A Force For Nature Gets His Due

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In the age of Prii, An Inconvenient Truth, and reams of 100% recycled printer paper, environmentalism is as much a fixture in American society as football season. That issues like climate change and sustainable fuel are topics of conversation among government officials and citizens alike is taken for granted. Environmental news coverage hits on everything from Al Gore’s Nobel Prize to the recent Gulf oil fiasco. Yet four decades ago, environmentalism was neither a part of the lexicon nor a coherent idea.

The recently published A Force for Nature (Chronicle Books, $25), by John and Patricia Adams, is ostensibly a history of the renowned Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), but the book reads more like a history of the entire environmentalist movement. It opens in 1969 over cheap bottles of wine, when the idea for a “new brand” of advocacy for nature was born of the ideals of earlier twentieth-century conservationist movements, concentrated legal acuity, and the inertia of a youth pissed off by the terrible revelation of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring. In 1970, John Adams was among those who founded the NRDC and began a case against Consolidated Edison, New York’s energy giant, over the construction of a destructive plant along a scenic stretch of the Hudson. This year he's headed to the White House to receive the nation's highest civilian honor, the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

The Adams give us an informed glimpse at how the NRDC rose from a simple idea—to “sue the bastards”—to championing the most important environmentalist legislation and judicial action in United States history. With stellar aspirations and some capital from the Ford Foundation, a crew of Yale Law graduates grew into a 1.3-million-member non-profit with 350 lawyers, scientists, and policy experts working across the planet. Through the lens of NRDC cases and studies, we see how issues like clean air, clean water, sustainable forestry, recycling, and the effects of offshore drilling went from being discussed by only a few to being fought over in Congress and the high courts.

The story is fascinating, but at times it becomes mired in the nuances of bureaucracy and the complex shuffles of Washington insiderdom. Often, the success of NRDC cases seems tied to the people its members know—or are able to get to know—within presidential administrations. The first such success comes at the very beginning. Before the NRDC could consider litigation, the IRS raised questions about whether a non-profit could represent the public in a courtroom. The NRDC made a call to a friend within the Nixon administration, sympathetic congressmen suddenly caught wind, and the IRS folded before the first gavel could strike. Throughout the book, the most dramatic turns often come in phone calls exchanged by politicians, and the pace can suffer.

However the effect is fitting. The NRDC’s war has been – and promises to be – one of attrition. Those who are frustrated environmentalists, who would like simply to put the Earth in reverse and immediately reap the rewards of recycling and solar power will find in A Force for Nature a sobering precedent. As the experience of the Adams makes clear, legislation and court decisions are only the beginning of the work. At times, the NRDC has had to endure years or even decades of sustained pressure to see new laws enforced and even longer to see the results. In one instance, the organization hounded the EPA from the late 1970s into the early 1990s to abide by its promise to compile a complete list of pollutants illegal to dump in American waterways.

A Force for Nature is unabashedly partisan and punctuated by dropped names—a Redford here, a Kennedy there—but it is also a genuine account. The mechanisms of politics are very much a part of the story of NRDC. However, above all else, the book is idealistic in the best possible sense. The tale of citizens, albeit exceptionally bright and motivated ones, bringing something so vital as a respect for the environment from concept to codification is inspiring. The characters you find in John and Patricia Adams’ book are bright, hard-nosed exemplars of the sort of fixers it will take to actually save the planet. They might just inspire you to go into debt, get a law degree, and sue some bastards.

–Riley Blanton