3 lessons on resilience from the first Earth Day

San Francisco is one of the 100 Resilient Cities.

An estimated 20 million people participated in the first Earth Day in the United States on April 22, 1970. The day helped change the national agenda and proved that people in the United States had a deep concern for the state of the environment. In some ways it launched the modern, international environmental movement.

The tactics that made the first Earth Day so successful at building a unified, grassroots movement offer three lessons for global resilience practitioners about garnering widespread support, promoting behavior change and building an enduring global movement:

1. Tap into the existing base of issue-focused activists to build support and energy.

Part of what made the first Earth Day so successful was how its founders incorporated the tactics, priorities, and passions of the anti-war movement of the 1960s and rallied these civil rights and anti-war activists to the environmental campaign.

City resilience practitioners should engage with involved citizens and let them know that their personal efforts and passions — whether it’s supporting local businesses and building economic resilience, or job training to help address social inequity — are providing valuable support, and that explicitly engaging with the larger resilience effort would improve their city’s resilience.

2. Emphasize local, personal benefits.

Convincing people to participate in efforts to make the world a better place for future generations is challenging. Today's resilience practitioners, especially Chief Resilience Officers and others in city government supporting them, need average citizens and influencers to understand that the work they do now to build resilience will make life in the city better right away — and not just in the future.

The first Earth Day built support by promising tangible local change in the short term in the form of perceptibly cleaner air and water. Similarly, cities can show inhabitants the immediate benefits of building resilience, such as diminishing the negative effects of powerful storms and providing better access to jobs.

3. Create a legacy through legislation.

The first Earth Day prompted the creation of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), which enjoyed broad political support in Congress in its early years, and the passage of the Clean Air Act, as well as several other enduring pieces of legislation in the years that followed.

Institutionalizing the position of the chief resilience officer in city government is an important step to ensure city resilience is an enduring priority. Furthermore, resilience practitioners can take advantage of key moments while laws are being written to shape their path and ensure legislation builds city resilience. For example, multiple Australian states have passed laws requiring that any new home construction or substantial renovation include installing a rainwater tank to provide a backup water supply during droughts. These laws prepare communities for the next drought, which provides multiple co-benefits to the city and its inhabitants in the near- and long-term. 


Earth Day proved to be a massively successful, essential component of the environment movement, with over four decades of staying power. What other lessons does it offer that local resilience practitioners should be sure to learn? Let us know in the comments.

This article first appeared on 100 Resilient Cities.

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