The local environmental movement, book-ended by spills

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The timing is uncanny, and slightly distressing.

Paul Relis founded the Community Environmental Council in Santa Barbara after the 1969 oil spill wreaked havoc on the Central Coast. This year, Relis’ new book was published just a month before another oil spill hit the Central Coast. His book, Out of the Wasteland: Stories from the Environmental Frontier, documents the history of the environmental movement in Santa Barbara since 1969.

“It hit me when I was on a small plane looking directly down into the cauldron of oil coming up. I thought, this is going to change the world.” – Paul Relis on the 1969 oil spill in Santa Barbara. Photo: U.S. Geological Survey
Oil from May 19th’s oil spill along the Gaviota Coast this year. Photo: Zackmann08/Wikimedia Commons

“I went, oh my god, here we go again,” said Relis when he heard the news of May 19th’s spill. The final tally found 142,800 gallons leaked from a pipeline, with about 21,000 gallons of crude oil reaching the ocean. It took 3,000 people and $2 million to clean up the mess.

“How much can you do of that?” asked Relis. “How many seawalls can you build? How much can you raise your buildings? How much water can you afford to desalinate? These are going to produce economic stresses and even a beautiful place like Santa Barbara may say, ‘We can only afford so much so we’ll let a chunk of the coastline go.’”

Santa Barbara Ecology Center, 1970. Photo: Hal Conklin

The foreword of the book was written by acclaimed author Pico Iyer. Iyer, a longtime friend of Relis, grew up in Santa Barbara. They met when Relis was a student at UCSB and Iyer’s parents were professors there.

“I remember going to an office in downtown Santa Barbara when I was a teenager and meeting Paul and his wife, Kathy, who were very young and full of dreams,” said Iyer. “I thought these were typical idealists out of UCSB, and these are wonderful ideas but there’s no way they’ll come to fruition.”

To Relis, the Community Environmental Council was all about making those dreams a reality. The organization was founded on the concept of blending theory with practice.

“This organization had a mission of building things. That’s what I wanted to be part of,” said Relis.

Vegetables for sale at El Mirasol. Photo: John Evarts
Children in the garden. Photo: John Evarts

Through the Community Environmental Council, he spearheaded the creation of numerous teaching gardens, composting systems, and solar water heaters as well as some of the earliest recycling programs in California.

“I’ve always believed the local is where the seed ideas emerge that have true power and durability,” said Relis.

Both Relis and Iyer admit Santa Barbara has greater power than most local communities. The city is known for pristine beauty and a citizenry with money and political resources.

Relis believes that’s part of the reason the 1969 oil spill had such an environmental backlash.

“It had a global reach. If it had happened in Ventura, or off of Oxnard, it might not have been the same. That’s the result of being a privileged place,” said Relis.

A blueprint for the CEC’s Gildea Center, built to demonstrate energy efficient strategies to the public. Source: CEC

Iyer feels the call for civic engagement and environmental protection is just as important now as it’s ever been.

“I remember as a kid in the ‘70s, I thought Santa Barbara felt like Santa Cruz, and my worry now is [Santa Barbara] feels like Santa Monica,” said Iyer. “I think all of us who spend time in this beautiful place have a very serious investment in trying to protect what’s special and unique about it, and not letting it become just another suburb of Los Angeles.”