Think the Environmental Policy Act protects the environment? Think again. It’s actually lawyers who protect the environment — by suing under this and other Acts.

That is just a slight exaggeration of the tone in “A Force For Nature: The Story of NRDC and The Fight to Save Our Planet.” In this memoir, John H. Adams recounts and retells the story thus far of National Resources Defense Council, the environmental nonprofit he helped found and lead. NRDC was created by lawyers who specifically wanted to sue to protect the environment — so as you can imagine, in the story “A Force of Nature” tells, lawyers are rockstars!

To be clear, I’m not discounting the huge role NRDC has played in protecting the planet. And I’m certainly not discouraging you from reading this book. In fact, if you feel a little lost when it comes to the history of environmentalism in the U.S., “A Force For Nature” will serve as an entertaining textbook. NRDC was founded in 1970, the same year that the Environmental Protection Agency was created (thereby allowing lawyers to start suing the EPA!). So the story of NRDC covers the modern environmental movement — and catches you up to the state of the planet today.

Yes, “A Force of Nature” covers a lot of environmental lawsuits. You’ll get a general sense of the long and tortuous legal process that’ll help you understand, if not appreciate, why good environmental changes often take so long to happen. Reading through the list of legal steps alone may try your patience!

Even more interesting are the stories in the book of tough negotiations that happen behind the scenes, when green nonprofits, government agencies, community interest groups, and giant businesses all come together to come to an agreement about environmental concerns. The “we’ll give you this area to pollute in if you leave alone this other area with lots of endangered species in it” type agreements described in “A Force For Nature” are often fascinating — and at times unnerving.

“A Force of Nature” also answers a big green question I’ve wondered about for a while: Why, if energy efficiency improvements [or insert some other economically beneficial green change here] save companies a lot of money as we hear about over and over in the media, don’t all companies make these green changes? Here’s how the book explains it, after NRDC learned the hard way through a partnership with none other than Dow Chemical:

If a company could make $5 million a year from a one-time investment of $3 million and reduce pollution, we assumed it would do so. But we learned that this wasn’t necessarily true. If other capital investments yielded a higher rate of return, those would be preferred. Not only did pollution prevention need to be profitable; it needed to be more profitable than any other investment being considered at the time.
Californians may especially enjoy “A Force For Nature,” since many of the environmental fights described happen in the Golden State — fighting smog in Los Angeles, decreasing sonar testing in the Pacific Ocean, hashing out a deal for the San Joaquin River Restoration Act — even creating the relatively new Marine Protected Areas.

“A Force For Nature” is co-written by John and his wife Patricia Adams with the help of George Black — but is written from John’s first person point of view. At times the book can be rather overly rah-rah lawyers and too relentlessly positive — describing what seem like rather devastating losses as mere setbacks or partial successes. Then again, I suppose the history book of the modern environmental movement is still being written, pending the end result of global climate change. Catch up to what’s happened so far by reading “A Force For Nature,” out in hardcover for $24.95.

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