As George Santayana said, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” The current Gulf oil spill shows there is virtually NO evidence that anything was learned from the 1969 Santa Barbara oil spill. Sadly, there is no “legacy” to that event. Only eternally greedy oil companies and inept government.


It’s become a popular sound bite to talk about, “All the amazing environmental legislation on water and air pollution that the 1969 Santa Barbara oil spill led to,” as if it was almost a good thing. Yeah, so what?

Let’s take a look at the sad truth of it as we do in this video. It’s 40 years later and the current Gulf oil spill shows that virtually NOTHING was learned from the 1969 Santa Barbara oil spill in terms of preventing disasters.


Three weeks ago I was complaining about, “Where is all the public outrage — why are there no major demonstrations happening?” To see if we have “shifted our baselines” in terms of public engagement in environmental issues, Ty Carlisle and I looked into the history of the Santa Barbara oil spill. This took us to Richard Charter of Defenders of Wildlife, who was around at the time, and Greg Desilet, who has written about the Santa Barbara “riot” (seriously, could you possibly envision a riot happening in posh Santa Barbara today???!) that happened a year after the spill — a result of several factors including UCSB campus politics, the Vietnam war, but also the frustration over the oil spill.

It also led us to the UCSB Special Collections where they have the best repository of news articles and photos of the spill, then to Robert Soller, whom we interview in this video. The thing that struck us both the most was how virtually identical the basic dynamics of the Santa Barbara story and the Gulf story are. Same lying oil company dynamics, same lack of regulation, same attempts at cover up, same devastation. As we’re fond of saying at Shifting Baselines, “Same, same.”

Please don’t let anyone tell you about all the great things that came from the Santa Barbara oil spill. The truth of it is, no big lesson was learned. If it was, there never would have been the intimacy between big oil and the government that Robert Soller talks about.

So who is to blame? There’s the obvious culprits of big oil for their dishonesty and government for it’s ineptitude. But I also point a finger at the large environmental groups who take the public’s money and talk a big story about being “eco-warriors.” Where were they in 1982 when M.M.S. was created under the Reagan AdministrationMark Dowie will tell you where they were in his book, “Losing Ground: American Environmentalism at the Close of the Twentieth Century.” They were busy hiring corporate marketing and communications people, and changing the title of their directors to C.E.O.’s. And by the last decade many of them were busy taking money from B.P. as the Washington Post has reported.

So where can we place our hope? I think this video shows you. In the end, the only real source of hope rests with “the people,” as was the case in Carpinteria with the rejection of Measure J. Activism at all levels is needed, but in the end, the only truly reliable hope rests with the grassroots, as Mark Dowie so elegantly put it in our video with him five years ago.