THE BLOG
11/18/2010 10:06 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Putting It All on the Line for the Environment

Crossposted with www.TheGreenGrok.com.

John and Patricia Adams, the founders of NRDC, came to Duke this week.

In the late 1960s, the American environment was under attack and the prognosis was grim. The Clean Air Act and Clean Water Act were but shadows of the laws we know today. Companies dumped raw sewage into American rivers, and it was commonplace for a thick layer of soot to collect on an open urban windowsill after a few hours. In 1969, signature events like the Santa Barbara oil spill and the burning oil and garbage floating on Ohio"s Cuyahoga River punctuated the declining state of our environment.

2010-11-18-159510_adams021400w.jpg John Adams, one of NRDC's founders, gave a talk at Duke Law this week with his wife Patricia. Today the White House announced that John will be presented with the Presidential Medal of Freedom for his work. (Megan Morr/Duke Photography)

In New York, controversy was growing over a proposed pump-storage power-generating facility along the Hudson River. The project would have involved pulling huge quantities of water out of the river, killing large quantities of fish, while defacing Storm King, a scenic and historic mountain that had been featured by the artists of the Hudson River School.

NRDC Grew Out of Effort to Stop Storm King Project

A group of young lawyers decided to block that project and eventually did using a powerful combination of scientific expertise and legal prowess. One of the fruits of that historic fight was the birth of the NRDC (more formally known as the National Resource Defense Council). It started with a handful of unpaid lawyers and has grown today to be one of the largest, most influential environmental advocacy groups in the nation, if not the world. It boasts some 1.3 million members; a staff of more than 300 lawyers, scientists, and other professionals; and an annual operating budget of about $90 million. (Read more about NRDC.)

Among the group of founding lawyers was John Adams. (Full disclosure: John is a Duke Law grad and a member of the Nicholas School's Board of Visitors.) John at the time was working in the U.S. attorney's office but feeling it was time for a change. Both John and his wife Patricia had a strong connection to the land by virtue of the time they spent in rural America as children. And they were concerned about the environmental degradation they were seeing.

The Storm King controversy caught their attention and they found themselves increasingly drawn into the fight, just as they found themselves increasingly drawn into discussions about the need for a new kind of organization that would protect the environment, an idea just beginning to find seed in America. This organization would combine science and law to represent the environment against the forces that would exploit and degrade it.

The Adamses Change Course, Betting It All to Protect the Environment

Eventually, John and Patricia decided to do what for many people would be the unthinkable. With two children and a third on the way, they decided that John would quit his job to become the director of NRDC, a job that came with no guarantees of funding or even a salary. Any money for the new organization would have to be raised by John and Patricia.

Patricia and John Adams

Patricia and John Adams spoke at Duke Law, Nov. 16, 2010. (Megan Morr/Duke Photography)

The story of the founding of NRDC and their forty years working for the environment is told by John and Patricia in their new book, A Force for Nature: The Story of NRDC and the Fight to Save Our Planet.

This is a good read -- fast-paced, often suspenseful, filled with facts and inside stories, and peopled by the late 20th century stars of the environmental movement. The book takes the reader from NRDC's watershed work of the 1970s helping to shape, implement, and enforce what are arguably America's two most important environmental laws -- the Clean Water and Clean Air Acts -- to its (and other groups') unsuccessful efforts to get a climate bill on the books in the first decade of the 21st century. Nevertheless, their story ends on an upbeat note and call to arms: "We've been going for forty years already and we're ready to roll up our sleeves for forty more."

I have known and worked with John and Patricia since coming to Duke in 2007. (I knew of them for a lot longer. Let's just say that as chief scientist at Environmental Defense Fund, the talent and capabilities of our sister organization the NRDC was often brought to my attention.) And I have greatly benefited from their counsel and friendship. A good deal of the essence of these two people is evident in their book. Two aspects are worth noting.

A Professional and Personal Partnership

It is fitting that this book is co-authored by John and Patricia because they are truly partners in their professional as well as personal lives. They attend meetings together, and even though Patricia is not a lawyer or a scientist, she can more than hold her own in a discussion of environmental science and policy and is a very shrewd student of strategic thinking and politics. This is not an example of the "woman behind the man"; it is an example of a woman and man standing side by side -- two very impressive people who, as a team, are a veritable juggernaut. And two people who clearly remain deeply in love with each other and committed to their family.

Courage and Commitment

It is hard for me to fathom the depth of courage and commitment it took for this couple to walk away from gainful employment and gamble everything to follow an ideal, to right a wrong, to fight for their vision of a better world. Few people have that courage and commitment, but every once in a while exceptional people step into the breach and the world is often better for them. Such is the case for John and Patricia Adams.

Further Reading

"President Obama Awards Medal of Freedom to NRDC Founding Director John Adams" - NRDC press release