Earth Day has lost its teeth

This week is the 50th anniversary of the first Earth Day. Of all the things we can reflect upon during this time, I think it is important to remember what Earth Day was first designed for: protest.

One blustery January day in 1969, an oil rig off the coast of Santa Barbara, California, ruptured. The explosion was so powerful it cracked the seafloor in five places, and crude oil spewed out at a rate of 1,500 gallons an hour for 11.5 days (footnotes 1,4). The scene was so dramatic, witnesses said the ocean was boiling (2). The air smelled of heavily of tar, and entire beaches were masked with thick black sludge.

When all was said and done, the rupture released over 3 million gallons of oil into the Santa Barbara channel, creating an 800-square-mile oil slick that indiscriminately killed marine wildlife (4). It smothered kelp forests below the waves, caused lethal lung hemorrhaging in thousands of sea mammals and claimed the lives of 3,600 seabirds (4). The scene on the 35 miles of California coastline looked apocalyptic, and it shook the American public to its core.

Union Oil, the corporation that owned the rig, downplayed the loss of life as “a few birds” and characterized the public backlash as irrational (1,4). In response, grassroots organizers formed a coalition of concerned citizens, college students, scientists as well as Democratic and Republican U.S. senators and representatives to push for federal environmental protection legislation. On April 22, 1970, the very first Earth Day happened. Activists across the country took part in protests and teach-ins (1,2,3). It was a clear message to big oil corporations: no more. No more selling our souls for black gold. No more destruction of our homes. No more putting lives at risk. It was time for a change.

The 1969 Santa Barbara oil spill was a nightmare that the American public woke up from. They could no longer ignore the consequences of fossil fuel usage because it was now at their doorstep; the sea was boiling before them.

Today we are faced with an even greater threat, however, it is not as visible as an oil slick. In 2020, we must deal with the threat of global climate change. Instead of oil, we must deal with the cleanup of metric tons of transparent greenhouse gasses in our atmosphere. We cannot scrub this pollutant from the wings of seabirds. Now we must push for legislation to get fossil fuel money out of our government.

Today, Earth Day has lost its teeth. It has become a day for companies to push “green products” to consumers and for elected officials to pander to a concerned public while they take money from oil executives on the side. We are told to buy LED lightbulbs and to make more environmentally friendly life choices rather than taking fossil fuel producers to task for their systematic abuse of our planet. In the process, one of the biggest environmental quandaries of our time continues to worsen. Earth Day has become a figurehead to calm the nerves of a generation of people who will face the extremes of climate change within their lifetime if it is not immediately addressed. It is time we take it back.

I cannot ignore that as I write this, we have lost over 40,000 souls to COVID-19 in the United States (5). This should be our time to wake up, just like that day in 1969. We can no longer dismiss the truth of scientific study. Viruses, though not immediately visible, can take away loved ones and endanger the lives of our friends. This is a fact that we had to accept when the first cases of COVID-19 appeared in our own backyard. The response to this fact has highlighted that mass coordinated action to address a crisis, though imperfect, is possible in this country. It has shown that the citizens can take measures to protect one another, that scientists can generate research at record speeds, and that there are still people in our government who care about their constituents. We have a long way to go before this response system is ideal, but this public health crisis has shown us that the groundwork is there.

This Earth Day, we cannot physically show up for our planet, but we can still fight. We cannot fight by simply using reusable grocery bags or recycling. We cannot justify our inaction by making a single Instagram post. We must fight by calling our elected officials to demand more federal funding for scientific research across the board and by writing letters to them demanding they rescind the money of fossil fuel executives. We must demand scientifically based legislation to protect the health of our loved ones and the future of our planet. We must take back the original purpose of Earth Day and fight with the fervor of an environmental activist standing on an oil-covered beach in 1969. Our perseverance over the past few months in the face of a global pandemic has shown us that it is possible to fight this hard if we know what is at stake.

Madeline Clark lives in Saranac Lake.


1. Kate Wheeling & Max Ufberg. (2017, April 18). “‘The ocean is boiling’: The complete oral history of the 1969 Santa Barbara oil spill.” Pacific Standard. https://psmag.com/news/the-ocean-is-boiling-the-complete-oral-history-of-the-1969-santa-barbara-oil-spill

2. “How the 1969 Santa Barbara oil spill sparked Earth Day.” (n.d.). KCRW. https://www.kcrw.com/news/articles/how-the-1969-santa-barbara-oil-spill-sparked-earth-day

3. “The 1969 Santa Barbara oil spill that changed oil and gas exploration forever.” (2015, May 21). Los Angeles Times. https://www.latimes.com/local/lanow/la-me-ln-santa-barbara-oil-spill-1969-20150520-htmlstory.html

4. University of California Santa Barbara. (2004). “The Santa Barbara Oil Spill: A Retrospective.” UC Santa Barbara Department of Geography. https://www.geog.ucsb.edu/~jeff/sb_69oilspill/69oilspill_articles2.html

5. Johns Hopkins coronavirus resource center. (2020, April 20). Johns Hopkins Coronavirus Resource Center. https://coronavirus.jhu.edu/map.html


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