Looking Back at 40 Years of Environmentalism with NRDC’s John & Patricia Adams
November 15, 2010
John and Patricia Adams, co-founders of the NRDC and co-authors of the newly released A Force for Nature, join “Green is Good” to look back on 40 years of environmentalism.
“The first reason we wrote the book was we wanted to record the first 40 years of the modern environmental movement,” John says. “This marks [NRDC’s] first 40 years, and the first environmental laws written in 1970.”
Patricia reminisces about the couple’s beginnings in New York in 1970 and how they felt they were living in a time of change — they knew even back then that there were serious issues affecting the health of our environment, and knew the things they loved were being destroyed. The NRDC was created on January 2, 1970, and they’ve never looked back since.
TranscriptionJOHN SHEGERIAN: Welcome back to Green is Good, and we are so honored today, and when I say honored, I underline the word honored, Mike. We have today with us on the line John Adams and Patricia Adams. John is the cofounder of the NRDC, and Patricia is one of the founding directors of the NRDC. This dates back 40 years. Just to make it real simple here, because their bios are two of the most impressive bios I’ve ever read in my life, we want to get them on the line right away here. It says here Rolling Stone magazine said, “If the planet has a lawyer, it’s John Adams.” I just want to say Mike and I have started this show, and we are so really, truly honored to have you both on today because of people like you. Welcome to Green is Good, John and Patricia Adams.
PATRICIA ADAMS: Thank you. We’re very happy to be here and talk to you today.
JOHN ADAMS: Yes, John and Mike. This is a real honor for us, and we’re very, very glad that you’re letting us talk about the book. So, let’s go to it.
JOHN SHEGERIAN: And speaking of the book, they’ve just co-authored a book called Force for Nature. I’m just going to say this. They were kind enough to send us an advance copy. I’m already halfway through it, and to all our listeners out there, if you really care about the environment and if you really want to do something about it and if you want to find hope and see where we’ve come the last 40 years and where we’re going to go, this is the one book to buy. This is the one to read during the upcoming holiday season. Force for Nature it’s called. You can find it on amazon.com, Borders, Barnes & Noble. John and Patricia, why the book after 40 years? Share with our listeners. What compelled you to write this book?
JOHN ADAMS: Well, let me say that the first reason that we wrote the book is we wanted to record the 40 years of the modern environmental movement. This marks our 40 years and the environmental movement’s 40 years. 1970 is when the first environmental laws were written. NRDC got incorporated at the latter end of 1970. After a long struggle, we were granted our tax exemption by the IRS, so we spent all of those early years working on the rules and regulations of the great laws that were passed 40 years ago. Second, we want to record the work of a lot of people who no one will remember if they weren’t included in this book. These are the people who stood by us, helped us raise money, gave us the creative advice that was needed. They were giants 40 years ago in the law profession in New York. Stephen Duggan is one, David Sive is another, James Marshall, the brother of the great Bob Marshall, is another, and Bill DeWind, who was our Chairman for 17 years. These are people that we owe a great obligation to, and they rank as high to me as John Muir does to the Sierra Club.
PATRICIA ADAMS: And I just want to add that over the years, we often talked about the importance of all the people who worked together at NRDC. I was always struck by what a team effort it was, and we were all on the same team. I love the stories that are embedded in this book, the stories of people who did particular things to work to save our environment.
JOHN ADAMS: It’s a model of law, science, and economics combined with the power of citizens, people. We think this is a good model, and that people should look at what NRDC was able to do in the 40 years, and figure out how they can use our model to do things in their communities, in their regions, in their state, including federal.
PATRICIA ADAMS: I just want to add one thing. Running through this book is the theme, “Start small, but think big.” That’s what a lot of big changes were made, by starting small but thinking big and continuing on forward.
MIKE BRADY: When we talk about going back to the beginning, Patricia, you and John, talk about starting small. You two were in a very small apartment. It’s hard to believe now, 40 years later, all of the amazing work that has been done by an organization, now world famous, the Natural Resources Defense Council, started in your small apartment. Take us back 40 years ago to how that started.
PATRICIA ADAMS: Well, we were living in the Village. We had just had our third child. We talk about one of the reasons that NRDC was started because of the real pollution that was there. The river flooded with raw sewage, the air was so dirty. We tell in the book how when the window was left open in our apartment, our baby would have soot on his forehead in the morning. That’s how dirty the air was. These things combined with the feeling in 1970 that things could happen — don’t forget it was the era of the Civil Rights movement, early women’s movement. We did feel when we were young that the world could be changed, and John, I think you could pick up on that.
JOHN ADAMS: Yeah, I was at the U.S. Attorney’s office, and had a reputation of caring about the outdoors. A lot of people used to come up to our farm in the Catskills from the U.S. Attorney’s office. So, when a group of people who were involved in trying to stop the desecration of Storm King Mountain — it’s a famous mountain painted by the Hudson River painters, lots of pictures of it in the Metropolitan — a group of folks started a big fight about that. It lasted about 10 years, but along the way, several of them came to me and said, “Look, we don’t want to have to go through this again. We spent a lot of money here. We need an NAACP legal defense fund of the environment, and you look like a good candidate to come and start it.” With that and a little help, we went off and started NRDC on January 2, 1970.
JOHN SHEGERIAN: So, they drafted you.
JOHN ADAMS: I was drafted.
MIKE BRADY: A first round draft pick. Let’s go back to the year prior. In 1969, we had something that was a precursor to what just happened in the Gulf. I remember it so well, growing up and being a student down in southern California in 1969, the Santa Barbara oil spill, which led to some great changes in legislation and the new national agency.
JOHN ADAMS: Yes, it did. I mean, it played a major role in the creation of the EPA and a lot of laws in California and the Department of the Interior banned drilling in that area. We had been able, with our California allies, we had two officers in California and about 100 people working there, but also with the Sierra Club and others, we’ve been able to keep Santa Barbara free of drilling. There have been a lot of threats to get it back on there now because the oil companies are going farther and farther to extremes to where they go to get oil.
JOHN SHEGERIAN: Before 1970, Patricia, did you and John always consider yourself environmentalists?
PATRICIA ADAMS: Well, I come from western North Carolina in the southern Appalachians, and my father was in the Forest Service, and I spent my youth camping and in the wilderness. His mantra was, “Can’t you hear the wild? It’s calling you.” John grew up in rural New York, in upstate New York, in the Catskill Mountains. We were both great lovers of nature, and I think we became environmentalists, which was really a new word in 1970, when we looked around at the things that we loved, the natural world, being destroyed. At that point, we were always environmentalists and loved nature, but when it became political is when we became official environmentalists.
JOHN ADAMS: Yeah, I couldn’t, back then, spell environmentalist. I thought of myself as a conservationist. I loved the farm life that I had grown up with, and I also was very, very concerned with the sprawl that was taking place across America. People were just moving out further and further into farmland all through New York and really everywhere. A group of my friends were very much involved in the Storm King case, so we knew a lot about that. I was meeting with friends of mine who were public interest lawyers in Washington, one of whom was working on the plan for the development of the Alaskan pipeline, and very concerned about it coming down through the Arctic and what might happen up there. So, we were being pulled a number of ways into this movement, and when this opportunity came along, it was just like OK, let’s go.
JOHN SHEGERIAN: If you’ve just joined our show right now, we’re on the line right now with John Adams and Patricia Adams, the founders of the NRDC. They’re explaining why and how the NRDC got founded and their new book, Force for Nature, which you can buy at amazon.com, Borders, Barnes & Noble, and all the great bookstores around you. So, you start the NRDC. Share with us some of the cataclysmic moments that happened in the NRDC’s early history and in the modern environmental law movement, which you were also very involved with.
JOHN ADAMS: That is a great question because it really does cover a lot of different things. I would say Rachel Carson, the Santa Barbara oil spill, the Storm King case, there were several other ski developments out in California, David Brower and his great books, they were all very, very important in the building of the early environmental movement. Then we got started. We got approval to practice law as a charitable corporation in New York, the first time an organization had been approved for charitable practice of law. The next thing that happened is we applied for a tax exemption. The environmental laws were being passed, the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act, but Richard Nixon had a trick up his sleeve, and he did not want radicals bringing lawsuits, and so our tax exemption was blocked. We then spent six months, seven months, eight months fighting to get the tax exemption. It was a bitter, bloody fight that cost us all of the resources we had, and almost killed us off. But the one thing it did was it made everybody who was lined up to be on the staff of NRDC, Gus Speth and John Bryson and Dick Ayres and Ed Strobehn, all great lawyers, they were looking for an opportunity, if we ever got this tax exemption, to really leave a mark. So, the next thing that happened, we got the tax exemption, and that cleared up a cloud for a lot of organizations around the country. Very shortly thereafter, we watched the cases and the Storm King case. Citizens were given the right to sue, even if they didn’t have an economic interest in the outcome. That was a very, very important ruling. We then saw the power of our members and the role that membership, even if it was small, could play in cases. We used our membership right from the beginning to send out alerts about the things we were working on, and that made a huge difference. I would say that the early laws that were passed, NAPA, requiring planning and thought to determine whether the course of action you were taking was the best course of action for the environment. Everyone has to think of that as really one of the most important ideas. Unfortunately, people don’t follow that rule as much as they should because there have been exemptions and so on that have taken place, but the Clean Air Act and the Clean Water Act gave citizens the right to enforce those laws. Can you imagine what that meant? It meant that NRDC could bring as many as 500 lawsuits against polluters. And then I would just say one of the other major events that unified the environmental movement was protecting the Arctic wildlife refuge. That is something that we have all united behind as just one of the things that we’re going to do. Those are just a few of the actions, and there are many others that we could talk about.
JOHN SHEGERIAN: Got it. Until I read your book, John and Patricia, I didn’t even really realize that the NRDC truly began as a law firm, and that you’re involved with policy, science, business, and law. So, explain a little bit how that evolution really happened. We’re going to then talk a little bit about the business aspects that are now really, really taking over now in many ways with regards to the movement and how the whole green revolution has evolved over the last 40 years. Patricia, do you want to share some of that with us?
PATRICIA ADAMS: Well, I think the backbone of NRDC has always been litigation. As you say, it started out as a law firm. The strength of our litigation arm is always there. It helps going to the table for litigations a lot easier. As you said, over the years, a lot of different forces have been brought to bear. One thing about NRDC over the years, in the environmental world, even when you do win, it can take years to implement court decisions or acts, or to be watchdogs for NAPA. In fact, the EPA said, in the early years of NRDC, that the lawyers here were like American patriots, revolutionaries. They’re behind every tree. Often, EPA is happy that it has NRDC to help sort of police and be ever vigilant, looking at the various cases.
JOHN ADAMS: Again, this is a terrific question because it really takes you through the whole movement when you ask about law, science, and now economics. When we started, there were six of us. When we finished, we had 400 plus. So, very early on, when people were working on the health issues of the Clean Air Act and the science issues of clean water and toxic chemicals, it became absolutely imperative that we have the kinds of trained people who could, using their Master’s or Doctorate degree, speak for us. So, we began a program of really public interest science. Not easy to do because most scientists look to the future of somehow being connected to science, and they wanted to make sure that their reputation was in tact and they didn’t speak outside of their field. What we were looking for were renaissance scientists. We wanted people who would look at the issues that we were working on and going to work on, and tell us were we in the right direction or the wrong direction, and we didn’t want them to be hobbled by the so-called rules of the science industry. So, we added scientists, and they had become incredible resources for us. They trained our lawyers to be scientists. I would say that the credit for this goes to a scientist named George Woodwell who’s at the Woods Hole Research Center, a great man. This is one of the people who identified climate as an early peril, and has continued to lead the country in thinking about what we should do and how we should deal with this very, very important issue. He was somebody that regularly took on the science industry if they were peddling something that wasn’t really good for the public health or for our world. We tried to follow that. By the time we were in the business 10 years, we had four or five scientists, and then we started adding people from the Yale School of the Environment and the Duke School and Berkeley School of Energy. In fact, all of our early energy people came out of the Berkeley school under John Holdren. That was how we built up the various trades at NRDC.
PATRICIA ADAMS: Can I just tell a short story about scientists? These were scientists in California asking a very simple question. What kind of toxins and pesticides are in the market when you get a bag of groceries? They actually took them to test to see what they and their children are eating, and they found it was so full of DDP and other pesticides that had been outlawed for years. They started a whole investigation about the food industry and the toxins and pesticides used, which resulted in a very big case for NRDC in the 1980s, which was getting rid of Alar on apples that are used so much for young toddlers and children, apple juice and things like that, to make their diets safer. Again, it was asking just a question about what are we eating that led to these big cases that NRDC has taken on.
MIKE BRADY: Our guests today are John and Patricia Adams, founding members of the NRDC. John and Patricia, I love the term that you used, renaissance scientists. What you’ve done is you have increased your depth on the bench, starting out not just with attorneys, but then getting scientists involved and economists as well, you were connecting the dots. Everything is connected to everything else, and that really is what the definition of environment is, so it really makes so much sense what you did from the beginning, to ask the big questions, how does this relate? How does this connect? Putting the puzzle together.
JOHN ADAMS: You’re absolutely right. That’s what it is.
JOHN SHEGERIAN: Now you went from six committed people to 400 you were saying, John, now, and so many of the people have been there the whole duration. Mike and I are so honored and lucky to not only have you and Patricia today on the show, but we’ve had many members from the NRDC appear on this show before. As we say to them before they come on, you have the deepest bench in the whole industry. You really are the leading organization. As Robert Redford said, “40 years later, many people, myself included, regard the NRDC as possibly the most effective environmental organization on the planet.” So, what is your secret sauce? Many companies and many organizations start small, but they can never scale. So, now as you’ve scaled, how would you account the longevity and the true collaborative spirit that your members and colleagues have?
JOHN ADAMS: I guess I would start off by saying that my experience at the U.S. Attorney’s office taught me that young people can do a lot. That’s a place where young people can get trained and go on to a legal career or become a judge. That was a great experience. I thought it was wonderful. It was a collaborative way of dealing with issues. Everybody helped everybody else, and so when I started NRDC, my goal was to have a place where we all worked together to figure out what the most important issues were, and how we were going to do it, and that it was going to be on the model of a family. I don’t mean that exactly, like it was a family, but I wanted people who liked each other, trusted each other, worked together with each other. Then Patricia and I worked to create an ambience outside of NRDC, where people could come to our home. We had all of our picnics up there. We treated people well. We looked for ways to make people feel good. We made it clear we wouldn’t put up with a lot of people lording over others, depending on what position they held at NRDC. I really believe the model of hiring really, really talented people, putting them in a good atmosphere and a good place, and letting them do their work, unless they needed help, but really the kinds of people we have hired, you know who they are — David Hawkins, Ralph Cavanagh, David Goldstein. It just goes through the people who have come and worked at NRDC — Sarah Chasis who’s been with us 38 years working on oceans, Frances Beinecke, who’s been with NRDC for 35 years working on a range of issues, including the ocean issues, and then really working on the management of NRDC. These are people who feel that everybody in the institution is their friend. They have an obligation to them, and we have an obligation to each other. I think that’s why people stay.
PATRICIA ADAMS: I would just add that being with John all these years, John has hired the best people who are committed to the environment, and then give them free reign but always back them up and be supportive. I think that created a very good atmosphere within the whole office and that sense of family, as John talked about earlier.
JOHN SHEGERIAN: Patricia, I love what you shared with our listeners earlier. Start small, think big. That’s actually what you’ve done. Unfortunately, we’re down to the last minute-and-a-half here, and I’d like you both to share any last thoughts you have with our listeners before we leave and sign off and tell our listeners again to buy your amazing and wonderful book, Force for Nature. Any last thoughts on the future of the NRDC, the future of John and Patricia Adams, and where this whole movement is going from here on in?
PATRICIA ADAMS: I’ll just quickly say and let John finish up, but I think that the generation coming now is aware of what’s happening with our environment today. We’re going to the ends of the Earth and extremes now to get fossil fuels. I have great belief that solutions will be found.
JOHN ADAMS: I would say there’s one point that we haven’t made, and that’s the power of the membership. We have close to 1,300,000 members and e-activists, folks that help us from Hollywood to New York to Boston. These are great people who are committed to help us achieve our goals. We’ve expanded out and I look at the 75 people at NRDC who are working on energy and energy efficiency, and I know that we’re going to get where we have to go. It’s going to take a little bit longer, but we’ll get there.
JOHN SHEGERIAN: That is so great. I want to just thank you both for your time today. Force for Nature, John and Patricia have just written. If you can only buy one book and you’re going to read one book, upload it on your Kindle, your iPad, buy it on amazon.com or go down to Borders, Barnes & Noble, or your local bookstore. Force for Nature. Patricia and John, for Mike and I, this is exactly why we started this show. To have both of you on today is truly the reason we do what we do here at Green is Good. You are just both inspirational visionaries that have shared your message of hope today, and we just want to thank you and just say that you are both living proof that green is good.
PATRICIA ADAMS: Thank you very much.
JOHN ADAMS: Thank you very much for that wonderful statement.