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The Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) is a nonprofit environmental advocacy organization. Originally funded by the Ford Foundation, it was founded in 1970 by public interest lawyers seeking to create an organization that would focus specifically on environmental protection.
The NRDC is one of several national environmental organizations to emerge in the 1970s. These groups are distinct from the conservation organizations that existed prior to this period, such as the Sierra Club and the Audubon Society. At the time these longer established organizations had more of a recreational and hobbyist orientation and were less engaged in political mobilization. The NRDC and other environmental organizations that formed during the 1970s emerged from the political mobilizations of the 1960s and took on a more explicitly political orientation. In later years these large national organizations would converge in terms of their political activities, although some differences in strategy are still evident.
Given that it was founded by public interest lawyers, the NRDC’s main political strategy is to use litigation against public entities and private corporations in order to force compliance with and enforcement of environmental laws and regulations. The NRDC Action Fund is an affiliated organization with a different tax status that allows it to dedicate all of its resources to lobbying and political mobilization, while the main nonprofit organization carries out a combination of research, education, and political mobilization.
It its early years the NRDC played a role in the passage and enforcement of the Clean Air Act and Clean Water Act. The NRDC was also key in the fight against ozone depletion caused by the release of chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) into the atmosphere. A 1978 lawsuit filed by the NRDC led to a ban on the use of CFCs as aerosol propellants. Under threat of further legal action, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) later restricted other uses of CFCs. Other issues on which the organization has focused include forest protection, acid rain, and the removal of lead from gasoline.
Some have criticized the NRDC and similar professional organizations for their close integration into the policymaking system and their relative lack of connection with grassroots activists, especially those from disadvantaged groups. In the 1970s, some NRDC leaders went on to assume positions in the Carter Administration. In the early 1990s the NRDC and other large national environmental organizations were criticized by civil rights organizations that claimed that large professional environmental groups failed to pay ample attention to issues of environmental justice.
Today the NRDC has over one million members and works on a wide range of issues, including global warming, forest preservation, and endangered species protection. It continues to use litigation as its primary strategy and it typically has over 100 lawsuits filed against polluters at any given time. The NRDC also seeks to involve members and activists in its lobbying activity primarily through online and direct mail appeals to write and telephone elected officials. The organization is headquartered in New York City and has offices around the United States. It employs a staff of over 100, including lawyers who carry out the litigation function of the organization and scientists who conduct research and provide technical expertise on environmental matters.
- Paul J. Allen, “The Natural Resources Defense Council,” Environment (v.32/10, 1990);
- Robert Gottlieb, Forcing the Spring (Island Press, 1993);
- Natural Resources Defense Council, www.nrdc.org.