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‘A Force for Nature’: John Adams and the Natural Resources Defense Council

October 25, 2010 | 11:13 am

John Adams, NRDC

There was a time in the United States when black soot, smokestacks and smog thick enough to choke commuters seemed set to take over urban areas. America had become an industrialized nation, but without many checks and balances.

In 1969, John Adams saw raw sewage floating in his hometown, New York City, and he wanted to do something about it. Together with his wife, Patricia, they helped found an organization; he was 33 when he became the first director of the Natural Resources Defense Council.

In a new book "A Force for Nature: The Story of NRDC and the Fight to Save Our Planet" (Chronicle Books, 2010), Adams and his wife explain how the council formed and the road to groundbreaking litigation that has become part of today’s keystone environmental laws. From the fight over nuclear power to the Exxon Valdez disaster to the Gulf of Mexico oil spill, the NRDC has been arguing for nature (and for people).

Today the NRDC has 1.3 million members and a staff of over 300 scientists, lawyers and policy experts. They see their collective mission as nothing short of "safeguarding the Earth."

Adams, in his last chapter, expounds on the organization's core philosophy: "You have to fight on many fronts at once; you have to develop a full menu of skills, starting with litigation and legislation and moving through science, economics and communications; you have to be equally adept at working inside the Beltway and out at the grass roots, with your members; and you have to dig in for as long as it takes."

Adams talked with The Times about his new book and the NRDC's history:

In 1969, you had a young family, and you write: "If our young children ... slept by an open window in our apartment, they would wake with soot on their foreheads."  At the very beginning, what prompted you to take action?

New York was burning a lot of garbage with incinerators. When papers and garbage were burnt, it would fly out everywhere. I would eat lunch with my colleagues near the Battery. We would go eat on sunny days, and we'd see floating sewage. It was disgusting.

Concerns were elsewhere too. The first time I went to Chicago, the sky was red from the chimneys. It was like Dante's "Inferno."

Friends of mine were working on women's rights and health issues and civil rights. I thought to myself someone ought to be doing this for the environment. Some things were working in my head. My wife and I were trying to figure out: Who were we? What would we be in our lifetime? One thought we had: We thought of going upstate and just having a farm and being lawyers.

That's sort of the backdrop. So there we were with three kids in an apartment and no money. But we thought this idea we had could be something.

You also describe early conversations with like-minded friends. Over dinner, the cutting of the redwoods in California comes up -- "destroying two-thousand-year-old trees to make picnic tables for suburbia."  How has society’s relationship to the natural environment changed since then?

I can say that I'm sure of one thing. The laws that were written in the 1970s -- about clean air and clean water and grazing practices. Those laws have had a profound effect. Those laws have had a huge impact on the world.

Patricia and I have come to realize that people have short memories. The lessons learned about clean air have to be relearned.

I do think people care about the environment -- look at parks (national parks and local) -- people feel very passionate about these issues. But there is conflict. Like in West Virginia. They are treating the West Virginia mountains like a sacrifice zone. You see that and you think: Something is wrong, right?  That's about money. It's about energy. It tells you something about us and what our values are.

We all know we need energy. It's what America runs on. We need to educate people to understand that there are options. That efficiency can be profitable.

Oil, gas and coal have the loudest voice in the country. So we need to get this story out too.

Forcefornature-final The NRDC helped win $1 billion for the cleanup of the Exxon Valdez oil spill. How did you make that happen?

Exxon Valdez was 21 years ago. People forget very quickly. That was a huge oil spill in very cold water.  People were afraid that the spill's effects would last a very long time, and I think that has turned out to be true.

Sarah Chasis is one of our lawyers -- she worked with us to think about how the people there were affected and what they had lost. A lot of that happened around Kodiak Island and the native people there.

It was a coalition of organizations, and there was an effort to make Exxon and other companies understand that if they were building lines and traveling with unsafe boats, there would be litigation. Essentially the pressure came to bear on Exxon and on the federal government, and there was a huge payout. It was a collective effort that forced that. The Oil Pollution Act was passed.

Much has been forgotten, though, and now we are closer to the ends of the Earth than we were before. We are now drilling 25,000 feet down and going to the furthest places we can possibly go [to get oil].

How are you involved in the gulf spill recovery?

Our president, Frances Beinecke, is very thoughtful and talented -- she's been working on ocean issues since 1975. She serves on the president's council on the spill, but it's separate from NRDC.

NRDC itself has opened a resource center on the bayou. People there did not trust the oil companies or the government. So we had teams down there taking testimony and making films. Talking with fishermen. The bayou is beautiful, but the place is industrial. Wherever you look, you see someone who's working on oil.

We've been doing seafood testing and monitoring parts of the EPA's work. We're continuing to work with the Senate. We're participating in two lawsuits over the moratorium. We've partnered with StoryCorps -- they've captured some wonderful voices of people telling their stories. You could definitely use the word “heartbreaking.”

If you do what I do, you go to places that are both beautiful and bad.

At NRDC’s first formation, how did you decide which issues to focus on? You write "our work on clean water in NRDC’s first decade directly paralleled our work on clean air." How do you determine now what is most pressing?

The history of NRDC was that it was a very collegial and intelligent place to work. We all always met together. We talked about priorities and divided up resources. We all talked about the threat of nuclear. We brought in David Goldstein, who won a MacArthur; and Ralph Cavanagh, who changed our voice. As the country became more knowledgeable about climate change, we created the Climate Center.

What about plutonium? The "plutonium economy" -- in the early 1970s, the Atomic Energy Commission saw plutonium as a magic bullet that would solve all the nation’s energy problems. But NRDC determined plutonium to be "one of the most hazardous substances on Earth." Discuss.

That’s the power of really bright people sitting around and making decisions about what to do.

We hired three scientists to join us. One of them was Tom Cochran [a nuclear physicist]. He took an issue we weren't looking at and raised it to our attention. Patricia and I started to spend time with Tom Cochran in Russia, measuring whether or not the Russians wanted to get out of the arms race. We looked at nuclear weapons verification. We were also able to bring Russian scientists to the Nevada desert, and they were able to verify what we were doing.

All of that contributed to the plutonium battle. All of that informed people that plutonium was a huge danger. It's one of the stories of freedom of thought. 

In your opinion, what should be the next steps toward a green (new energy) economy?

We have to work on the conservation and clean-energy side. How do we put America back to work? Make America lead in technology innovation?

You're lucky, you live in California. California outlawed coal-fired power plants and pushed for everything that could get you energy efficiency. The people who are working on the California issues -- they are leaders who are helping us in New York.

You're placing controls on efficiency, on truck fuel standards, on carbon standards. NRDC is working with the DOE passing rules and tightening controls on everything from vending machines to hot water heaters.

Google is investing in offshore. I wish Google could run for governor.

So, why can't we get there? I'll tell you why: Oil, coal and gas. They have for so long been supporters of political people. We need to break that.

We need technology to spread, and it is.

-- Lori Kozlowski

Upper photo: John Adams. Credit: Anthony Clark

Lower photo the cover of "A Force for Nature: The Story of the NRDC and the Fight to Save Our Planet". Credit: Chronicle Books