Agenda 21 Conspiracy Theorists Threaten Cities' Sustainability Efforts
I can remember when “Agenda 21” was at the top of NRDC’s international agenda. In the run-up to the first Rio Earth Summit in 1992, we were actively involved in the final negotiations of Agenda 21 – a 351-page totally-voluntary “blueprint for sustainable development” adopted by the more than 170 nations represented at Rio. Following the Summit, there were initiatives in more than 100 countries to develop their own national and city-level agendas to tackle the intertwined problems of economics, equity, and environment. Yet as Sarah Glazer reports, almost the only folks in the U.S. who are still paying any attention to Agenda 21 are conspiracy theorists eager to thwart local sustainability measures:
Unless you listen to the conservative radio commentator Glenn Beck, you’ve probably never heard of Agenda 21. To Beck and other conservatives, it’s a nefarious plot aimed at one-world domination. Beck has even written a dystopian novel Agenda 21 about an America in which freedom has disappeared. Beck’s website features the author of a book about Agenda 21 claiming its emphasis on mass transit will force people out of cars and into trains, “restricting their movement and ability to move freely.”
All this might be laughed off as the insane fantasies of black helicopter conspiracy theorists. However, the theory is the basis of state legislation now getting serious consideration in the South and the Midwest aimed at stopping local governments from promoting environmental sustainability, usually paraded as a bill to protect property rights.
Alabama was the first state to pass such a bill in 2012. Alabama’s law forbids policies “traceable to Agenda 21” and bars any taking of private property without due process. In effect, the law makes it possible to challenge the legality of any environmental planning or regulation in the state.
Sustainability directors in cities in the Midwest say similar bills now appearing in their states could put a stop to a huge range of environmental activities. But because the bills are written so vaguely it’s hard to know for sure what they would do.
Last year the Republican-dominated Missouri state legislature passed a bill to ban activities linked to Agenda 21 and to prevent local governments from entering into any agreement with an organization linked to Agenda 21. Democratic Governor Jay Nixon vetoed the bill.
The bill has been introduced again this year in both houses. Agenda 21 opponents argue the U.N. document would seize private property and force people to live in walkable communities.
The anti-Agenda 21 bill “has the potential to have a chilling effect” on sustainability efforts, says Dennis Murphey, chief environmental officer in Kansas City, Missouri.
The law’s prohibition on cooperating with outside groups seems to apply to “such radical organizations as the Girls Scouts, the Kiwanis Club and Rotary Club,” he says, because those groups have indicated their support of principles like promoting environmental quality, ending poverty or involving more women in government, all endorsed in Agenda 21.
One concern for Murphey is that the bill, if passed, might open the city to legal challenges. The legislation’s proponents “might say we’re not supposed to be working with some entity on renewable energy or with someone else on making our development code more receptive to promoting urban agriculture,” Murphey says.
ICLEI, a worldwide network of more than 1,000 local governments working on sustainability, “is often cited as the kind of the organization local governments should not be allowed to partner with,” Murphy notes. Kansas City used ICLEI’s software to conduct an inventory of the city’s greenhouse gas emissions, which was useful in the development of Kansas City’s climate protection plan adopted in 2008, he noted.
The Missouri bill mimics the standard language of a bill promoted by the conservative American Legislative Exchange Council, and supported by the John Birch Society, part of an orchestrated campaign throughout the country that has seen similar bills pop up in the Iowa state legislature, among others.
In neighboring Kansas, Republican state Rep. Dennis Hedke, the chairman of the Energy and Environment Committee with ties to the oil and gas industry, last year introduced a bill that prohibits any public funds to support “sustainable development.”
“We’re already in this context where it’s politically dangerous to talk about climate change and sustainability in aggressive terms in the Midwest,” says Eileen Horn, sustainability coordinator for the city of Lawrence, Kansas. As a member of a regional network of Midwestern urban sustainability directors including Iowa, Missouri, Nebraska and Oklahoma, she adds, “ We’re seeing that in all of our cities.”
The Kansas bill didn’t make it out of committee, but Horn says the fear was that supporters could have used the bill to shut down cities’ local planning offices or programs in sustainable agriculture at state-funded universities.
“Basically, the conservative Tea Party movement in the Midwest was inviting local Tea Party chapters to come talk to their city and county commissions about it,” she says. “So we had this rash of identical testimony in all of our city commission meetings about the dangers of sustainability.”
Sustainability directors in the Midwest say they’re reacting to this political climate by making a strong case for why environmental sustainability is good for their cities—from saving taxpayers’ money by improving energy efficiency in municipal buildings to encouraging community gardens that make healthy vegetables available in urban neighborhoods.
In Kansas City, the Mayor and city council passed a resolution opposing the Agenda 21 bill. Cities in Missouri are now poised to oppose a bill that flew under the radar last year because most people didn’t realize it had anything to do with environmental politics.
“All of us are just continuing to do our jobs and making the case for why it makes sense for the taxpayers,” Murphey says.
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