Agenda 21: a conspiracy theory puts sustainability in the crosshairs


Could right-wing attacks on a non-binding UN sustainability resolution put sustainable business at risk in some states?

Green space, clean energy, increased urban density…and global dictatorship. It’s hard to see how all of these things could connect, but — according to a popular right wing conspiracy theory — a UN resolution aimed at sustainable development could pave the way.

Theorists argue that Agenda 21, a 23-year-old non-binding UN resolution that suggests ways for governments and NGOs to promote sustainable development, is the linchpin in a plot to subjugate humanity under an eco-totalitarian regime. One of its most outspoken critics, American Policy Center president Tom DeWeese, has described the resolution as “a new kind of tyranny that, if not stopped, will surely lead us to a new Dark Ages of pain and misery yet unknown to mankind”.

APC is on the political fringes, but anti-Agenda 21 sentiment is moving into the political mainstream. Criticism of the resolution extended to the Republican party’s 2012 platform, which stated: “We strongly reject the UN Agenda 21 as erosive of American sovereignty.”

Legislators in several states have even created anti-Agenda 21 bills, many of which could pose serious threats to companies pursuing sustainability in those states.

In Arizona, for example, a proposed bill dictated that the state could not “adopt or implement the creed, doctrine, or principles or any tenet” of Agenda 21, and prohibited it from “implementing programs of, expending any sum of money for, being a member of, receiving funding from, contracting services from, or giving financial or other forms of aid to” a host of organizations with sustainability agendas, including the President’s Council on Sustainable Development.

Taken at face value, Arizona’s bill – which was defeated in 2012 – would have curtailed almost any sustainability efforts in the state, restricted the activities of tens of thousands of philanthropic organizations that promote sustainability, and potentially scared away hundreds of sustainability-minded companies. If it had passed, it could also have cost the state millions of dollars in lost revenue, as well as thousands of jobs.

If it hadn’t been defeated, Phoenix mayor Greg Stanton feared the bill “would send the message that Phoenix doesn’t believe in a sustainable economic future. It could negatively impact not only Phoenix and its residents, but the entire state”.

Agenda 21 addresses issues ranging from children’s health to public transportation to women’s empowerment, all of which could also have been severely curtailed under the sweeping wording of Arizona’s bill. The state’s chamber of commerce was among the bill’s staunchest opponents.

Battles in the statehouse

While Arizona’s bill was especially concerning, it’s only one of several anti-Agenda 21 bills that have come to the floor in state legislatures across the country. Almost all have failed, either dying in committee, getting defeated on the statehouse floor or – in the case of Missouri’s 2013 bill – getting vetoed by the governor.

The exception was Alabama, which unanimously adopted a law in 2012 to prevent any future effort to “deliberately or inadvertently infringe or restrict private property rights without due process, as may be required by policy recommendations originating in, or traceable to ‘Agenda 21’”.

As Alabama’s legislation demonstrates, one of the biggest dangers of anti-Agenda 21 bills lies in their often-vague wording, which can obscure many of their potential impacts. Arizona house minority leader Chad Campbell called his state’s bill the “most poorly crafted bill” in the statehouse at the time. “We wouldn’t be able to use CFL light bulbs in state buildings because that would be considered energy efficiency,” he said.

In Texas, a similarly sweeping anti-Agenda 21 bill submitted this year sought to prevent any governmental entity from accepting money from or granting money to any “nongovernmental or intergovernmental organization accredited by the United Nations to implement a policy that originated in the Agenda 21 plan”.

To get an understanding of the breadth of this language, it’s worth noting that, under its broadest interpretation, Texas’ bill could have curtailed the activities of the National Rifle Association. While the NRA is hardly a hotbed of sustainable activism, it supports several programs that dovetail with Agenda 21. Last year, for example, the group gave money to 4-H, the Boy Scouts of America, and the Texas Wildlife Association, all of which promote conservation and sponsor outdoor education – activities that could easily be linked to the sweeping priorities of Agenda 21.

The Texas bill could also have barred nonprofits that work with the UN from receiving any state or municipal funding. In an email to the Houston city attorney’s office, James Cargas, the city’s senior assistant attorney for energy, wrote that it would impact “approximately 31,000 nongovernmental organizations [that] provide funding for the benefit of the general public or volunteer services”, including senior citizen advocacy group AARP, the United Way and the privately-owned Ford Foundation. In other words, had it passed the bill, Texas might have cut itself off from hundreds of millions of dollars in charitable funding.

A lightning rod

On the surface, it’s hard to see why Agenda 21 is so controversial. While it urges international cooperation, it is hardly the totalitarian, internationalist screed that critics claim. Far from promoting international governance, for example, it calls for greater local government involvement in sustainable agricultural and urban development.

But that hasn’t stopped anti-internationalist critics from portraying the resolution in the grimmest possible terms. Pundit Glen Beck, for example, hoisted the paranoid banner with Agenda 21: Into the Shadows, a 2015 novel that outlines how the feared “anti-human” scheme could unfold.

In the real world, however, Agenda 21’s critics are left groping for actual targets. In an interview with the Guardian, Alabama state senator Gerald Dial conceded that his bill doesn’t have any real world application – yet.

“We think the long term impact is more relevant than the short term,” Dial said. “When people become more familiar with what Agenda 21 is, more business and people who are looking to locate somewhere will say, ‘Hey, Alabama would be a great place because we won’t be faced with any opportunities for the federal government to come in and mandate to take over property.’”

Meanwhile, Texas state representative Molly White said that her bill requires further development because of the “complexities of this Agenda”.

“My staff and I will look at other bills passed around the country during the interim to prepare the legislation and refile it for next session,” she wrote in an email.

A useful lens on both sides of the political spectrum

Given the breadth and vehemence of the anti-Agenda 21 sentiment, it is perhaps unsurprising that many sustainability organizations are reluctant to discuss it. For example, the International Council for Local Environmental Initiatives, perhaps the group most actively engaged in assisting local governments to achieve sustainability goals aligned with Agenda 21 goals, denied requests to discuss the resolution’s attackers.

ICLEI spokesperson Celina Plaza wrote in an email that the organization prefers to “focus on positive support for local sustainability”. She added that, for the most part, “local sustainability initiatives enhance the health and economy of communities, and those who oppose these initiatives are often not acting in the best interest of citizens”.

But anti-Agenda 21 sentiment may also be galvanizing some pro-sustainability activists. Kevin Wilhelm, CEO of Seattle-based Sustainable Business Consulting, said that he helped form the Washington Business for Climate Action, an association of business leaders committed to climate advocacy, after he realized that the conspiracy-minded anti-sustainability activists in his state were “much better organized” than those who supported the goals of Agenda 21.

“We’ve now recruited 183 businesses,” Wilhelm said. “We’re pushing back to say, ‘Look, there is a huge business opportunity and a huge business risk here [related to climate change] and we need to take action.’”

Mitchell Silver, former president of the American Planning Association, a nonprofit professional organization dedicated to urban planning, said that those making wild claims about the dangers of sustainable development are on the losing side of the argument.

“What I want to hear from opponents of sustainable development is where are you going to put 50m new housing units over the next few decades?” he told Reuters in 2012. “So far, I haven’t gotten an answer to that question.”

Citing his state’s failed anti-Agenda 21 bill, Arizona state senator Steve Farley says that there is a growing awareness among business-minded Arizona Republicans that their Tea Party-aligned colleagues are hurting the state’s business interests.

“Sometimes these conspiracies get a life of their own and those people you depend on to support your tax-cutting majority sabotage you [by] destabilizing the overall economic climate,” Farley said. “But you can’t just say that these folks are in the margins. These folks are in the center of power.”