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Turning Love of Nature into Action

John Adams co-founded the Natural Resources Defense Council, the nation's first law firm for the environment

Today, John Adams is chairman of the Open Space Institute, which purchases scenic and natural land in New England to protect it from development.
Today, John Adams is chairman of the Open Space Institute, which purchases scenic and natural land in New England to protect it from development.

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Faiza Elmasry

For more than four decades, John Adams has fought to defend the environment and empowered individuals in the US and around the world to join the cause. Adams is co-founder of the Natural Resources Defense Council, the nation's first law firm for the environment.

Defending the environment, John Adams says, is personal.

Taking it personally

"When you care about something, like the environment, it does become a passion," he says. "It becomes your life. I grew up on a small-town farm in the Catskill [Mountains] of New York. It was a wonderful place to grow up. I loved it. I learned to love a lot about spending time alone and looking at what was out there."

But by the 1960's, he didn't love what he saw happening to the environment.

"We were a major industrial force with no pollution controls. So if you were in Pittsburg or New York or the factory areas of New Jersey or California, you would be hit with air pollution that had virtually no pollution controls," says Adams. "In New York, we burnt a lot of our garbage right in the buildings - with incinerators in it, of course. Fly ash would come up and it was really all over the city. The rivers were burning because of the pollution that came from the factories. The Hudson River, where I live and grew up, was raw sewage and it smelled because there were no requirements for sewage control."

He also worried about the chemical pollution of the waters and the disappearing farmland around the big cities which became suburban sprawl without any planning.

Adams turned his love for nature into action, leaving his job with the U.S. Attorney's office in New York in 1970 to help establish the Natural Resources Defense Council, the NRDC. The 33-year-old lawyer became its first director.

Professional corps of environmentalists

"An older group of lawyers, very wonderful people, both from Yale law school and the bar in New York, came to me and said, 'We should start the first public interest law firm for the environment.' So I agreed to leave the Attorney's office to do that. And with a grant from the Ford Foundation, we started the first public interest law firm to practice law as a charitable corporation, the first in the country."

The founding of the NRDC coincided with the strengthening of federal laws protecting the quality of air, water and land.

'A Force for Nature,' chronicles the evolution of the Natural Resources Defense Council from a home-grown advocacy group to a 1.3-million member organization with global reach.
'A Force for Nature,' chronicles the evolution of the Natural Resources Defense Council from a home-grown advocacy group to a 1.3-million member organization with global reach.

"We were there to work on helping to write [the laws], and then, most important, we were there to help work on making sure the rules and the regulations under those statutes provided for protection of the environment, and provided citizens the right to challenge, if they didn't adequately protect the environment. So we helped to create an environmental movement that gave citizens the right to participate."

Force of nature

In their new book, "A Force for Nature," John Adams and his wife, Patricia, also an environmental activist, chronicle the evolution of the NRDC from a home-grown advocacy group to a 1.3-million member organization with international reach.

"The model that we used for building the NRDC, I think, works. It works because, first of all, we wanted to have a collegial place that would attract really, really, bright people who had the dedication to want to really make a difference about the environment. We wanted them to stay and become professional environmentalists. Back in 1970, there were not very many places for a lawyer or a scientist to be an environmentalist unless they stayed at a university. So we thought that there should be a professional corps of environmentalists."

The core philosophy of NRDC's environmental advocacy, Adams says, is to fight on many fronts at once - national and state legislatures, the court system and at the grassroots level. In some places, he says, advocating for environmental issues gives people their first opportunity to have a voice in public policy.

Having a voice

"We have an office in China. We work with Beijing University. And a group of law professors there has started an environmental clinic much like what we did here in the US almost 40 years ago," says Adams. "They are now representing citizens on a wide range of pollution cases. They are fighting back and actually having a big impact on China. China doesn't want its citizens to protest. And a lot of protesting has been going on about the environment. So they have allowed much more freedom for people to stand up and let the government know what's wrong with their environment. In Africa, the same thing is true."

Adams' hope is to inspire more people around the globe to become part of the environmental movement.

"I encourage people through the Voice of America's wonderful voice to remember that they can do a lot to protect the environment. Their voices are very, very important. We need to hear from all of the people who care about the environment. We need them to support the work of the environmental world. We think of them as we think of nature. They are very much part of it."

Adams led the NRDC for 36 years, and remains on its Board of Trustees. Today, he is chairman of the Open Space Institute, working to purchase scenic and natural land in New England to protect it from development.

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