Book City: Denis Hayes on the power of Dr. Seuss

The Earth Day founder and Bullitt Foundation president isn't just a voracious reader of environmental non-fiction. He's also an adventurer in the world of eye-opening fiction and poetic justice.
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President of the Bullitt Foundation Denis Hayes

The Earth Day founder and Bullitt Foundation president isn't just a voracious reader of environmental non-fiction. He's also an adventurer in the world of eye-opening fiction and poetic justice.

As President of the Bullitt Foundation, Denis Hayes has promoted urban ecology in Seattle, Portland and Vancouver BC for the last twenty years. His goal has been nothing less than reshaping cities into functioning ecosystems. The opening of the Bullitt Center, the world’s greenest building, on Earth Day 2013 – next Monday, April 22 – must feel like coming full circle to Denis, who served as national coordinator for the first Earth Day when he was 25 years old. Denis recently resumed the chairmanship of Earth Day Network as it begins the countdown to the 50th anniversary in 2020.

Valerie Easton: Do you read more fiction or non-fiction?

Denis Hayes: I always have at least one book of each on my nightstand, a half dozen of each on my iPad.

What books are open on your nightstand right now?

I picked up “Ghostman” by Roger Hobbs on a whim after reading a review that mentioned Hobbs graduated from Reed College in 2011. Any author one year out of college with a novel published by Knopf seemed worth giving a try. Hobbs has an amazing command of criminal arcana and he keeps his pedal to the metal. Even the flashbacks move fast. Hobbs writes with amazing authority for one so young.  

My current non-fiction is Janine Benyus’s classic, “Biomimicry: Innovation Inspired by Nature.” The field has advanced since it was first published (in 1997), but no one else has written about biomimicry as lucidly and gracefully as Janine. It is like rereading “Silent Spring.”  

Favorite authors?

For fiction, I’m fairly omnivorous, though I prefer stories where something is actually happening. My non-fiction reading often relates to whatever I’m working on professionally at the moment. But I’ll read anything by Michael Lewis or John McPhee.  

Speaking of which, I recently re-skimmed a very old McPhee book. Anyone who thinks nuclear power is the answer to climate change ought to read McPhee’s “The Curve of Binding Energy.” It’s a biography of my late dear friend, Ted Taylor, who started his career as a brilliant designer of nuclear weapons and ended it working on solar energy.

Have you read a truly great book lately? One you’d unhesitatingly recommend to friends and colleagues?

I think the contemporary novelist with the best chance of entering the pantheon is probably Neal Stephenson. I follow him from genre to genre, and love it all. “Anathem” is my personal favorite. It’s not as technically dazzling as say “Diamond Age” or “Snow Crash,” or as fast-paced as “REAMDE,” but it is astonishingly stimulating and provocative.  

Have you read a well-reviewed or popular book lately that you felt didn’t live up to the hype?

I’m usually disappointed by raved-about books. This morning’s Sunday New York Times Book Review carried a two-page ad for Daniel Kahneman’s “Thinking Fast and Slow.” The blurbs were wildly over the top for a book from which the average well-read person will not learn much. Raved-about books, like raved-about movies, are generally the product of marketing campaigns. I prefer those that reach my attention through crowd-sourcing.  

Do you have a favorite genre?

I’ve read the entire literary output of John le Carré, Scott Turow, John Grisham, Rex Stout, Robert Parker, Carl Hiaasen, John D. McDonald. . . .   All except le Carré sometimes use environmental themes in their plots, though that’s not why I like them.

More recently, my wife has been suggesting women writers, and I realize I’ve been missing a lot of great reads. Two recent favorites were Gillian Flynn’s “Gone Girl” and Maria Semple’s “Where’d You Go, Bernadette?” I literally couldn’t put either of them down until I’d finished.

Earth Day approaches. What books are essential to being an informed citizen on environmental issues?

I’ll go with a couple that address today’s top environmental problems: Tim Flannery’s “The Weather Makers: How Man Is Changing the Climate and What It Means for Life On Earth,” is arguably the best of the wave of books about climate disruption, and Ed Wilson’s “The Diversity of Life” about the global epidemic of extinction.

There is a vast pool of wonderful environmental writers like Barry Lopez, Carl Safina, Barbara Kingsolver, Tim Egan, Bill McKibben, Bruce Barcott, Terry Tempest Williams, David Montgomery, Rachel Carson, Ed Abbey, Bill Bryson . . . The field is incredibly rich with talent.

Who do you consider the most exciting author in this field?

David Roberts at Grist. His articles pulse with energy. He is fiercely independent, attacks hypocrisy wherever he finds it and seems happiest when engaged in a no-holds-barred war of words with some critic. I don’t always buy Dave’s viewpoint, but I never dismiss him quickly.

What authors/publications kept you up-to-date when you were working on the world’s greenest building?

I rely mostly on periodicals. My top choice is Trim Tab — a terrific digital publication by ILFI, the group that designed the Living Building Challenge.

What were your most cherished childhood books? Can you name a childhood favorite that influenced you?

I had devoured the entire children’s section of the public library in Camas, where I grew up, by the third grade. I read most of Dickens in junior high school, and I remember being deeply moved. Dickens gave me a great sense of social injustice, and of the need to follow my conscience regardless of personal consequences.

Dr. Seuss didn’t publish “The Lorax” until long after I left childhood, but it is the best green children’s book in existence. I’ve given it as a birthday present to dozens of children.

Any book you’ve read lately that really caught your imagination, inspired you or changed how you look at the world?

Perhaps Stephen Greenblatt’s “The Swerve: How the World Became Modern.”  It’s a powerful reminder of the incredibly important role of chance in human events.

Can you think of a particularly powerful passage from a book that’s stuck with you? That you return to?

In high school, I was intensely aware that my little town was not one of the world’s crossroads, and I identified closely with the talented-but-obscure people Thomas Gray described in "An Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard."  I memorized large passages of it, and I think it has colored the way I think of power and powerlessness.    

Full many a gem of purest ray serene,
The dark unfathom'd caves of ocean bear:
Full many a flow'r is born to blush unseen,
And waste its sweetness on the desert air.

I’ve known more than my share of “important” people — presidents, governors, billionaires, Nobel prize-winning scientists, award-winning authors. I’ve always been intensely aware that the differences between the people at the top of the heap and those at the bottom could as-often-as-not be explained by chance of birth, early opportunities, luck, ruthlessness and other things I would not choose to richly reward.

I am appalled and saddened by the huge reservoir of talent that goes uneducated and wasted, here and around the world, because of the financial excesses of the one percent.    

Your book on solar energy “Rays of Hope” influenced the Carter Administration’s renewable energy program. Are you working on a new book?

My wife Gail and I are writing "Cowed," a book about the impact of America's 93 million cows on the politics, culture, environment, health and economy of our country.

What book(s) do you plan to read next?

"Gillian Flynn’s: Dark Places” for fiction, and John Elkington’s “The Zeronauts: Breaking the Sustainability Barrier” for non-fiction. 

What Val's Reading This Week: "The Art Forger" by B.A. Shapiro is a lively mystery drawn from the 1990 heist of priceless paintings from the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum. When the feisty and talented heroine, with an unfortunate taste in men, is drawn into the world of art forgery, we're given a glimpse of the underbelly of Boston's art and museum world. The story is timely; shortly after the book was published, police announced the first break in the decades old case of the stolen masterpieces.


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About the Authors & Contributors

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Valerie Easton

Valerie Easton started her career as a librarian shelving books at Lake City Library when she was in high school. Now she writes full time, and has authored five books, includingThe New Low Maintenance Garden and her newest title Petal & Twig. She writes a weekly column and feature stories for Pacific Northwest magazine in the Seattle Times.