50th Anniversary of Earth Day

Happy Earth Day! We thought it would be fun to dive deep into the history of this wonderful day as we commemorate its 50th Anniversary! Read on about Interpretive Programs Coordinator Phil Brown’s first hand experience during the beginnings of what we now celebrate as Earth Day.

Today is Earth Day; in fact, it is the 50th Anniversary of the first Earth Day. But did you know that there was a “pre” Earth Day right before the first Earth Day? There was, and it was called Environmental Rights Day. It was held on January 28th, 1970, in Santa Barbara, California. And guess what—I was there!

Both Environmental Rights Day and Earth Day owe their impetus to the Santa Barbara Oil Spill on January 28, 1969. On that day, an estimated 3 million gallons of crude oil spilled into the open waters off the Santa Barbara coast—the largest oil spill in US history to that point. 1,000 gallons of oil an hour spilled out of damaged drilling equipment for a month. Globs of oil washed up along 40 miles of coastline.


Richard Nixon came to see it, but was timid about getting gunk on his shoes…  (Oliver F. Atkins / National Archives)

Students, teachers, activists, and community members, already rocked by the Vietnam war, assassinations of Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy, and the riots around the Democratic Convention in Chicago, suddenly had a new cause—the environment. A January 28 Committee was formed to plan an anniversary commemoration. Roderick Nash, UCSB professor emeritus of history, wrote a Declaration of Environmental Rights while aboard a sailboat, carrying a copy of the Declaration of Independence. He coordinated with other faculty and staff members to help organize an event.

The event was held at Santa Barbara City College, on a bluff overlooking the ocean, on a clear, sunny Santa Barbara day. Thousands of people attended. There were speeches by university and college professors, environmental leaders like Paul Ehrlich, Garret Hardin, and California Representative Pete McCloskey, who was working with Wisconsin Senator Gaylord Nelson on a national Environmental Protection Act; the two of them co-founded the actual Earth Day. The Declaration of Environmental Rights was read, and everyone then marched out to Santa Barbara’s Stearns Wharf for the finale.

I was just three weeks shy of my 21st birthday, and was a student at Los Angeles Pierce College in my second of four years there (it’s a two-year college: another story). Some friends and I went the 90 miles up to Santa Barbara to be part of the commemoration, not realizing the impact it would ultimately have.

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“Sit in” on Stearns Wharf  (Bruce Cox / Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)

As a direct result of Environmental Rights Day, the following happened:

  • The Community Environmental Council was formed, still a major force in Santa Barbara.
  • UCSB developed the nation’s first Environmental Studies Department and curriculum.
  • The Environmental Protection Act was passed.
  • Earth Day was established, and the “first” Earth Day was held in cities throughout the US. And it has been held every year since, educating the public about environmental concerns both locally and nationally. Even this year there will be online celebrations!

It’s hard to believe—even harder to admit—that it’s been 50 years, but I’m proud to have been there to see it launched.



Written by Interpretive Programs Coordinator: Phillip Brown

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