skip to main content

→ Top Stories:
Clean Power plan
Safe Chemicals

Jacob Scherr’s Blog

Agenda 21 Conspiracy Theorists Threaten Cities' Sustainability Efforts

Jacob Scherr

Posted April 22, 2014

, , , , ,
Share | | |

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 Agenda 21sustainability 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.



Share | | |


[edited]Apr 23 2014 04:21 AM

Thats cute you call it a conspiracy. I worked for a infrastructure company and quit after being horrified by the plans. I didnt know what I was looking at for awhile...the amount of research I did before the only conclusion I can come up with was Agenda 21.

take a good look at detroit...its coming to a city near you. The divide between rich and poor is growing by the day...once the baby boomers are long gone....this is the plan for you. An Urban sustainable walkable gulag.

I stress the word gulag cause thats what they will look like. The development is right under your nose and you wouldnt even notice.

If you want to rob a it broad daylight

AnonymousApr 23 2014 07:36 AM

Have any of these conspiracy theorists thought about how their ability to move around might be restricted if gas prices hit $10 a gallon? A small war in the Mideast combined with a hurricane in the Gulf of Mexico and we are there folks. We should be spending a lot more money on mass transit, and moving back into cities and out of suburbia.

Alex KnightApr 23 2014 12:03 PM

It's frightening that these nutcase fringe groups have gained such a foothold that they can get legislation written and, in some cases, passed. Any legislation that is so broadly written about a concept is a bad idea, regardless of whether it's considered conservative or liberal. But this is what we end up with when the loons take control. Just look at our 4-23-14 4:21 AM friend's incoherent rant in this comments section. These are the people pushing this stuff. We need to rally to stop this kind of idiocy.

David AndersonApr 23 2014 05:53 PM

If someone wants to live in a car-centric environment then there are plenty of suburbs for them to live in. But people in cities should have a CHOICE not to be car dependent. The Tea Party drones on about liberty and personal choice but they want their choice to be the only choice.

Ron KilcoyneApr 23 2014 10:07 PM

I find it somewhat contradictory that Glen Beck is spearheading the Agenda 21 conspiracy when he wants to build a community that could be described as both the new urbanist wet dream and nightmare. Designed to encourage conviviality and include car free zones and chain stores and restaurants would be prohibited; it was also a walled city that seemed to exclude the liberties that Beck and his cohorts so espouse. See

Michael BerndtsonApr 24 2014 09:53 AM

I consider myself an aficionado of conspiracy theories. But this is scary. However, let me ask you this. You're sitting in a bar enjoying an after work cocktail. White Sox are losing. Bartender is texting her boyfriend and not interested in idle chitchat. Who would you rather have sit next to you for entertainment, a civil/transportation engineer or a retired firefighter who only watches and listens to Fox and Glenn Beck? Assume that retired firefighter truly does have a gift of gab, a generous pension, and buys drinks.

Julie AmosApr 24 2014 07:54 PM

Is this what we want as Americans , communism ? Agenda21 is global communism. Do you want to be told where you can live ? Do you want to be told what you can eat , where you can go ? Do you want to have equal outcomes with no freedom or ability to ever achieve more than poverty ?

MarcusApr 25 2014 02:03 AM

Voluntary you say? Agenda 21 prescribes forced compliance of international policies once adopted by local municipalities. Even worse, it is global-in-scope top down social policy masquerading as grass roots feel-good environmentalism.

The scope of what Agenda 21 prescribes would heavily impact many aspects of our lives, so it is not really hyperbole to say that everything is at stake in this one issue.

I personally would love to see REAL sustainability catch on, but im not stupid enough to advocate using FORCE to change peoples behavior. There are many ways to address the importance of having a liveable environment, but using the FORCE of government, and manipulating zoning laws to do so is very heavy handed, and rightfully is resisted.

People aren't opposed to Agenda 21 because it will supposedly clean the air, and make hybrids more affordable, they are against it because they recognize it for what is - a power grab by people who want to abolish Property Rights - the cornerstone of every free society.

By the way, I love it when people use the phrase 'conspiracy theorist' as coded language for crazy. It lets me know immediately that they have a large bias towards any information or beliefs that are not sanctified by establishment mouthpieces, and that my time and energy is probably better spent elsewhere. It's kinda like, oh is that how you feel, well then, 'here's your sign'.

Thanks for your time, and have a nice day.

Thomas StoudenmireApr 27 2014 02:22 PM

This whole Agenda 21 business smells of bullcrap and hypocrisy. I have been involved in sustainability and urban planning for over 10 years as a landscape designer and urban forester. Until a few days ago, I have NEVER heard of Agenda 21, or the nefarious plots that are attributed to it. All of my professional colleagues in various disciplines that involve sustainable practices and design had never heard of it either. On researching the issue, I found the Agenda 21 document, and read all 351 pages. The document is straight forward, compressive, thought I can see where some of the language may be difficult for those without any experience in land management or design may have trouble understanding. I cant find any reference , or what would be construed as, legitimizing taking away ones vehicles, forbidding using natural resources, or destroying subdivisions and forced relocation to restricted, government enforced cities. I found many references to promoting education, the rights of indigenous peoples, women, and impoverished. It was quite clear that the document promoted community involvement, and transparency and responsibility of governments towards its citizens and natural resources.

Is there something I am missing? There is no way that the American government, which is so inept that it cant even balance a budget, be able to pull together and carry out everything the propaganda machine describes. There isnt any mention of how this new order economy is going to work, or where the massive amount of money it would take is going to come from. How is any anti-sustainability legislation going to be enforced?

A few things are clear. The power behind these new anti-sustability laws and propaganda are, the John Birch Society and the petroleum and energy companies. Those entities have bought control of the media and politicians to the point where the common people are powerless to fight against the corruption and fear.

Big Oil, and Big Money are afraid of the common citizen becoming empowered and self reliant. The economy and society that has been built up by major corporations and corrupt governments is a house of cards.

True sustainability is about living within ones means, being self reliant at the same time being an involved member of ones community.

The sustainability profession is one of hope and beauty. We stand against fear, hate and greed.

CHT123Apr 29 2014 05:22 AM

Glad to see the sustainability freaks shrieking about this. That means the American people are catching on to their evil anti-freedom plans. It's time for the US to GET OUT of the UN dictator club and restore the Constitution! Our children's future and freedom depends on it!

Comments are closed for this post.


Switchboard is the staff blog of the Natural Resources Defense Council, the nation’s most effective environmental group. For more about our work, including in-depth policy documents, action alerts and ways you can contribute, visit

Feeds: Jacob Scherr’s blog

Feeds: Stay Plugged In