Oil Shouldn’t Have to Spill to Get Us to Fight for the Environment

In Donald Trump’s war on the environment, Americans’ complacency is his greatest ally.

A blowout on Platform A caused the 1969 Santa Barbara oil spill

Doc Searls/Flickr

Those old enough to remember 1969 may recall that it was a very good year for music, moon landings, and the New York Mets.

But it was a spectacularly bad time for the American environment.

On January 28 of that year, an offshore oil drill violently ruptured six miles off the California coast. Over the next 10 days, nearly 1,000 gallons of crude oil spilled into the Santa Barbara Channel every hour. Much of it seeped onto Central Coast beaches and the shorelines of the pristine Channel Islands, killing thousands of birds, dolphins, seals, and other marine life. Between that blowout and a second one discovered on the ocean floor two weeks later, the Santa Barbara oil spill became the biggest of its kind in California history—and remains, nearly half a century later, the third-largest oil spill in U.S. history (behind the 2010 Deepwater Horizon spill and the 1989 Exxon Valdez disaster).

Then, on June 22, 1969, Cleveland’s Cuyahoga River quite literally caught fire. Thanks to images that indelibly made their way onto front pages and nightly newscasts (and even into pop songs), Americans cringingly bore witness to what happens when we allow waterways to fill up with so much flammable material that they become—in defiance of our concept of natural order—fire hazards.

Not every toxic cloud has a silver lining, of course, but good things did come out of these disasters. On the first day of 1970, President Richard M. Nixon inaugurated a new era of federal environmental protection. He signed into law the National Environmental Policy Act—which, among other things, created the Council on Environmental Quality, a special office within the executive branch that coordinates environmental efforts undertaken by various agencies.

Less than four months later, 20 million people took part in the very first Earth Day, whose organizers singled out the Santa Barbara oil spill as a key motivation for putting together a national day of awareness that was linked to calls for governmental action. By the end of the year, President Nixon would recognize the need to consolidate the increasing amount of environmental work being done at the federal level. Out of this recognition, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency was born on December 2, 1970.

I bring up this bit of history to illustrate a point that’s all too easy to forget. Much of what we now think of as the modern “environmental movement” represented a reflexive response to disaster—or, at the very least, a response to the disturbing feeling that governmental negligence was allowing a bad situation to grow worse. Back then, Americans felt that things were spinning out of control. So they took to the streets by the millions for Earth Day, created the first wave of environmental advocacy organizations (including NRDC), and applied pressure to their elected officials. In less than two years’ time, they laid the foundation for an entirely new way of thinking about—and protecting—the planet and its resources.

Here’s some more history. Every four years since 1935, the Gallup organization has conducted a single-question poll of Americans. The question is: “What do you think is the most important problem facing this country today?” The multiplicity of answers amounts to a panoramic psychological snapshot of what Americans are most worried about at a given moment. Gallup released its 1969 poll right before the Santa Barbara oil spill made international headlines and three months before Americans were forced to confront the grim, oxymoronic reality of a river on fire. In that year’s poll results, “the environment” didn’t make the cut. It didn’t even register as a “problem facing the country today.”

But by 1973, Americans were telling pollsters that the problem of the environment concerned them greatly—almost as much as crime, and more (if you can believe it) than war and race relations. Environmental calamity had given birth to consciousness. And consciousness, in turn, had given birth to action.

Fast-forward to 2017. While the environment still merits a slot in our national inventory of worries, its standing has fallen precipitously. According to Gallup, Americans are more concerned about the environment than about crime, wages, or inequality. But ranking much higher on our list of worries are terrorism, immigration, health care, the economy, race relations, and general “dissatisfaction with government.” And for a White House that’s predisposed to weaken environmental protections out of deference to corporate interests, that constitutes an opening.

No one was surprised to learn that President Trump’s preliminary budget proposal for 2018 featured steep cuts in discretionary spending across a wide swath of agencies, departments, and programs. After all, Trump consigliere Stephen K. Bannon had already made perfectly clear that the White House’s top priority was, and would continue to be, the “deconstruction of the administrative state.”

Even so, few could have anticipated the degree to which the budget would so transparently betray this administration’s animus toward the very idea of environmental protection. As has already been widely reported, it would slash funding for the EPA by nearly a third, leading to the elimination of more than 50 programs and 3,200 jobs—this last figure representing one-fifth of the agency’s overall workforce. In addition, it would dramatically reduce money for the Superfund program, which is responsible for overseeing the cleanup of the country’s worst toxic waste sites. On top of all that, it would nearly halve the budget for the EPA’s Office of Research and Development—the division that collects and analyzes the data behind our environmental rules and regulations.

To be sure, many are outraged by these draconian cuts and what they augur for the environment and public safety. But the sad, terrible truth about the Trump administration is that it can often feel like there are simply too many transgressions to tally. Outrage is a finite resource, and ours is in danger of being depleted.

We can’t allow that to happen. We need to get back to that 1970 mix of action, optimism, and aggressiveness. But we somehow have to find a way to do it without first going back to that 1969 mix of oil-slicked coastlines and burning rivers. Can we? Are we up to the task? Trump doesn’t think so—in fact, he’s banking on it.


onEarth provides reporting and analysis about environmental science, policy, and culture. All opinions expressed are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the policies or positions of NRDC. Learn more or follow us on Facebook and Twitter.

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