The UCSB Environmental Studies Program, which was created in the wake of the 1969 Santa Barbara Oil Spill, is turning 40 this weekend with a three-day celebration starting today.

In the aftermath of the oil spill, which left Santa Barbara’s waters contaminated and its beaches blackened, environmental consciousness swept through both the local community and the nation. Shortly after, environmental activists from the area began planning a conference to mark the one-year anniversary of the spill, while UCSB history professor Roderick Nash, with the help of his colleagues, began to lay the foundation for an environmental studies program on campus.

The environmental fervor created by the oil spill grew and, on April 22, 1970, the first Earth Day celebration was held in Santa Barbara. The day is now recognized and celebrated by over 175 countries. Later that same year, the nation’s first environmental studies program was created at UCSB.

According to Josh Schimel, professor and current chair of the Environmental Studies program, it was the catastrophic ’69 oil spill that produced the energy and momentum needed to create Earth Day and the ES program.

“Both grew from the spill,” Schimel said in a press release. “One of the things that grew out of that was environmental activism — that’s the Earth Day focus and the environmental movement. The other is the educational theme of students who want to study the environment, to make it a major academic endeavor and to transform the way we do academe.”

The ES program was created in 1970 from a blend of disciplines and combined the faculty from a variety of specialties into an environmentally-focused curriculum. According to Eric Zimmerman, academic advisor and internship coordinator in the ES department, the idea of a discipline which straddled both the arts and sciences was so radical at the time that a number of scholarly journals were written on the topic.

In the decades since, the program has grown while not losing sight of the environmental responsibility it developed in 1970.

“If you want to go and fix a specific environmental problem right now, you can give money to the Sierra Club, or to the Nature Conservancy,” Schimel said. “But if you want to train the people who are going to lead those groups, who are going to make those actions happen — if you want to train leaders — it’s about environmental studies. We are the people who do that.”

Largely coordinated by ES students, the “40 Years Later: Looking Back, Looking Ahead” event will begin Friday with an opening reception. Saturday will feature three panels, composed primarily of alumni and faculty, followed by a lecture from Bill McKibben, prominent author, environmentalist and educator.

“It should be a fabulous opportunity for students to get a sense of what alumni are doing since graduating and get a little sense of the history of the Environmental Studies Program, which is proud history, frankly,” Zimmerman said of the celebration.

According to ES professor Mel Manalis, it’s paramount that the direction environmental education takes from here is in concert with a sense of accountability.

“When you teach a course for 30 years, you develop something called perspective,” Manalis said. “When you look at a problem like population growth you have to ask what we’re going to do about this. Is it our responsibility? I think it is.”