Santa Barbara’s Black Tide of 1969

By Roderick Frazier Nash


2010-08-11 15:05 Antandrus 3300×2550× (874604 bytes) Extents of 1969 oil spill. By self in ArcGIS 9.3; all layers in public domain; extent of spill digitized from County of Santa Barbara (; extents from Straughan (1973).


Editor’s Note: Instead of a formal essay from Professor Nash, we are reprinting a portion of an interview that he gave to Environmental History in 2002, and which Char Miller co-conducted and co-edited for the journal.   Nash’s answers to the two queries below closely track some of his reflections at PetroLA. During his presentation at the symposium, Nash also handed out and led a discussion of the significance of the “Santa Barbara Declaration of Environmental Rights” (1970), which he wrote in the immediate aftermath of the 1969 oil spill that blackened the coast; that document is reproduced below. – Char Miller

Query: How did the Santa Barbara Oil Spill of January 28, 1969 shape your subsequent work as a teacher and scholar?

Nash: The Santa Barbara Oil Spill certainly fueled the fire of this kind of concern. Reacting to it, a group of faculty in 1970 started a new interdisciplinary major at UC Santa Barbara called Environmental Studies. We thought the program marked a needed reform in how universities were organized and the kinds of issues they addressed. Students called environmental studies “relevant.” I chaired the program for its first five years. I was an assistant professor at the time. Some of my senior colleagues thought I was crazy and should focus on my research. Somehow, however, I found time to crank out the publications and still make my profession more responsive to environmental problems. I held a joint appointment in history and environmental studies until my retirement in 1993. Some faculty have been hostile (read “jealous” in some cases) to environmental studies, but I think UC Santa Barbara is proud of being a pioneer in interdisciplinary and problem-oriented teaching.

Query: How did the Santa Barbara Declaration of Environmental Rights, which you authored, come about? What was the reaction to it, on and off campus?

Nash: I was a 30-year old-assistant professor in 1969 at the time of the Santa Barbara Oil Spill. Like most Santa Barbarans, I went down to the beach after the blowout on January 28 and watched the black tide come in. One response, as I just mentioned, was to head the committee that started the new environmental studies major the next year. The other was to respond to the call of the “January 28 Committee” for a declaration to be read on the one year anniversary of the spill. I took a copy of Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence on my colleague’s (Dr. Barry Schuyler’s) sailboat out to the Channel Islands, which had been pretty well covered by the spill. I just sat in the cockpit, remembered the best ideas I had been teaching and researching in the late 1960s, and wrote the Santa Barbara Declaration of Environmental Rights. It could have been more ecocentric—focusing on the rights of the environment rather than the rights of people to a healthy environment—but I had not yet moved my research focus to environmental ethics as I did in The Rights of Nature: A History of Environmental Ethics (1989). Still, many seemed moved by the brief statement that I read before network TV cameras on January 28, 1970. My then 8-year-old daughter wrote her own statement about the damage to the beach environment where she played and I think it stole the show that day.

Santa Barbara Declaration of Environmental Rights, 1969

All men have the right to an environment capable of sustaining life and promoting happiness. If the accumulated actions of the past become destructive of this right men now living have the further right to repudiate the past for the benefit of the future. And it is manifest that centuries of careless neglect of the environment have brought mankind to a final crossroads. The quality of our lives is eroded and our very existence threatened by our abuse of the natural world.

Moved by an environmental disaster in the Santa Barbara Channel to think and act in national and world terms, we submit these charges:

We have littered the land with refuse.

We have encroached upon our heritage of open space and wildland.

We have stripped the forest and the grasses and reduced the soil to fruitless dust.

We have contaminated the air we breathe for life.

We have befouled the lakes and rivers and oceans along with their shorelines.

We have exterminated entire species of birds and animals and brought others close to extermination.

We are overpopulating the earth.

We have made much of the physical world ugly and loud, depriving man of the beauty and quiet that feeds his spirit.

Recognizing that the ultimate remedy for these fundamental problems is found in man's mind, not his machines, we call on societies and their governments to recognize and implement the following principles:

We need and ecological consciousness that recognizes man as member, not master, of the community of living things sharing his environment.

We must extend ethics beyond relations to govern man's contact with all life forms and with the environment itself.

We need a renewed idea of community which will shape urban environments that serve the full range of human needs.

We must find the courage to take upon ourselves as individuals responsibility for the welfare of the whole environment, treating our own back yards as if they were the world and the world as if it were our back yard.

We must develop the vision to see that in regard to the natural world private and corporate ownership should be so limited as to preserve the interest of society and the integrity of the environment.

We need greater awareness of our enormous powers on the fragility of the earth, and the consequent responsibility of men and governments for its preservation.

We must redefine "progress" toward an emphasis on a long-term quality rather than immediate quantity.

We therefore, resolve to act. We propose a revolution in conduct towards an environment which is rising in revolt against us. Granted that ideas and institutions long established are not easily changed:  yet today is the first day of the rest our life on this planet. We will begin anew.