Congratulations are in order for John H. Adams, the co-founder of the Natural Resources Defense Council, who yesterday was named one of the 15 recipients this year of the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian award. Adams is the first founder of an American environmental advocacy organization to receive the award since Russell E. Train was similarly honored in 1991. Train, of course, was a founding board member of the World Wildlife Fund and the second administrator of the E.P.A.
Adams said this in response to the announcement: “For forty years I’ve been privileged to live out my passion, standing up for the natural inheritance that belongs to us all. In receiving this great honor today, I stand on the shoulders of a remarkable NRDC team, and of Americans everywhere, who love this country and believe we share a common duty to safeguard the waters that nourish us, the wildlife that inspires us, the air that sustains us and the land we call home. This is our country. It is ours to cherish; it is ours to protect. That is how we keep faith with future generations. And I thank the President for recognizing this high calling and the contribution I’ve been privileged to make.”
Adams, who like other eminent figures worthy of such distinction, is one of the most approachable and level-headed men you’ll ever meet. As an environmental journalist I’ve been in his company a number of times over the years, riled his staff with some of my reporting, and conducted several interviews. He was always smart, cordial, and friendly. The organization he founded in 1970 is, arguably, the most important environmental advocate in the world now, a green organizational titan with an annual budget exceeding $100 million, and with offices across the country and as far as Beijing. He is the ninth environmentalist to receive the award joining Rachel Carson and Marjory Stoneman Douglas, among others.
The NRDC’s culture reflects the steady persistence and optimism of its founder. It helped to shape and defend the first-of-its-kind national environmental law and regulatory program that significantly reduced the damaging effects of industrialization and dramatically expanded the country’s will to preserve land, wild habitat, and natural diversity. In doing so Adams essentially led the team of lawyers and policy specialists who wrote the chapters of modern environmentalism that changed the nation and the world for the better.
Adams left NRDC in 2006, just about the time that climate change was emerging as a political priority and environmental emergency that would eventually outrun the tools and tactics that had proven so successful in his era of environmentalism. No doubt he is offering advice, but it is up to those younger than Adams to figure out how to push back against the money and power of the fossil fuel industry, and convince the world a safer path lies in cleaner energy alternatives. Adams’ life and career, though, exemplify the most important lessons for success on solving global warming. Never quit. Never lie. Never stop moving forward.
– Keith Schneider