A Force for Nature: The Story of NRDC and the Fight to Save Our Planet
By John H. Adams J.D. '62, Hon. '0 and Patricia Adams with George Black
Chronicle Books, 2010
In 1969, John Adams was in his mid-thirties, seven years out of Duke Law School, with two young children. His wife, Patricia, was pregnant and in graduate school. He was an assistant U.S. attorney in New York, an exciting job that made him feel alive. But the couple were restless.
An oil and garbage slick on the Cuyahoga River in Ohio caught fire that year. A massive oil spill stained the Southern California coastline. From a bench in Battery Park in lower Manhattan, Adams could see clumps of raw sewage floating down the Hudson River.
The life of a federal prosecutor soon went out the window. Instead, the Adamses joined with a fiery group of Yale University law students on an uncertain quest: to build a public-interest environmental law firm—the first of its kind—that would do for the nation’s land, air, and water what the ACLU and the NAACP Legal Defense Fund were doing for civil rights.
Four decades later, the Natural Resources Defense Council counts 1.2 million members and online activists and can claim victories in nearly every environmental arena, from forests to oceans to grocery produce aisles. In A Force for Nature: The Story of NRDC and the Fight to Save Our Planet, the Adamses describe how it felt at the birth of “the modern environmental movement,” when new challenges demanded a new organization to wage the fight.
These days, movie stars serve as NRDC trustees (Leonardo DiCaprio, for one, and Robert Redford, who wrote the foreword to A Force for Nature). The planet’s health is a ubiquitous topic, with climate change in the headlines daily and wood from sustainable forests for sale at Home Depot.
But in 1970, many Americans were only just waking up to industrial and automobile pollution that dirtied the air, toxic chemicals that fouled the water, and pesticides that tainted the food supply. That year, Congress created landmark reforms: the National Environmental Policy Act, the Environmental Protection Agency, and the Clean Air Act. Yet if the laws were to change anything, someone would have to hold the government accountable for enforcing them.
In its first lawsuit, NRDC took on the Tennessee Valley Authority, then the nation’s largest electric utility. Every year, its coal-fired power plants spewed more than 2 million tons of sulfur dioxide, a pollutant that returned as acid rain. The TVA managed to get around Clean Air Act requirements for years, but NRDC built a coalition of regional partners that ultimately forced the agency to cut its sulfur dioxide emissions by half—at the time, the largest such cleanup in U.S. history.
The young lawyers who founded NRDC loved to litigate, but they scored many wins without entering a courtroom. “Together we would bring about change within the system,” John Adams writes. “I thought of what we were doing as ‘responsible militancy.’ ”
In one example, Adams writes, NRDC worked with chemical manufacturers to help hash out the “first meaningful controls” over pesticides, then pushed them through Congress. Bypassing U.S. officials, NRDC negotiated directly with oil-company executives to limit offshore drilling in the Bering Sea. When NRDC wanted New York City to replace diesel engines in city buses with cleaner options, it mounted an advertising campaign on the sides of those same buses—an effort that proved impossible for the transit authority to ignore.
John Adams narrates the NRDC story but shares credit for the vision and accomplishments with Patricia and dozens of their colleagues, and with a wide variety of environmental groups, such as the Environmental Defense
Fund and the Sierra Club. He is equally upfront about the high-level connections that opened doors to grant money and decision makers in the early years, “people of means—many of whom were longtime conservationists—from Wall Street law firms and elite law schools.” Over time, many NRDC staffers became connections themselves, moving into top environmental posts in Presidential administrations and regulatory agencies.
NRDC’s battles over such elemental freedoms as the right to clean air and water are so recent and so endless. A string of victories in the 1970s gives way to the Reagan administration, “elected with an unapologetic promise to undo all that we had accomplished,” Adams writes. Later, the optimism of the Clinton-Gore years quickly fades as Republicans seize control of the House of Representatives and take aim at environmental protections in their “Contract with America.”
Through it all, Adams writes, NRDC has evolved into “the strongest environmental organization in the world,” well-equipped to do battle with its toughest foe yet—global warming. The strength of this memoir is such that, on both counts, it is easy to believe him.