An Insider's Look at the Formation of the NRDC and Birth of the Environmental Movement (Book Review)

john adams a force for nature book nrdc photo

Photo credit: NRDC

You'd be hard pressed to think of anyone or anything that has done more to protect the American environment over the last 40 years than John Adams and the organization he founded, the NRDC. The Natural Resource Defense Council may not boast a name that rolls off the tongue, but they do boast perhaps the most impressive legacy for using the law to stand up for the environment.

Adams' new memoir, A Force for Nature tells the story of that legacy. It's a fast-paced, highly readable tour de force that covers the last 40 years of institutional environmentalism—formed by a bunch of idealistic lawyers, NRDC was one of the first groups organized explicitly to use the law to confront corporations and the US government for their affronts to nature. But 'Force' is much more than a story about the NRDC.In fact, while it was interesting indeed to learn the details about the formation, early operations, and ongoing struggles of the NRDC, I especially enjoyed reading about the major environmental events of the last 40 years from the perspective of a man who was instrumental shaping how they effected US policy—not to mention the lives of Americans—for decades to come.

The NRDC is largely responsible for making sure that landmark laws like NEPA, the Clean Air Act and the Clean Water Act—which arose as a response to public outrage over the oil spills and fiery, polluted rivers of the 60s—were carried out and effectively observed. The book spans the decades between then and now, following the NRDC's expansion into a national force, and into a million-member international presence fighting for climate action.

It's thanks to the NRDC and such groups that we still enjoy such clean air and water around the nation. And for anyone interested in the environmental history of the United States, Adams' perspective is invaluable. After all, Rolling Stone was pretty right on in saying, "if the planet has a lawyer, it's John Adams." And indeed, it's interesting to see how environmental law and policy unfolded in the US, with the NRDC prodding it in the right direction. The book also often serves as an insider's account of how some of the major players (energy giants like Con Edison and the TVA, the Bureau of Land Management, the Reagan Administration, and so on) were persuaded to (occasionally) play ball and do some good for the environment. Or at least do less bad.

But this is indeed an insider's organization—the NRDC works squarely within the legal system of US law to affect change. Adams calls it "responsible militancy" in the book. In other words, Greenpeace this ain't. There are no tails of rappelling down coal plants or whaling protests on the high seas—and that's just fine. The world needs both forms of activism.

But it is a tad startling to see the horse-trading that's involved with getting corporations (and often the federal government, too) just to comply with environmental laws. There are stories in the book of how the NRDC has been forced to wheel and deal with institutions to make any headway at all. Take the episode where they confront the hugely powerful utility, the Tennessee Valley Authority (now famous for its massive ash slurry accident) —the NRDC agrees to settle a suit if the TVA cleans up just a few of its uber-polluting coal plants.

Now, without the NRDC, the TVA would have gone on polluting remorselessly—the group achieved huge gains, and a huge victory for the public in terms of pollution reduction. Yet it's nonetheless depressing what a mammoth uphill battle it is, time and again, just to get corporations to comply with the environmental laws on the books. You can't help but feel a little despair:

To this day, corporations go on polluting, heedless of the law, at the public's and the environment's expense. But we can take some solace that as long as they do, tireless, courageous groups like the NRDC will be there to hold them accountable—and it's largely thanks to them that we have the drinkable water, breathable air, and preserved natural resources that we do today.

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