On Jan. 29, 1969, employees working on Union Oil Platform A off the coast of Santa Barbara struck a pocket of natural gas thousands of feet beneath the ocean floor. The rupture caused a blowout, and attempts to cap the hole failed.
For the next 11 days, oil seeped into the Pacific Ocean and onto Santa Barbara’s world famous beaches.
In five days, Santa Barbarans will join billions of people around the world in celebrating the 38th annual Earth Day, an event that came about in response to multiple environmental incidents like the Santa Barbara spill, in which millions of gallons of thick, black sludge that was slathered up and down local beaches.
The 1969 spill, which was at the time the nation’s worst oil spill, is considered by many to be the catalyst of the modern environmental movement in the United States. Locally, the disaster prompted professors at UCSB to form the nation’s first environmental studies program.
Retired environmental studies professor Marc McGinnes, a young environmental lawyer living in Santa Barbara at the time of the spill, said he still remembers the tribulations that came as a result.
“Having lived through it, it really was a galvanizing event,” McGinnes said. “You kept hearing about the oil spill, and it went on for months because the government kept screwing up. One thing after another kept it in the news to a surprising degree. So we said to ourselves, ‘We are going to make them pay – not just the oil companies, but the government, too.'”
In May of 1969, several large events began to coalesce in Santa Barbara in response to the oil spill: McGinnes and fellow activists began planning an environmental conference in Santa Barbara to mark the one-year anniversary of the spill; U.S. Sen. Gaylord Nelson – the man credited with founding Earth Day – flew to Santa Barbara to view the havoc the spill had caused; and UCSB environmental studies and history professor Roderick Nash gathered some associates at the university to discuss creating an environmental studies curriculum.
McGinnes said that the anniversary conference impressed the idea of an annual environmental event onto Senator Nelson, who later formed the Earth Day Network.
“Nelson flew out here with the idea to hold environmental teach-ins at universities all over the country, and he hired [prominent environmentalist] Denis Hayes as a coordinator,” he said. “We in Santa Barbara had a very clear idea to use the oil spill to start an environmental movement, but it wasn’t that Gaylord came and saw what we were doing. He was on a parallel idea and then came and saw what we did. I’d say that what we did in January  was very influential.”
On April 22, 1970, the first Earth Day celebration was coordinated by Sen. Nelson and Denis Hayes. The Earth Day Network – founded by Nelson and Hayes in 1970 – is now a guiding force for promoting environmental knowledge around the globe.
According to EDN Vice President of Communications Lisa Swann, her organization works with over 17,000 groups in 174 countries, and about 5,000 domestic groups to coordinate Earth Day. Swann said that Earth Day has continued to gain support since its beginning in 1970, and has expanded across the globe.
“The whole idea in 1970 really took off,” Swann said. “Nelson wanted a way to put the environment on the map, and there was such terrible air pollution and terrible water pollution that we had a real groundswell of support trying to raise public awareness and build political support. Today, Earth Day hasn’t strayed very far from its original purpose. It’s still a grassroots project, we just have literally billions of people around the world participating every year.”
According to McGinnes, the environmental studies program started in 1970 at UCSB under the helm of professor Nash. McGinnes said that the program was unique due to the interdisciplinary nature of the program.
“All of a sudden, students and professors all went, ‘Jesus, OK, this is important stuff,'” McGinnes said. “Students begin to ask, ‘What do you learn about this stuff? Is it political science? No. Is it physical science? Not quite.’ So they had to rethink the curriculum – they combined the anatomies, the natural and physical sciences, and the social sciences to make environmental studies.”
Environmental studies professor Mel Manalis said that the general principles of the program are to promote knowledge of the environment and to provide tools with which students can improve the environment.
“Our goal is basically to educate students to understand and be aware of environmental problems and to try to solve these problems in the future.” Manalis said. “We try to give them the right pathways to improve the environment, and teach them to understand their carbon footprint. It’s important on an individual level to become aware of how much energy you use, and see if you can find ways to reduce it.”