• picture
  • picture
  • picture
  • picture
Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

How to Move a Movement

Air Date: Week of

The Natural Resources Defense Council opened its doors on the same day the country celebrated its first Earth Day. NRDC president John Adams remembers that day clearly, as he was its only member at the time. He talks with host Steve Curwood about the changes he's observed within the environmental movement since that first hopeful day.


CURWOOD: It's Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. When the 1990s began, the focus of Earth Day began to shift from protecting the environment of our nation to protecting the environment of our planet as a whole. John Adams was the very first employee and co-founder of the Natural Resources Defense Council or NRDC, which began at the same time as the first Earth Day. He's now president of the NRDC, which since has grown to more than 100 lawyers and scientists and a million members. John Adams and the NRDC are credited with successfully lobbying such seminal pieces of environmental legislation as the Clean Air Act and Clean Water Act. Hello, John.

ADAMS: Hello, How are you today?

CURWOOD: Um, John you've been an environmental activist since there's been an Earth Day. How has the event changed since the environmental achievements of the ‘70s and the backlash of the ‘80's? What's been it's trajectory since 1990 over these past 15 years?

NRDC President John Adams.
(Photo courtesy of NRDC)

ADAMS: Well, we really are on the same march. We're looking at it from a different perspective, but it's the same march. It seems to me that we've learned about the big problems and all of us have tried to face up to these big problems like global warming and the energy issues. And the ocean issues and bio-diversity. And so, it's understanding these complex systems that has changed our work and, I think, the work of our efforts on Earth Day.

CURWOOD: Now this year, your organization NRDC is attempting to leverage Earth Day to generate public support for alternative energy sources. What are you calling your campaign? I think it's "Re-energize America"?

ADAMS: That's right.

CURWOOD: And my question is how effective is Earth Day for focusing attention on environmental issues?

ADAMS: Well, it's amazing. I mean the fact that you're interviewing me here and there will be millions of people around the world talking about these issues. In fact I think this Earth Day, I see and feel more energy than I have felt in perhaps the last five or ten years of Earth Days. It just...people are very concerned and very aware that the things that we need to be doing to protect our world are not happening and they want it to happen. And that's what this Earth Day is all about.

CURWOOD: What do you think is catalyzing people now? Why the difference over the last five or ten years?

ADAMS: Well I think the catalyst is that people are recognizing that we're having weird weather. That we are seeing heat, storms. We're seeing the snows of Kilimanjaro, a thing of history. We're reading and seeing the pictures of the melting Arctic and hearing that polar bears may not be around in 25 or 30 years unless we get snapping.

CURWOOD: Why did you pick alternative energy as the focus of Earth Day for your organization?

ADAMS: Very simple. We think that global warming is absolutely critical here and the message has to go out. It's essential that we move into the field of high technology for several reasons. One, national security. We need to get ourselves out of places where war is going to take this huge toll to get our oil. We need to think about our jobs and job security and it's very important that we turn to new technology that will help us get to solving our global warming problem.

CURWOOD: Now, your organization and you're involvement with the environmental movement are as old as Earth Day itself. What are your memories of that first event?

ADAMS: Well, you know, I have such fond memories. I was alone yet at NRDC, I was still the only employee, and the only member and I remember meeting with Friends of the Earth people and the Sierra Club people – the chapter here in New York – and uh, had a celebration together. It was very, very much a family affair and I was being welcomed in to that very small family.

CURWOOD: John, we've heard a lot this year about the so-called death of environmentalism; that the movement has somehow fallen out of touch with mainstream Americans. How valid is that criticism?

ADAMS: Well, you know, criticism is always valuable. You do learn a lot and it makes you think through what people are saying. Personally I think the environmental movement is far from dead. I mean, just look at the scope of the membership. Take a look at the size of the land trusts and take a look at what's going on locally in every community across the board from recycling to the purchases of parks and so on. It's just impossible for anybody to believe that environmentalism is dead. More importantly, on the key issues we're taking on the establishment which has untold amount of money – remember, we're talking about oil, coal, cars, and the White House – and we are doing it unbelievably effectively. We have been able to block a bad energy bill. We've been able to get 43 U.S. senators to support the McCain-Lieberman bill.

CURWOOD: The McCain-Lieberman, of course, is the legislation proposed by those two senators that would put mandatory limits on greenhouse gas emissions.

ADAMS: Exactly.

CURWOOD: Now in the past, John Adams, you've been an advisor to President Clinton in the Environmental Protection Agency. How much influence does the environmental movement have these days with politicians – national politicians and the public at large?

ADAMS: Uh, I think that we have a lot of influence, uh, with the politicians because I think we've earned their respect. We don't have an open avenue into the White House, though we do know the various people who head the agencies and they hear our voice. So while it's not as easy a relationship as we had with President Clinton or with George Bush the first, it's, uh...the message can be sent there. We obviously work lots of United States senators and congressmen because we're professionals in the field and they want to hear from us and we have a very, very strong scientific staff as does the rest of the environmental movement. And in terms of governors, uh, with the problems with the administration, we turn to the states. And I would say that the environmental movement has penetrated the political structure of this country very, very well in a very straightforward, business-like way.

CURWOOD: In your view, how could a public official be against the environment; something that arguably a lot of people believe in and feel that it's important to protect the living systems that make the ecology work on this planet?

ADAMS: You know, I think if you were talking to those senators or those congressmen, most of them would say they're not opposed to the environment, they just want to do it a different way. Those of us who have seen it done a different way and have worked our way through the process of establishing laws and rules and regulations that have made this country one of the leaders in the world – and indeed we were the leader in the world when we had strong enforcement of the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act, the Endangered Species Act – they wish to make it easier for business to do business without paying the true cost of the impact on the environment. We can't have that. We don't want to return to the 1970's and we don't want to be like Eastern Europe was under the old Soviet Union. It's very important to protect these laws for all of us and for our generations to come.

CURWOOD: John Adams is president of the National Resources Defense Council. Thanks for taking this time with me today.

ADAMS: Thank you very much Steve. I appreciate it.



Natural Resources Defense Council


Living on Earth wants to hear from you!

Living on Earth
62 Calef Highway, Suite 212
Lee, NH 03861
Telephone: 617-287-4121
E-mail: comments@loe.org

Newsletter [Click here]

Donate to Living on Earth!
Living on Earth is an independent media program and relies entirely on contributions from listeners and institutions supporting public service. Please donate now to preserve an independent environmental voice.

Living on Earth offers a weekly delivery of the show's rundown to your mailbox. Sign up for our newsletter today!

Sailors For The Sea: Be the change you want to sea.

Creating positive outcomes for future generations.

Innovating to make the world a better, more sustainable place to live. Listen to the race to 9 billion

The Grantham Foundation for the Protection of the Environment: Committed to protecting and improving the health of the global environment.

Contribute to Living on Earth and receive, as our gift to you, an archival print of one of Mark Seth Lender's extraordinary wildlife photographs. Follow the link to see Mark's current collection of photographs.

Buy a signed copy of Mark Seth Lender's book Smeagull the Seagull & support Living on Earth