Agenda 21: A Guide for the Perplexed: Disinformation Campaign About Sustainable Development Emerges In the United States

Editor’s note: The following guest entry by Professor John Dernbach of Widener University School of Law is being reproduced here because it is a response to an emerging disinformation campaign about sustainable development that appears to be  growing in the United States recently. This attack on sustainability and reasonable land use planning raises many of the same ethical issues discussed frequently on Ethicsandclimate under the topic of “climate change disinformation campaign.” Future posts on this web site will further develop the ethical issues entailed by this kind of attack on sustainable development because such attacks raise ethical issues for climate change policy formation as climate change policies should consider environmental, economic, and social goals of policies, the essential idea of sustainable development. In the following post, Professor Dernbach explains the emerging disinformation campaign which untruthfully characterizes Agenda 21, the international agreement on sustainable development which was finalized at the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro. The attacks attempt to convince citizens and local and regional governments that reasonable land use planning is the implementation of a United Nations scheme that will decrease individual liberty and diminish property rights.  This post was originally posted on the website of the American College of Environmental Lawyers at

Agenda 21: A Guide for the Perplexed

At a local government meeting on a land use plan, officials hear opposition based on the claim that it is tainted by Agenda 21.  A state public utility commission considering smart meters hears similar claims.  They are confused: what is Agenda 21 and why does it matter?

A well organized campaign against Agenda 21, spread by the Tea Party, Glenn Beck, and the John Birch Society, exists well outside the realm of ordinary environmental law work.  But it is beginning to affect that work.  The real target of this campaign, moreover, is not Agenda 21 but sustainable development—a common sense approach to reconciling environment and development that provides the basis for our environmental and land use laws.  Environmental lawyers thus need a basic understanding of what Agenda 21 is and what it is not.

Agenda 21 is a comprehensive public strategy for achieving sustainable development. It was endorsed by the U.S. (under the presidency of George H.W. Bush) and other countries at the U.N. Conference on Environment and Development in 1992.  Agenda 21 stands for two broad propositions: 1) environmental goals and considerations need to be integrated into all development decisions, and 2) governments and their many stakeholders should work out the best way to integrate environment and development decisions in an open and democratic way.

Agenda 21 contains an almost encyclopedic description of the best ideas for achieving sustainable development that existed in 1992.  On land use, it specifically counsels respect for private property.    It contains a detailed description of the role that many nongovernmental entities, including business and industry, farmers, unions, and others, should play in achieving sustainability.

Agenda 21 endorses, and to a great degree is based upon, ideas that were already expressed in U.S. environmental and natural resources laws.  Its core premise is espoused in the National Environmental Policy Act of 1969.  Long before Agenda 21, NEPA set out “the continuing policy of the Federal government” to “create and maintain conditions under which man and nature can exist in productive harmony, and fulfill the social, economic, and other requirements of present and future generations of Americans” (42 U.S.C. § 4331).

Ironically, Agenda 21 was never taken seriously as such in the United States; there has never been much enthusiasm here for following international agreements.  It is not a legally binding treaty; it contains no provisions for ratification, for example.  Agenda 21 also says nothing about new ideas like green building, smart growth, and smart meters.  But sustainable development as an idea—achieving economic development, job creation, human wellbeing, and environmental protection and restoration at the same time—is gaining traction.

In response, opponents are attacking sustainability by making false statements about Agenda 21.  They say that Agenda 21 is opposed to democracy, freedom, private property, and development, and would foster environmental extremism.  For many opponents, the absence of a textual basis in Agenda 21 for such claims (in fact, the text explicitly contradicts all of these claims) is not a problem.  First, they are attacking a document that is not well known, and so they count on not being contradicted.  Second, the false version of Agenda 21 fits a well known narrative that is based on fear of global governance and a perceived threat of totalitarianism, and on distrust of the United Nations.  Indeed, the absence of information to support such fears only deepens their perception of a conspiracy.  According to this view, moreover, people who talk about sustainable development without mentioning Agenda 21 are simply masking their true intentions.

Far-fetched, you say?  Well, consider this: in 2012, Alabama adopted legislation that prohibits the state or political subdivisions from adopting or implementing policies “that infringe or restrict private property rights without due process, as may be required by policy recommendations originating in, or traceable to ‘Agenda 21’” (Ala. Code § 35-1-6).  This, of course, could chill a variety of otherwise ordinary state and local decisions.  Similar bills are pending in state legislatures across the country.

In a variety of other places, elected officials and professional staff who have worked with stakeholders for years to produce specific land use and energy proposals find their work mischaracterized as the product of Agenda 21, even though they have never heard of it.   Agenda 21’s lack of direct relevance to the specific proposals should, but does not always, provide an answer to such claims.

The campaign against Agenda 21 has no serious empirical or textual foundation.  But it can work against sustainability and good decisions—and cost time and money—when clients and their lawyers don’t recognize it for what it is.


Professor John Dernbach

Distinguished Professor

Widener University School of Law.

7 thoughts on “Agenda 21: A Guide for the Perplexed: Disinformation Campaign About Sustainable Development Emerges In the United States

  1. Thank you so much for this.

    The anti-science fanaticism is the worst aspect of this confrontation.

    It seems that authors of Agenda 21 tried to abide by climate science and physics. And from listening to Glenn Beck talk on the issue, I heard only political expression of ideology and will, and total disregard for facing the real world. If humans had a reasonably safe future, then I could see such political opposition as something to be debated and discussed. Sadly, tragically, we live in a world that cannot ignore physical reality – and so appeasement amounts to a shared Phyric defeat.

    The dilemma of human survival requires that most all of us must agree to respect safety standards. The dominant metaphor is that of spaceship earth – we dwell in a sealed vessel in space with finite resources. Our life-support systems need repair, yet some people demand the right to continue breaking them; Demanding the right to smoke cigars in the elevator that we can never leave.

    We must either act to control the decline in our environment, or we will have to wait until the inevitable destructive forces lead to a die out – and then we hope that sometime before complete extinction there are enough stragglers, civility and good luck for humans to survive. Right now the lifeboat is not adequate. I would imagine that if there are to be future generations they would curse our continues passive acceptance.

    Ugh, this is destined to be an ugly squabble. It has been going on for quite a while already. And the biosphere is damaged and destroyed. We don’t know how much is recoverable. Now we are just allowed to argue about adopting paper proposals like Agenda 21. Whereas we should be arguing about the speed of its implementation.

    We are way past Agenda 21. Someone is writing Agenda 99 – describing the changing degree climate triage required for species survival. Every delay means a higher step of ruthless action.

    Thanks for bringing forth these discussions

  2. The very concept of ‘sustainable development’ is controversial and some even argue oxymoronic in nature. It was developed as a way of reconciling economic growth with environmental protection, a situation which reminded me of a bully kid being brought by the parents on a playground to apologize to a kid he’d been bullying for months, expecting that after this apologies the world would become a better place for all. The unfortunate truth is, however, that the bully does not want to apologize because that would weaken his positions on the playground. And if in case of this kindergarten example, there are parents who can impose ‘the right decision’ on the children, in the real life we don’t have such an authority, and the only way of convincing the bully to give up his nasty practices is by trying to persuade him that what he’s doing is ‘unethical’. As if it ever was a strong argument for bullies before.

    Attacks on climate science and on Agenda 21 are strong examples of business trying to maintain its status quo. In case of anti-Agenda 21 disinformation campaign, it simply fills in gaps left by the proponents of sustainable development: as Professor Dernbach points out, the document is not well known. Why is it so? Who should be held responsible for not making the document known, if the US endorsed it twenty years ago? It is precisely the lack of knowledge about and understanding of sustainable development among the general public and local decision makers which made the whole ‘disinformation’ manipulation possible. And if the gap is wide enough to allow someone to call white – black and vice versa, it should ring the bell that something is wrong with promoting sustainable development. This gap should be thoroughly analysed and addressed.

  3. Thank you Donald for this important post. And thank you to Professor Dernbach as well. I authored an Agenda 21 Controversy toolkit to help New Jersey citizens understand and be prepared for anti-Agenda 21 actions.

    In fact, I found Professor’s Dernbach’s earlier work to be very helpful and cite him in the toolkit.

    The Agenda 21 Controversy and Your Town
    A Fact-Based Toolkit for Town Leaders & Concerned Citizens
    North Jersey Public Policy Network is proud to release a first-of-its kind toolkit to inform NJ citizens
    about anti-Agenda 21 discussions and actions happening in NJ towns and counties.

    Please feel free to reach out to me with any questions or if I can be of assistance. Corrections are gratefully appreciated as well.


  4. John:

    Thank you for your valuable comments on Agenda 21. I have a couple of minor comments.

    1. It is not only lawyers who need a basic understanding of Agenda 21, but rather lawyers, scientists, economists, public policy makers, philosophers, government officials, and just about everyone.

    2. One can see how interdisciplinary Agenda 21 is either by reading the document or perusing the following analysis: Lemons, J., Brown, D.A. (eds). 1995. Sustainable Development: Science, Ethics, and Public Policy. Kluwer Academic Publishers, Dordrecht, The Netherlands.

    3. As an aside, I was invited to work in a few (mostly developing) countries on Agenda 21 issues after the document was released. There was considerable interest in and knowledge about Agenda 21 by local, regional, and national governments and also by faculty and students in universities. The level of knowledge was much greater than in the US, where, as you state, the document has never been well known. Really, the gap in knowledge was quite pathetic. I am hoping that the current discussion by Beck and his kind is simply a diversionary tactic from climate change issues.

    Thanks again for your blog comments.

  5. The concept of sustainability seems unassailable until one realizes that, like disarmament, it could only work fairly if every nation pursued it simultaneously. By all means, go back to a bamboo, “renewables” economy — but, if your enemies choose to stay with baseload power and heavy industry you will be toast. In the real world, sail gives way to steam every time. Soon, our efforts will be focused on warming the planet. As Prof. James (Gaia Theory) Lovelock said 3 years ago: we’re going to need all the C02 we can get to stave off the impending Ice Age. Coal will be harder to mine when it’s under a mile of ice. Brian Wilshire 2GB Sydney.

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