Half a century ago within roughly a month of each other, two events occurred that ignited a movement in America empowering people to protect our planet. On Monday, April 22, the South Valley celebrated Earth Day with the rest of the world. Let’s examine the history of how this day of environmental awareness came about.
The first event took place nearly 250,000 miles away when on Christmas Eve, 1968, Apollo 8 astronauts took a photo of the distant blue-white ball of Earth “rising” over the grey and lifeless lunar surface. The famous photo “Earthrise” showed all humanity that our world is as fragile as it is magnificent.
The second event took place off the California coast 250 miles from South Valley when on Jan. 28, 1969, an oil well in the waters a mile west of Santa Barbara, experienced a blowout. The resulting spill was at the time the largest in U.S. waters. The beaches were covered with crude, killing off wildlife including thousands of birds and many seals and other sea mammals. The disaster led to strict government restrictions on offshore drilling. The national media attention also led to many Americans growing concerned about what humans were doing to our environment and the costs of polluting chemicals to our health and communities.
The “Earthrise” photo and the Santa Barbara oil spill helped stimulate the expansion of the modern environmental movement. A respect for our natural world had been planted in the minds of many Americans when Rachel Carson came out with her ground-breaking book “Silent Spring,” a look at the dangers of pesticides. The growing movement prompted President Richard Nixon to sign many environmental laws. On Jan. 1, 1970, he signed the National Environmental Policy Act, beginning the 1970s as what some historians have described as “the environmental decade.”
The first Earth Day took place in 1970. Nixon formed the Environmental Protection Agency in December of that year. Environmental laws passed or strengthened during this period included the Clean Air Act amendments of 1970 and the Federal Water Pollution Control Act amendments of 1972. Other laws helped ensure Americans had clean water and protected endangered species.
A big reason the 1969 oil disaster had a major political impact was because Santa Barbara was the home for many wealthy Republicans who had helped elect Nixon. He understood the weight of public opinion when there were many other extremely controversial issues. He knew that projecting himself as the political protector of the environment would be a winning strategy for the 1972 election.
Fifty years later, the environmental danger from oil most likely isn’t another spill. It’s the impact of climate change. The science is clear that humans are changing the chemistry of our biosphere by releasing through the consumption of fossil fuels the carbon stored for hundreds of millions of years under ground and pumped or mined by energy corporations.
The 1969 oil spill reminds us of the reasons why the majority of Americans and 69 percent of Californians oppose offshore drilling. Unfortunately, as the event dissolves into distant history, the federal government seems to have formed an amnesia about the impact of this form of energy production. In January 2018 the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management began the Five-Year Offshore Oil and Gas Leasing Program expected to significantly increase offshore drilling in federally-controlled waters. This includes off the coast of California which has been off-limits for years. The Trump administration ignored wide-spread and bipartisan opposition to this proposed plan, which would be the most extreme in American history.
It’s vital the public step up and tell our leaders we will not stand for the selling of our heritage of public lands to fossil fuel companies and polluters that endanger coastal communities, our ocean’s health, and our economy. Let us give a legacy to future Californians by moving the Golden State and the rest of America toward clean energy goals and thus end our continued misguided investment in dirty, dangerous energy resources.
California’s coastal ecological resources provide millions of dollars in tourism revenue to cities and towns situated where land meets sea. But more than making money, protecting our environment is an ethical obligation. In 1968, the astronauts orbiting the Moon read 10 verses from Genesis. They included the very first words of the Bible: “In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth.” If we hold these words to be true, they are a spiritual mandate for us to protect our home planet not only on Earth Day but every day.