Peter Hayes Interview: Conversations with History; Institute of International Studies, UC Berkeley

Political Activism, NGOs and Globalization: Conversation with Peter Hayes, Executive Director, Nautilus Institute; April 18, 2003, by Harry Kreisler
Photo by Jane Scherr

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Peter, welcome to Berkeley. Well, Berkeley is your home.

It's good to be back home, I would say!

Yes, that's right. Where were you born and raised?

I was born in southern Australia, in Melbourne, and I spent the first years of my life on a dairy farm. So I know all about farming and getting up early in the morning and seasonal cycles. I first met death in the Australian bush as a very young boy, walking around in the bush by myself and came across a pond with a dead kangaroo. I'll never forget that.

Looking back, how do you think your parents shaped your thinking about the world?

They were very political. They were agricultural scientists who, after World War II, had gone farming on what were called "soldier settlements." It was basically a land grant to returning soldiers. Most farmers in Australia are not agricultural scientists. Most of them grew up on a farm and inherited it, and keep farming. So [my parents] came out of the relatively intellectual background in the city and went farming. This was during the mid-1960s.

My first memories of being on the farm was in the midst of the Vietnam War. My parents were opposed to the war, and I remember quite distinctly that we were suddenly uninvited to the annual tennis tournament on the largest farm in the area -- the hosts always staged it there; they were the sort of rural aristocracy. After that, my parents, especially my mother, became very leading figures in what was called the Westernport Protection Council, which is like the San Francisco Bay Association. The premier of that state had declared that Westernport Bay, which at that point was a pristine, very beautiful estuarine system, was destined to become the Ruhr of the Southern Hemisphere. Premier Bolte did not realize that he was up against my mother! In fact, she brought the industrial development to a screeching halt over the subsequent decade. But along the way were wrecked fences, locals who felt they were not going to get jobs who cut fences and [issued] death threats on the phone, that kind of stuff.

As a farm, it was 365 days a year, get up and milk the cows, which put my parents under tremendous pressure, because I was one of four kids. But it was a relatively political socialization for a farm kid.

So in terms of education, it was somewhat natural that you would move into the combination of environment and activism. But you took a detour to history; you did your undergraduate work in history.

I was always gripped by history, and did my undergraduate degree, probably what you would call here a major, in history, although I also did a secondary in the history and philosophy of science, and in Indian studies.

Then that whole trajectory was rudely interrupted by politics, because at the end of the Vietnam War in1972, I went overseas and spent nearly two years in France organizing protests against the French nuclear weapons tests in the atmosphere over Moruroa Atoll. There, I was very lucky to intersect with a person who became a political mentor, Brice Lalonde, who was a key figure in the 1968 student revolution at the Sorbonne and was the founder of the Friends of the Earth and Les Amis de la Terre in Paris, and later became ecological candidate for the presidency. He's quite a famous figure now in France.

Brice taught me an enormous amount about politics, the politics of that era. When I went back to Australia, I was then deeply involved with the establishment of the national environmental movement, which in Australia had a very green/red content. We were working closely with the trade union movement, direct action of trade unions to stop the destruction of inner-city areas or heritage areas, but [also] trade union action to stop the destruction of wilderness. It's almost inconceivable in the United States, this kind of relationship between the Green movement and the working folk organizations, which in Australia were led by the Builders-Laborers' Federation.

It was that connection that first took me to China, in 1975. The Builder-Laborers' Federation in Melbourne, Australia, were Maoist -- hard-line, hard-core Maoist -- also, corrupt as hell, but that's another story. And in Sydney, they were led by the non-aligned communist party, the Australian Nationalist Communist Party. Both were competing for the constituency represented by the new Green movement, which was a classic social movement, bottom up. They didn't really know how to corral this energy, but they wanted to. So the BLF in Melbourne set up a trip to China, to try to shift the Greens into the Maoist camp of the left. So I ended up in April of '75 in China for my first trip there. Mao Tse-tung was still alive. We were all incredibly impressed with China, distressed with the government in China, and came back with exactly the opposite lesson learned that the Maoists in Australia wanted us to learn. But I'll never forget this trip; we went way north and up into the inner Gobi desert, looking at the sand dune stabilization work of the local peasants. For a young farm boy, this was quite a fast track to get some knowledge about Asia.

Along the way, you were also picking up a graduate degree here at Berkeley. So you got a Ph.D. in energy and resources?

Well, actually, there was a short interlude -- it wasn't that short, but I went to Nairobi for Friends of the Earth International. After working with Les Amis de la Terre, I was involved with setting up the founding Friends of the Earth in Australia. That led us to connect with Dave Brower from Berkeley, the founder of Friends of the Earth, USA, and a key figure in FOE International. FOE is now in about thirty countries.

I was persuaded by FOE International to go to Nairobi in 1975 to set up the Environment Liaison Center, the gateway or the entry portal for nongovernmental organizations to the UN Environment Program, which is headquartered in Nairobi. So this was directly continuous with the environmental work. I left that after a year. I said I would go for one year to set it up.

I was an acceptable candidate between the North and the South to set up the ELC, which the traditional, UN-consultative-status international NGOs did not want to happen, because they control the access to the rest of the UN. This was open access, a real innovation. But I said I'd be there for a year as an acceptable candidate to the North and the South, and I'd be out of there. So I came back to the United States [on the way] back to Australia, and visited the Energy and Resources Group ...

Here in Berkeley?

Yes. Which was very attractive to me, because there was nothing like it in Australia. You could do social science to the "nth" degree here while also being immersed in the technical side. I was equally interested in ecological science, the environmental side, the engineering side, and there was no program in Australia that came close. So I was very lucky to get admitted here. But in order to then come to campus, I had to go back to Australia and complete my first degree. I got admitted to Berkeley before I'd finished my first degree, so I went back and did that, and then came back to the United States in late 1977.

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