Agenda 21. The name sounds mysterious. Dangerous, even. To Tea Party activists, it’s the code name for a conspiracy—a communist, anti-Christian assault on private property. In actuality, Agenda 21 is a United Nations plan for sustainable development put forward 20 years ago at the Earth Summit in Brazil. At its center is the idea that humans “are entitled to a healthy and productive life in harmony with nature,” encompassing the right to equitable development in conjunction with environmental protection.
The plan’s encouragement of public transportation along with the development of dense city areas—also known as smart growth—have been a focal point of Tea Party anger. Activists have disrupted planning and community meetings across the country. Tea Party websites are filled with rhetoric against Agenda 21 in particular, and sustainable development in general, disparaging “pack ‘em and stack ‘em” plans to force people from the countryside and suburban areas into cities, to take away their automobiles and destroy capitalism as we know it
This viewpoint has begun to enter mainstream political discourse, notably in a resolution passed by the Republican National Committee this past January. The resolution declares Agenda 21 “a comprehensive plan of extreme environmentalism, social engineering, and global political control” that “is being covertly pushed into local communities” and threatens “the American way of life, of private property ownership, single-family homes, private car ownership and individual travel choices.”
Smart, Not Subversive, Growth
Not surprisingly, planning officials and environmental advocates deny such a plot. (Full disclosure: I am transit chair for the Montgomery County, Maryland, Sierra Club group.) “Providing more transportation choices that include more opportunity to walk, bicycle and ride transit, and protect forest and farmland is a local movement in communities across the country, not some kind of idea or conspiracy coming from the U.N.,“ says Stewart Schwartz, executive director of the Coalition for Smarter Growth.
Mitchell Silver, president of the American Planning Association, defends the need to plan communities in a sustainable way. “In every community we work in,” he says, “local people support planning. They like to see the value of having a well-planned community.” Silver also points out that planners are only part of a locally based process and that democratically elected officials make the final decisions
Rather than taking away property rights, Silver describes planning as a process that allows people to decide on the shape of their communities and often protects property from encroachment. Randall Solomon, co-director of Sustainable [New] Jersey, gives an example: “How would you feel if someone were to open up a landfill next to you? That’s infringing on your property rights.”
Furthermore, smart growth advocates argue, unplanned suburban growth imposes a high cost on state and local governments due to the cost of roads, electricity and sewer lines and other infrastructure. “By opposing all planning for development, the [people speaking out against] Agenda 21 will leave taxpayers with the bill for anything goes, leapfrog development” says Schwartz.
Demographic trends and taste shifts—rather than any U.N. plot—are also driving the urban trend. As Silver puts it, “We’re not seeing massive growth in suburban locations—the trend is the reverse.” Gasoline prices are going up. A growing number of senior citizens means fewer drivers and more demand for smaller housing units in urban settings. Young people, too, prefer cities and are choosing public transit—and such hi-tech devices such as the iPhone—over driving.
Environmentalists also point out that Agenda 21 calls for local, democratically based planning. Steven Sondheim, energy chair of the Tennessee Sierra Club, who has attended several international climate conferences, says that there is “nothing socialist, even anti-business at these conferences.”
In New Jersey, Tea Party activists have attacked Sustainable Jersey, a certification program that works at the local level on such topics as toxics, land use, transportation, local food and environmental justice. Earlier this year, Tea Party members began standing up at meetings and “saying such things as, ‘This is part of a U.N. Agenda 21 agenda to execute communism and take away property,’” says Solomon.
The incursions occurred all across the state, along with letters to the editor at various papers. It appeared to be “an organized effort, with people from outside of New Jersey doing training and teach-ins” says Solomon. As a result, a few municipalities in Ocean County have passed resolutions condemning Agenda 21.
Overall, Solomon believes the disruptions had a relatively small impact. This may be because sustainability is an “ingrained, mainstream and popular concept” in New Jersey, says Solomon. Indeed, 366 out of 566 municipalities participate in Sustainable Jersey.
Winning the South
The attacks on sustainability are having a stronger impact in certain areas in the South. On March 15, the Tennessee House passed resolution 587, which denounces Agenda 21 in language almost identical to the Republican National Committee resolution; on April 25, the Tennessee Senate passed a similar resolution.
Sondheim believes the bill, and the attacks on sustainability, are orchestrated from outside and connects it to a broader anti-environmental trend, including Tennessee’s failure in recent years to pass a bottle bill and enact laws restricting mountaintop removal mining. Another sustainability plan was recently rejected in Wake County, North Carolina—where Raleigh is located. The debate used language common to Tea Party activists, notably regarding private property. Sondheim notes that such initiatives could affect national legislation by casting doubt on the intent of sustainable development.
The question, then, is to what extent the attacks on Agenda 21 will enter mainstream politics. Tea Party activists are pushing an anti-Agenda 21 plank in the party platform at the Republican National Convention this August. If they succeed, it will provide new momentum for conspiracy theorists to continue their attacks.
ETHAN GOFFMAN is an environmental writer in the Washington, D.C. region and the associate editor of Sustainability: Science, Practice & Policy.