels, one might presume that the greatest impact is achieved by targeting the greatest audience possible.

For the past 20 years, environmental legend Denis Hayes has relied on a different approach. Hayes became an environmental superhero by spearheading the first Earth Day in 1970. More than 20 million Americans took to the streets for teach-ins and environmental advocacy. He followed up by forming the Earth Day Network and expanding annual Earth Day events to 184 different countries. Former President Jimmy Carter named him the first director of the Solar Energy Research Institute (now the National Renewable Energy Laboratory).

After years of national and international success in furthering the environmental movement, Mr. Hayes shifted focus -- directing his attention to a region of the U.S. with a small but progressive population of concerned citizens. In 1992, Hayes was named CEO and president of the Bullitt Foundation, a Seattle-based grant-making organization. His hiring was met with skepticism from some local environmental leaders and NGOs.  Hayes was an international celebrity with the ability to influence millions globally. How long could he be satisfied working on a smaller, regional platform? More than 20 years later, he’s still there, and the reasons are embodied in his approach to sustainable management.

For years, the Pacific Northwest has been a stronghold of progressive thought and motivated citizens -- exactly the type of audience open to addressing sustainability challenges. Before coming to Bullitt, Hayes’ advocacy work was directed at national and global audiences. Promoting a sustainability agenda on a huge scale requires convincing those who deny or remain apathetic to environmental issues. Narrowing his target audience to more like-minded individuals increased the efficacy of his actions. The Pacific Northwest is not completely devoid of sustainability skeptics, but it has the smallest concentration of them.

Secondly, Hayes identified a target region small enough so the resources at his disposal could make a significant and lasting impact. The Bullitt Foundation makes grants to nonprofits in order to "safeguard the natural environment by promoting responsible human activities and sustainable communities in the Pacific Northwest." Their target area includes Southeast Alaska, British Columbia, Washington, Oregon, Idaho and Western Montana. This bioregion has been referred to as “Cascadia” since the early 1990s. Its integration is deeper than one might think. In 2008, Washington, Oregon, California, Alaska and British Columbia signed the Pacific Coast Collaborative into law. The agreement seeks to promote coordinated policy in the areas of fishery and forest management, renewable energy, tourism and establishing a high-speed regional railway. The movement is more than simply cooperation on economics and policy, it’s an identity local residents buy into. Cascadia even has its own flag, The Doug.

The audience Hayes is targeting in the Pacific Northwest is not only receptive to sustainability issues, but willing and active participants. From volunteers to donors and involved citizens, the residents of Cascadia are pushing for progressive environmental action. This is not confined to the ballot box. The Bullitt Foundation’s dedication to public engagement enables Cascadian citizens to fund their sustainability projects through grants. “The Foundation seeks to identify the most talented individuals and most effective organizations and empower them to respond to the most important issues facing the region.” From 1999 to 2012, The Bullitt Foundation has authorized thousands of grants to over five hundred different organizations operating within Cascadia.

Perhaps the most ingenious element of Hayes’ approach to sustainable management is utilizing Bullitt as a force multiplier for transmitting Cascadian ideas worldwide. “Through its innovations in science, technology, commerce, and culture…[Cascadia] exerts a disproportionate national, and even global impact, relative to its size and population.”

Nowhere is this better embodied than in Hayes’ latest project, The Bullitt Center in Seattle. Otherwise known as “The greenest commercial building in the world,” The Bullitt Center goes well beyond LEED platinum standards, generates one hundred percent of its own energy and has net-zero waste. The effect showcases Cascadia as the regional leader of the U.S. sustainability movement and pushes the green building envelope globally. If in the coming years, possibly even months we will see a new “greenest building in the world,” It will likely be in Cascadia.

Denis Hayes did not create the Cascadia sustainability movement, but he has further enhanced the region’s efficacy in tackling sustainability challenges by means of advocacy, direct engagement and funding. This would not be possible without a realistic target area and a receptive and engaged target audience. Mr. Hayes’ Earth Day legacy will forever enshrine him as an environmental legend, but in his work at the Bullitt Foundation, he has truly found his calling as a leader in sustainability management.

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