You could almost imagine the earth taking a great, deep breath these past weeks. If the global containment and the attendant human misery have produced the thinnest of thin silver linings, it is that the world is ever so slightly cleaner—if only briefly—than it was before the coronavirus outbreak began. The water in cities like Venice actually looks like water. Air quality in industrial hubs in China, India, and Northern Italy has shown improvement. But, like the virus itself, these changes for the better too shall pass.
Wiser minds at the Natural Resources Defense Council know that once the world goes back to work, their ongoing challenge will continue. In journalistic shorthand, the N.R.D.C. is the New York–based assembly of lawyers, scientists, and activists that essentially serves as the legal guardian of our air, our water, our public lands, and our endangered species. Not just in the U.S. but around the world.
But, like the virus itself, these changes for the better too shall pass.
It is an organization that I admire greatly and which I know well. My wife, Anna, has been on the board for almost a decade and a half. She is as devoted to the organization as a person can be. By association, I am as well. It’s an easy group to admire and become attached to. We have many friends among the lawyers, scientists, and board members. I will say this: spend any time with the experts who work there, and you come away thanking the Fates that the people at the N.R.D.C. are there, working in the interests of the environment in all its myriad aspects. And, by connection, our own.
This year marks the N.R.D.C.’s 50th anniversary. It was born, like so many worthwhile activist groups, out of necessity. In 1962, Con Edison, the New York electrical giant, announced that it was planning to build the world’s largest hydroelectric power plant on Storm King Mountain, a notable ridge along the Hudson River, a little more than an hour’s drive north of New York City. Such is Storm King’s beauty that it became a recurring feature in the paintings of the Hudson River School. Con Ed wanted to essentially take over the mountain as well as 300 acres of neighboring pristine forests.
This year marks the N.R.D.C.’s 50th anniversary. It was born, like so many worthwhile activist groups, out of necessity.
A group of Hudson River residents, from across the political spectrum and all walks of life, had the far-fetched idea that they would try to halt the plant’s construction. Environmental law at that point in time was all but nonexistent. It wasn’t even a thing. The group approached a lawyer with the highfalutin name of Whitney North Seymour Jr. Mike, as he liked to be called, was a moderate Republican and a partner at the white-shoe law firm of Simpson Thacher & Bartlett. Neither Mike nor his firm, nor the two colleagues who worked on the case, were obvious candidates to lead what would become the first environmental crusade against big business. In those days the ramparts made room for men and women with Brooks Brothers charge accounts and trimmed haircuts.
Mike’s team sued the Federal Power Commission over the Storm King Mountain construction, and the case wended its way through the legal system at glacial speed. Three years after the process began, the Second Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in the environmentalists’ favor. The Con Edison project was shelved. The victory was a landmark in legal circles as it represented the first major test of environmental law with regard to business interests. (Con Ed continued its goal of trying to build on Storm King Mountain for another 15 years. The N.R.D.C. fought it every inch of the way. In the end, Con Ed just gave up.)
The victory was a landmark in legal circles as it represented the first major test of environmental law with regard to business interests.
After that 1965 victory, Mike decided that to continue this work he needed to assemble a permanent group of scientists and lawyers. With funding from the Ford Foundation, five young legal activists, led by John Adams, organized themselves as the Natural Resources Defense Council. John, a man with the most American of names, was a worthy choice to pick up Mike’s torch. He ran the N.R.D.C. for the first 36 years of its life.
The N.R.D.C.’s victories on behalf of the environment, and, by connection, us, are, I swear, endless. The organization played a leading role in virtually every significant piece of environmentally related legislation over the past half-century. These include the 1972 Clean Water Act, the removal of lead additives from gasoline, the establishment of efficiency standards for household appliances, the ban on asbestos, bans on offshore drilling off the coasts of New England and the Florida Keys, the removal of pesticides from processed foods, the protection of old-growth forests, nationwide standards for power-plant pollution, and the elimination of fracking in New York State. The N.R.D.C. was instrumental in getting the state of Michigan to replace the lead pipes that had so poisoned the drinking water in Flint. I could go on and on.
The N.R.D.C.’s work also extends to animals, particularly endangered species. One ruling that demands attention concerns whales in the Pacific Ocean, specifically the area between the California coast and Hawaii. It is home to any number of endangered whales, including blue whales and fin whales. It is also home to the U.S. Navy, which traditionally used this tract of the Pacific for training and exercises.
The N.R.D.C. was instrumental in getting the state of Michigan to replace the lead pipes that had so poisoned the drinking water in Flint.
To whales, sound is basically what sight is to us. They communicate with it, they locate feeding areas with it, and they navigate with it. The noise created by naval exercises—everything from underwater explosions, the sound of sonar, and the roar of ships’ engines—causes constant and debilitating havoc for the whales. When the sounds deafen them, they become disoriented and supremely anxious. When you see a photograph of dozens of whales beached along a shoreline, it’s often because they were trying in vain to escape the noise produced by human endeavor.
Beginning in the mid-90s, the N.R.D.C. began challenging the U.S. Navy to move its operations away from this specific tract of the Pacific. After almost 20 years of litigation, a federal court ruled that the operations of the navy violated three major environmental acts, including ones that protect mammals and endangered species.
John, who directed so many of these efforts, is someone I’ve known and admired for 15 years. His successors, Frances Beinecke and Rhea Suh, and the current president and C.E.O., Gina McCarthy, are also worthy and fierce combatants in the fight for the environment. Frances, Rhea, and Gina all served in one environmental capacity or another in the Obama administration. John was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Obama in 2010.
No story on the N.R.D.C. would be complete without mention of Mitch Bernard, the organization’s chief counsel. He’s got the charming, easygoing swing of a Larry David golf partner. But in court, against big polluters like Texaco, Con Ed, and Duke Energy, he’s a lethal executioner. Mitch, like so many of the people under him, is a lawyer who could be making exponentially more money at one of the big firms that he could have his pick of. But his dedication to the environment, and to the N.R.D.C., is our blessing.
In court, against big polluters like Texaco, Con Ed, and Duke Energy, he’s a lethal executioner.
When the lockdowns due to our present pandemic ease, the Trump administration will resume its slavish devotion to corporate interests over our own. Indeed, the economic effects of the pandemic will no doubt be used by the White House to further strip away regulations protecting the environment in the interest of ramping up the crippled economy. It will crank up the denigration of science and fact. And it will continue to strip the departments within the federal bureaucracy of skilled experts who favor the reality of science and law over fealty to the president and his whims.
Then, as now, will be a time when we need an organization like the N.R.D.C. Scientific American reported that further outbreaks of possibly even greater magnitude than the present one are more likely as the earth gets warmer. It’s all tied together. And the N.R.D.C. knows this. We support this extraordinary organization in the Carter household. And we support the N.R.D.C. here at Air Mail. If you’d like to become a member of this incredible collection of dedicated men and women, or just want more information, you can do so here.