This article will examine potential conflicts between sustainable development and property rights in light of: (a) the recent rise of the anti-Agenda 21 campaign that has rapidly gained traction in the United States, (b) a new book on the subject, and (c) a recent US Supreme Court decision of June 23, 2013.
As we have seen in several recent articles on this website, there is a new, surprisingly successful attack on sustainability in the United States that claims that local and regional planning that includes environmental, energy, transportation, traffic minimization, and land use provisions is the manifestation of a surreptitious United Nations plot to undermine United States sovereignty to impose a Marxist/socialist new world order. See the last in a three part series, Responding To the Anti-Agenda 21 Disinformation Campaign: A Rigorous Look At The Campaign’s Untruthful Claims.
Although the claims that have been made by activists in the Anti-Agenda 21 campaign are so looney, absurd, and woefully ignorant of international law that some who have been aware of this recent development have chosen to ignore it on the basis that it could never achieve traction in a modern democracy in the 21rst Century, this right wing attack on sustainability has emerged all across the United States. As we have explained in considerable detail in past articles in this series, the anti-Agenda 21 campaign has been remarkably successful in the last two years in preventing local communities from implementing plans necessary to achieve their democratically derived community aspirations to implement local sustainability programs.
The anti-Agenda 21 Campaign has been successful, at least in part, by claiming that sustainable development and Agenda 21 undermines property rights. They make this claim despite the fact that, as we have shown in previous papers in this series, Section 8.18 of Agenda 21 provides that governments and legislators should establish judicial and administrative procedures for legal redress and remedy of actions affecting environment and development that may affect rights. Agenda 21, section 10.5 also expressly says that property rights should be taken into account in land use decisions. And so, not only is there no support for the claim that Agenda 21 encourages the reduction of property rights, as we have seen, Agenda 21 says the exact opposite.
It would appear that activists in the anti-Agenda 21 campaign believe that property ownership conveys the right to use property without limit and with no or few responsibilities to protect the environment or ecological systems.
Although Agenda 21 does not undermine property rights are there potential conflicts between sustainability and property rights? A new book has been published that looks at potential conflicts between property rights and sustainability. The book is Property Rights and Sustainability: the Evolution of Property Rights to Meet Ecological Challengeswhich is edited by David Grinlinton and Prue Taylor. This book seeks to determine how to reconcile the exercise of freedom to use one’s property as one pleases with the responsibility to protect ecological resources. The book contains 15 chapters that examine potential conflicts between property rights and the responsibilities of property owners not to harm the environment. The book further identifies ways of reforming property law to establish clearer obligations to protect the environment. Although all authors in this volume acknowledge the importance of retaining property rights they also examine the need of property law to more clearly establish responsibilities that owners have to protect the environment.
All of the chapters in this book acknowledge social benefits from secure property rights, however most of the chapters in the book assume that the property law must also be clearer about the obligations of property owners to avoid harming the natural resource base on which life depends.
In the opening chapter, Grinlinton and Taylor argue that property rights law prioritizes economic interests over ecological obligations.
In chapter two, Klause Bosselmann argues that current property laws inappropriately give priority to individual entitlements over collective responsibilities. Bosselmann further claims that the property law’s unfinished business is to reconcile private rights with public duties.
Eric Freyfogle argues that is not right to pay land owners to forgo actions that are harmful to others.
J. Ronald Engel argues that property law needs to reflect an understanding of moral obligations property owners have that are understood through reflection on covenants that ground the social contract.
Peter Horsley criticizes current property law by claiming that it is based upon assumptions that humans own nature rather than an understanding of the relationship between humans and nature, namely that humans are part of nature. Property law according to Horsely fails to prevent many small cumulative impacts on nature, ignores the carrying capacity of ecosystems, and fails to protect ecosystem integrity. Thus, according to Horsely the current focus on “rights” is causing growing harm to the natural world on which we depend.
Samuel Alexander claims that the overriding objective of property laws is to facilitate economic growth as efficiently as possible.
Nicole Graham claims that the meaning of property rights has always evolved over time and that recent steps to solve environmental problems by use of economic markets has been built on six myths about markets. These myths are: (1) rights and profits are not accompanied by responsibilities and costs; (2) the fragmentation of property into multiple and concurrent interests is a good thing; (3) market players make rational choices with perfect information; (4) environmental products can be accurately valued; (5) the demand for environmental products is responsive to price signals; and (6) environmental markets can solve environmental problems.
Craig Anthony (Toni) Arnold agues that the dominant idea about property is that it is a “bundle of rights” that leads to property owners becoming abstracted from ecological systems. He thus argues that property should be understood as a web of interests rather than as a “bundle of rights.”
Successive chapters by Veronica Strong, Nin Thomas, and Lee Golden examine differing cultural approaches to property.
Concluding chapters by David Grinlinton, Ann Brower and John Page, Elmarie van der Schyff, and Amokura Kawharu look at changing conceptions of property and the challenge of accommodating principles of sustainability to the ownership of and use of natural resources.
This new book claims that there may be a need to modify property rights to protect ecological systems although none of the chapters call for private interests in property to be completely replaced by public interests.
This book is an excellent summary of issues that arise when property rights conflict with the protection of the environment.
Yet there are open questions about how frequently environmental protection objectives contained in land us plans, regulations that constrain land uses to achieve environmental protection goals, or permit conditions actually conflict with property rights.
As we have explained in considerable detail in prior entries on this subject, Agenda 21 does not call for changes in property rights. In fact, Agenda 21 urges that property rights be protected. We now, however, look at whether many of the issues that have arisen in some of the local and regional controversies violate the property rights protection under the US Constitution.
To determine the magnitude of any conflict between sustainability and property rights, it is first necessary to look at how courts have articulated when government regulation violates property rights. A comprehensive article on whether there is a conflict between sustainability policies has been published recently. This article is:Does Sustainability Require a New Theory of Property Rights? (Circo. 2009) In this article, Circo concludes that under US constitutional law:
When the contested government action merely regulates land use without physically interfering with possession, the adversely affected landowner will have no right to compensation (a takings claim) absent a showing that the restriction denies the owner “all economically viable use of the land” or that it imposes burdens that bear no relationship to the regulation’s public benefits. In other words, unless the regulation virtually prohibits any valuable use of the land, courts will use a deferential balancing test to determine how far government regulation may go.
Circo’s summary of takings law goes on to conclude:
The leading land use cases reflect the traditional theory that government may impose significant, even highly intrusive, restrictions on property rights for police power purposes. The usual test is that a police power imposition on property rights is valid unless it is “clearly arbitrary and unreasonable, having no substantial relation to the public health, safety, morals, or general welfare.” Notice the two elements involved: the limitation on property rights must be for a valid police power function (health, safety, morals, or general welfare) and the limitation imposed must bear at least some relationship to that police power purpose (must not be arbitrary or unreasonable).
Thus it is clear that it is not a violation of property rights for government to impose reasonable restrictions on land use necessary to protect the environment unless the restrictions completely eliminate the use of the property by the owner.
Yet the anti-Agenda 21 campaign has asserted that land-use restrictions such as those that require land owners to install stream buffers when necessary to protect water quality, zoning ordinances that attempt to assure that development does not exceed the carrying capacity limits of ecological systems such as the maximum sustainable yield of groundwater, or regulations that require the protection of wetlands are an infringement of property rights. But as Circo’s analysis makes clear, property rights are not unlimited, and the US courts have almost always upheld reasonable regulation of land needed to protect the environment.
However, if government restricts any reasonable use of land to achieve sustainability goals, this would likely be seen by US courts as a violation of property rights. Yet courts do not see property rights as giving land owners the right to use the land in such a way that it adversely affects the environment.
Does this mean that any proposed government restriction on land use in the name of sustainable development would not conflict with property rights as currently understood under US constitutional law? Here Circo sees at least one kind of government regulation urged by the idea of sustainability that could create conflicts between property rights and sustainability. That is in cases where governments limit the use of natural resources for the sole benefit of future generations. In such a case, Circo sees a potential conflict between sustainability and land use. It is in such cases where the issues of concern in the book discussed above arise. Yet, most environmental restrictions on the use of land that don’t prevent the land owner from using his or her land are not prohibited by property rights in the United States. And so, the anti-Agenda 21 campaign’s claims that sustainability undermines property rights is also not true for two reasons. As we have seen Agenda 21 calls for the protection of property rights. Also most of the land-use provisions under attack by the anti-Agenda 21 campaign do not violate property rights under. The general rule that environmental restrictions on land use do not entail an unlawful taking of property under the US constitutional law was set out in the Village of Euclid v. Ambler Realty Co., 272 U. S. 365 (1926). This case held that insisting that landowners internalize the negative externalities of their conduct is a hallmark of responsible land-use policy and limitations on land use do not create and unconstitutional taking.
However a recent case by the US Supreme Court, identifies a potential infringement on property rights when government imposes unreasonable conditions on land-use permits or approvals. In Koontz v. St. Johns River Water Management District, No. 11-1447, 570 U.S. __ (2013), the court concluded that there could be an unconstitutional taking of property if governments condition the issuance of permit to mitigate adverse environmental protection goals when the condition lacks an essential nexus and rough proportionality to those impacts. Otherwise there is no taking.
For the limited number of issues raised by sustainability that actually conflict with property rights, the book Property Rights and Sustainability: the Evolution of Property Rights to meet Ecological Challengesis good introduction to the issues that should be considered on matters where there is a conflict between protecting the environment and property rights.
Donald A. Brown
Scholar In Residence, Sustainbility Ethics and Law
Two new documents are available to help those interested in responding to the anti-Agenda 21 campaign that has been the subject of the last two papers on Ethicsandclimate.org that is undermining local and regional land use and sustainable development planning in the United States.
As we have explained in the last two articles, an anti-Agenda 21 campaign has been surprisingly successful in the United States in undermining land-use, transportation, and energy planning at the local and regional level. The Tea Party in the United States appears to have a new focus: they are fighting local and regional government land-use and sustainable development planning on the basis that it is part of a United Nations plot to undermine national sovereignty and impose a Marxist/socialist new world order.
The first article in this series on Ethicsandclimate.org described the rapid success of this phenomenon and critically looked at four claims frequently made by this campaign. The second article continued the critical examination of nine additional claims frequently made by anti-Agenda 21 activists. The second paper also reviewed the anti-Agenda campaign’s claims as a matter of ethics.
Although the claims that have been made by activists in the Anti-Agenda 21 campaign are so looney, absurd, and woefully ignorant of international law that some who have been aware of this recent development in US history have chosen to ignore it on the basis that it could never achieve traction in a modern democracy in the 21rst Century. Yet as we have explained in considerable detail in past articles in this series, the anti-Agenda 21 campaign has been remarkably successful in the last two years in preventing local communities from implementing plans necessary to achieve their democratically derived community aspirations concerning. among other things, protection of air and water quality, reducing traffic congestion, creating bike lanes, improving public transportation, reducing carbon emissions that are contributing to climate change, and land-use and energy planning.
As we have demonstrated in the past two articles, the claims made by the anti-Agenda 21 campaign are directly contradicted by the text of Agenda 21. They are also deeply misleading about what Agenda 21 is, its legal affect on the the United States, and staggeringly inconsistent with international law.
A new paper is now available that combines the previous two entries in Ethicsandclimate.org while expanding on them. This paper is designed to be a rigorous reference for those who want to respond to the claims of the anti-Agenda 21 campaign in detail.
This first paper is:
TheAnti-Agenda21 Disinformation Campaign in the United States: An Ethical Critique of an Attack on Sustainability
This article continues the analysis of the anti-Agenda 21 disinformation campaign begun in our last article. In that article we looked at the four claims about Agenda 21 that appeared in a resolution passed by West Cornwall Township in Pennsylvania which are also very frequently being made by activists in the anti-Agenda 21 campaign across the United States. We now continue our examination of specific claims made by the anti-Agenda 21 campaign by looking at claims made by John Anthony, a conservative businessman who frequently speaks on Agenda 21 issues around the United States and who has produced a You Tube in which he makes the specific claims considered here. The claims that Mr. Anthony makes are also often being made by other anti-Agenda 21 activists. We end with a claim made by the Republican National Platform.
After looking at eight additional claims in this article we examine the ethical issues raised by the anti-Agenda 21 campaign.
The last entry in this series will examine the organizations who are most responsible for the anti-Agenda 21 campaign.
II. Continuing Analysis of Claims of the anti-Agenda 21 Campaign
Claim 5. Agenda 21 attempts to erode the local control found in our communities across the nation and turns home and regional rule over to a global agenda set by organizations authorized by the United Nations.(West Cornwall Township Resolution)
The fact that this claim is a complete and utter canard can be determined by looking at the actual language of Agenda 21. Paragraph 3.5 (a) of Agenda 21, for instance, calls for the empowerment of local and community groups under the principal of delegating authority, accountability, and resources to the most appropriate level to ensure that the program will be geographically and ecologically specific.
In addition paragraph 10.6 (e) of Agenda21, as we’ve seen above, calls for delegating policy making to the lowest level of public authority consistent with effective action and a locally driven approach.
Absolutely nothing in Agenda 21 calls for the divestment of local power and the substitution of the United Nations authority expressly provides that
Agenda 21 does acknowledge that some environmental and economic development problems cannot be solved by one community alone because some problems do not fit the boundaries of a single local community’s jurisdiction. In these cases, governments need to cooperate to have any hope of solving the problem. For instance, upstream communities and nations can degrade the water supply of downstream nations and communities. Three or more communities may degrade a common water supply. In such cases a regional solution is required to solve the problem and Agenda 21 implicitly calls for regional government cooperation in such cases. In solving these regional problems, the United Nations is not called upon to play any role in the regional decision making. In these situations, the governments are encouraged, but not required, by Agenda 21 to consider the environmental and economic impacts in an integrated in decision-making.
Some environmental problems are global in scope such as ocean acidification, ozone layer depletion, and climate change. For these problems global cooperation is necessary and the United Nations has often played a convening role in bringing national governments together to solve these problems. However, even for global problems the United Nations has no power nor attempts to dictate the elements of global solutions. The United Nation’s role in global problems has been to call nations together in negotiations to arrive at treaties which have to be ratified by national governments. In the United States treaty ratification requires a 2/3 vote of the US Senate. In global treaty negotiations, the United Nations plays no negotiating role except to facilitate negotiations among nations and sometimes to act in an administrative role in regard to the implementation of treaties. Yet even when it plays this role it reports to the nations who are parties to the treaties.
Thus Agenda 21 endorses a principle which is known legally as the “subsidarity” principle. The subsidiarity principle is an organizing principle of decentralization, stating that a matter ought to be handled by the smallest, lowest, or least centralized authority capable of addressing that matter effectively.
Not only is there no basis for the claim that Agenda 21 undermines regional control by replacing it with a global control, as we have seen, Agenda 21 by incorporating principle 2 of the Rio declaration acknowledges the sovereign right of nations to exploit their own resources pursuant to their own environmental and development policies.
Claim 6. Agenda 21 calls for decisions affecting local property to be made in accordance with the Charter of the United Nations rather than local property law. (John Anthony tape)
This claim is simply a lie or reckless disregard for the truth. As we have seen, Agenda 21 calls for decisions to be made at the lowest practical level in accordance with the laws and policies of that level.
Nothing contained in the present Charter shall authorize the United Nations to intervene in matters which are essentially within the domestic jurisdiction of any state.
Since the planning issues under attack by the anti-Agenda 21 are matters within the jurisdiction of local, regional, state or national governments, the Charter of the United Nations actually prohibits the United Nations from usurping local or regional authority.
Thus, the claim that Agenda 21 calls for local decisions to be determined under the authority of the United Nations Charter is so loony and inconsistent with international law that it has obviously been made by someone who does not understand international law, yet who has been convinced by conspiracy theories that the United Nations is rapidly usurping national sovereignty.
Claim 7. Agenda 21 means that individual rights must take second place to the rights of the collective. (John Anthony tape)
Not only does Agenda 21 nowhere say that individual rights must take second place to the rights of the collective as we have seen above, Agenda 21 is clear that governments at the appropriate scale should make decisions according to their own laws and policies, expressly reaffirms property rights, calls for judicial processes to protect rights, and is comprised of a set of recommendations for consideration by the appropriate government, not rules that must be adopted. This claim, along with many others discussed in this series, must be understood as a lie or reckless disregard for the truth.
Claim 8. Agenda 21 calls for free enterprise to be replaced with public/ private partnership. (John Anthony tape)
Nothing in Agenda 21 remotely comes close to saying that free enterprise should be replaced. As we have seen several times there is an entire chapter of Agenda 21, chapter 30, that calls for the strengthening of free enterprise in decision-making and Agenda 21 actually recommends greater use of market mechanisms.
Many businesses and business organizations have enthusiastically supported the ideas of Agenda 21. For instance the World Council of Sustainable Buisinness is an organization comprised of over 200 international corporations that have actively participated in UN meetings on sustainability. Thousands of businesses around the world have made commitments to sustainable development. As we saw above the United State government consistently met with US business interests before taking positions on sustainability issues at the UN. The claim that Agenda 21 calls for replacement of the private sector is not only inaccurate it is preposterous.
Claim 9. In decision-making at the local level, the job of the facilitator is to guide the local stakeholder groups to accept predetermined objectives consistent with Agenda 21.(John Anthony tape)
This claim apparently is made about multi-stakeholder meetings that are encouraged by Agenda 21 at the appropriate government level. Multi-stakeholder meetings are usually organized by the government unit that is considering action relating to planning. The local governments usually select which facilitators will run meetings. It is very, very unlikely that facilitators of these meeting know anything about Agenda 21 or looked to it to find rules to apply to local solutions. There is no evidence at all that all or the majority of facilitators that have participated in local declension-making relevant to sustainability issues have forced the stakeholders to come up with recommendations consistent with Agenda 21.
Claim 10. Agenda 21 implementation will mean that people will only be able to live in the black areas in the following maps, living in rural areas will no longer be possible in the United States. (John Anthony tape)
This claim is obviously ludicrous and utterly disingenuous. There have been no proposals that have come close to limiting future domestic dwellings to the black spaces on the map nor to prohibiting people from locating their homes in rural areas. In the United States, land use decisions are made by state and local governments in accordance with state and local law. The United Nations has zero authority over the decisions of State and local governments on these issues. Agenda 21 makes no recommendations to prohibit living in rural communities.
From time to time in the past state and local governments have made land use decisions that restrict land uses to protect wild life and natural resources but they have not done this in response to Agenda 21. Some governments may also choose to restrict certain land uses for ecological preservation reasons in the future. Property owners of lands that might be identified to be preserved for ecological reasons have strong property rights in the United States that prevent the government from taking their property without just compensation and due process of law. Agenda 21 not only does not undermine the rights of property owners, it reaffirms them as we have seen.
Claim 11. Agenda 21 requires that the same solutions be applied the same everywhere in the world.(John Anthony tape)
Once again, this claim is directly contradicted by the text of Agenda 21. Paragraph 8.2 of Agenda 21 says in relevant part:
National plans, goals and objectives, national rules, regulations and law, and the specific situations in which different countries are placed are the overall framework in which integration takes place. In this context, it must be borne in mind that environmental standards may pose severe economic and social costs if they are uniformly applied in developing countries.
As we have also explained above , Agenda 21 expressly recognizes the sovereignty and right of nations to exploit their own resources according to their own needs. Agenda 21 is simply a menu of options for consideration, not a set of rules to be applied.
Claim 12. Agenda 21 Erodes National Sovereignty. (Republican National Platform)
Agenda 21 not only does not erode American sovereignty in any way, as we have seen throughout this analysis it reaffirms national sovereignty.
First, we have seen from the quote above that Section 8.2 expressly provides that the law of nations is the basis for integrating environmental and economic issues in implementing Agenda 21.
Second, we have seen that Agenda 21 is simply a menu of options not a set of rules to be applied in nations.
Third, we have seen that the Charter of the United Nations says that the Charter does not give the United Nations the authority to interfere with matters rightly within the jurisdictions of nations.
Fourth, we saw that paragraph 10.6 (e) of Agenda 21 calls for delegating policy making to the lowest level of public authority consistent with effective action and a locally driven approach.
Fifth, we have seen that Agenda 21 expressly incorporates Principle two of the Rio Declaration which says that “Nations have in accordance with the Charter of the United Nations and the principles of international law the sovereign right to exploit their own resources pursuant to their own environmental and development policies.” (Rio Declaration, Principle 2)
Sixth, it is a well establish principle of international law that nations are not bound by international agreements unless they are treaties that have been ratifies or adopted according to national law. In the United States, the US Senate must ratify a treaty by 2/3 vote of the United States Senate. The United States never ratified Agenda 21 nor even considered so doing because it was universally understood to be a non-binding document from its conception.
In summary, the United States retains full, undiluted sovereignty over matters discussed in Agenda 21. Nothing in Agenda 21 remotely undermines the sovereignty of the United States.
III. Ethical Analysis of Anti-Agenda 21
We now look at the anti-Agenda 21 campaign phenomenon through an ethical lens. We end this ethical analysis with a reflection on the ethics of sustainable development.
1. Tactics of anti-Agenda 21 Campaign
We have seen in this series of articles that the assumptions and claims of the anti-Agenda 21 campaign are very frequently based upon either lies or reckless disregard for the truth. Over and over again, claims of this campaign are made about the meaning or effect of Agenda 21 which are directly contradicted by the text of this document or are based upon a completely delusional understanding of the potential power of the United Nations over local or regional governments in the United States as a legal matter.
As we noted at the beginning of this series, citizens have clear rights to protect their interests by participating in and attempting to influence local and regional planning efforts. There is no doubt, some land-use decisions have occasionally infringed upon property rights. In these cases existing US law provides legal protection for redress. Nothing in Agenda 21 can be construed to change this.
However those seeking to influence government processes have no rights to tell utter untruths about issues in contention. For this reason, the tactics of the anti-Agenda 21 campaign are ethically problematic particularly in light of the magnitude and scope of the misinformation the anti-Agenda 21 campaign has been inserting into discussions about local planning issues.
The tactics of the anti-Agenda 21 campaign include not only include large doses of misinformation about Agenda 21, they also appear to be designed to scare uninformed citizens that their rights are being taken over by the United Nations which is in the process of undermining national sovereignty in pursuit of imposing a Marxist/socialist one world government.
And so, the tactics of the anti-Agenda 21 campaign include the spreading a huge number of false claims that are being used to scare uninformed citizens. These tactics are clearly morally reprehensible.
2. The Ethics of Sustainability
As we explained, Agenda 21 is a document that encourages but does not require governments around the world to pursue integrated decision-making about environmental, economic, and social issues at the global, national, regional, and local scales. The idea is premised on the notion that if economic, environmental, or social policies are pursued by themselves they may prevent the achievement of legitimate environmental, economic, and social goals that may be achieved in integrated decision-making.
The idea of sustainable development does not give strong guidance on how to reconcile conflicts between environmental and economic goals. As we noted in the first part of this series, the definition that is usually used to define the term is notoriously vague. Namely, sustainable development is development which meets the needs of present generations without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs. This definition could be understood to allow destruction of all natural resources if technology finds substitutes, makes human needs the measure of value for natural resources, fails to recognize duties to sentient animals, makes no distinctions on what human needs are, etc. As a result, many environmental ethicists have criticized the term the idea of sustainable development for its failure to be clearer about the value of nature and animals.
Similarly many environmental activists have criticized the concept of sustainable development on the basis that its implicit valorization of development will lead to environmental destruction.
Yet it can be argued, that the idea of sustainable development is worthwhile pursuing practically and ethically despite its ethical vagueness because it calls for decisions relating to economic development to take into consideration potential adverse environmental impacts. It also encourages governments considering environmental protection policies to consider unwanted impacts on legitimate economic development objectives. Because environmental and economic goals can have ethical significance, sustainable development is ethically supportable despite the lack of clarity about how to resolve conflicts between environmental and economic goals. For this reason, sustainable development is what philosophers call an “orienting” concept. It helps orient decision-making to consider the right thing to do, even if it is ethically incomplete in giving guidance on how to resolve environmental protection and economic development conflicts. Many other “orienting” concepts which contain no ethical rule but are helpful are frequently used in public life. For instance, the very word “justice” is such an orienting concept.
The word “justice” in the abstract does not tell one what should be done when distributing societal benefits but it is useful in orienting thinking about what is a fair distribution of societal goods in human affairs 0r when procedures should be created to provide rights of participation in decisions for those who could be affected by government decisions. For the same reason, a call for integrated decision-making is ethically positive even if it does not resolve all conflicts about environmental and economic issues.
This is so because many governments have pursued economic development objectives or environment protection goals without consideration of how policies in each of these areas might affect the legitimate aspirations of the other policy goals. For instance, very frequently economic development projects that affected water quality have been approved before the project’s impacts on water quality were considered. Because people have a right to not have the water on which they depend degraded by others, it is ethically required that adverse impacts on water quality be considered in economic policy decisions that could affect water quality. There are also many examples particularly in developing countries where projects which proposed to restrict the use of natural resources have been approved without consideration of the adverse impacts that would follow by restricting natural resource on local indigenous people who depended on the resources for subsistence. Ethics requires that environmental decisions consider how people’s subsistence needs may be affected by environmental policies.
And so the idea of sustainable development is ethically supportable despite its lack of clarity about how to resolve conflicts between environmental and economic goals. In cases of conflict between environmental and economic goals, governments need to look to other ethical principles contained in law or ethical theory to resolve conflicts. And so, sustainable development is an ethically supportable goal despite the fact that its it gives incomplete ethical guidance on how to resolve conflicts between environmental, economic, and other policy goals.
It would appear that the anti-Agenda 21 disinformation campaign is always opposed to the idea of sustainable development that encourages integrated decision-making on environmental, economic, and social policies.
Such a position is itself ethically problematic precisely because people and governments have ethical duties to avoid certain kinds of adverse environmental, economic, and social impacts on others.
Therefore, we conclude that the anti-Agenda 21 campaign can be criticized on ethical grounds for many reasons including the fact that it appears to be opposed to integrated decision-making on projects that can have adverse environmental, economic, and social impacts.
We have demonstrated that the claims of the anti-Agenda 21 campaign are built upon misleading and inaccurate claims about Agenda 21. We have also shown that the tactics of this campaign are ethically problematic.
The last entry in this series will look at the organizations that have been propagating the claims that we have examined in this series.
This the first in a series of five articles that will examine a disinformation campaign about the United Nations program on environment and development, Agenda 21. As we will see, this campaign has been surprisingly successful in the United States in undermining land use, transportation, and energy planning, and environmental regulation at the local and regional government levels.
Citizens may have many legitimate reasons to oppose elements of land use plans about which they have a right to contest. In fact, their involvement in local government decision-making may constitute an exercise of citizen virtue. Citizens may also need to participate in land use decision-making to protect rights of various types,including but not limited to, property rights. Yet, claims being made by the anti-Agenda 21 campaign are so demonstratively false, misleading, and deceitful that they fail to pass ethical scrutiny.
As we shall see, many of the claims being made by the anti-Agenda 21 campaign are not only without confirming evidence, they are directly contradicted by the text of Agenda 21 itself, woefully ignorant of the limited role of the United Nations in the world, and deeply misleading about what Agenda 21 is and its effect of on the United States.
The misleading claims of the anti-Agenda 21 campaign also have had consequences. As we shall see, the anti-Agenda 21 campaign has been successful in preventing citizens at the local and regional level the United States from organizing their communities to protect open spaces, reduce traffic congestion, provide public transportation, protect water and air quality, construct bike lanes, and achieve other community benefits that can only be achieved by responsible land-use planning. The anti-Agenda 21 campaign has accomplished this by making preposterous claims including that local land-use planning is part of a plot to put United Nations in control of local and regional decision-making, rob individuals of their freedoms, and undermine property rights. As we shall see in the last entry in this series, the anti-Agenda 21 campaign that is making these claims has been funded, at least in part, by economic interests that profit from the absence of responsible land use planning and environmental regulation.
The assertions made by the anti-Agenda 21 campaign or not only false, they are so deeply inconsistent with the explicit language of Agenda 21 that they can only be understood as the paranoid constructions of somebody that has subscribed to conspiracy theories about the United Nations. Because the text of Agenda 21 so dramatically contradicts the claims of the anti-Agenda 21 campaign, it would appear someone who believed that the United Nations is an institution dedicated to undermining national sovereignty and the destruction of individual freedom around the world selectively looked for language in Agenda 21 that confirmed this conspiracy theory. They then quoted the confirming language and ignored the rest of the text of Agenda 21 that dramatically contradicts the conspiratorial conclusions, drew conclusions from the selected language without any confirming evidence, and made claims about the United Nations that are breathtakingly ignorant of the UN’s limited legal authority including its utter lack of power over national, regional, or local governments. (Only the UN Security Council has authority over governments but that authority is subject to the veto power of its permanent members, one of which is the United States, along with China, France, Great Britain, and Russia.)
As we shall see, one of the organizations connected to the anti-Agenda 21 campaign has been the John Birch Society whose website proclaims:
The global power elites view the UN as their main vehicle for establishing, step by step, a socialistic global government controlled by themselves. Now, more than ever, we need to get out of the UN and remove the UN from the United States. (John Birch Society)
And so it appears that the anti-Agenda 21 campaign has been fed by organizations who believe that the United Nations is taking over the world, organizations that claimed in the past that the civil rights movement was a communist plot.
The conclusions of the anti-Agenda 21 campaign are so obviously inconsistent with the facts about Agenda 21 that many who are familiar with Agenda 21 have ignored this phenomenon on the basis that is so loony, delusional, or wacky that it could not gain traction in any 21st-century democracy. Yet as we will see, the anti-Agenda 21 campaign has had growing success in thwarting the implementation of local communities preferred visions of the future that have been derived cooperatively in mufti-stakeholder and citizen discussions.
In a recent article in EthicsandClimate.org Professor John Dernbach concluded that “a well organized campaign against Agenda 21, spread by the Tea Party, Glenn Beck, and the John Birch Society, exists” (See, Agenda 21: A Guide for the Perplexed) In this article Professor Dernbach explains : (a) how this campaign is becoming affective in the United States and is threatening to undermine US sustainability programs, the real target of this campaign; (b) what Agenda 21 is and is not, and (c) why many of the claims made by the the anti-Agenda 21 campaign are demonstratively false.
This article will critically examine four of the claims of the campaign and deduce from the campaign the tactics employed by the campaign. The next article in this series will critically examine five other claims of the campaign deduce from the claims the tactics campaign. In the last entry, this series will examine the tactics of the campaign through an ethical lens after looking at the organizations and funding behind the campaign. Claims examined in this series include:
Claim 1. Agenda 21 is a United Nations Program that implements extreme environmentalism, social engineering, and global political control.
Claim 2 . The United Nations has covertly pushed Agenda 21 into local communities throughout United States of America through the international Council of Local Environmental Initiatives and through policies such as ” Smart Growth,” “Wildlands Projects”, “Resilient Cities”, “Regional Visioning Projects” and others with similar obscure names.
Claim 3. Agenda 21 and sustainable development views the American way of life of private property ownership, single-family homes, private automobile ownership, individual travel choices, privately owned farms, and human existence as all being destructive of the environment.
Claim 4. Under Agenda 21, social justice is described as the right and opportunity of the people around the world to benefit equally from the resources afforded us by society and the environment which would be accomplished by socialist/communist global redistribution of property and wealth.
Claims examined in the second part of this series include:
Claim 5. Agenda 21 attempts to erode the local control found in our communities across the nation and turns home and regional rule over to a global agenda set by a body organization authorized by the United Nations.
Claim 6. Agenda 21 calls for decisions affecting local property to be made in accordance with the Charter of the United Nations rather than local property law.
Claim 7. Agenda 21 means that individual rights must take second place to the rights of the collective.
Claim 8. Agenda 21 calls for free enterprise to be replaced with public/ private partnership.
Claim 9. In decision-making at the local level, the job of the facilitator is to guide the local stakeholder groups to accept predetermined objectives consistent with Agenda 21.
Claim 10. Agenda 21 implementation will mean that people will only be able to live in the certain limited areas of the United States marked on a specific map, living in rural areas will no longer be possible in the United States.
Claim 11. Agenda 21 requires that the same solutions to be applied the same everywhere in the world.
Claim 12. Agenda 21 erodes American Sovereignty.
II. The Success of the Anti-21 Campaign
The anti-Agenda 21 campaign has rapidly grown in influence in local and regional government planning decision-making in the United States in the last few years. Anti-Agenda 21 activists making arguments propagated by a few extreme right wing organizations have appeared in greater numbers at land use planning meetings of local and regional governments around the United States claiming that land use planning and sustainable development policies are manifestations of a covert United Nations plot to undermine national sovereignty, destroy property rights, implement a radical environmentalism, and destroy individual freedom. Despite the obvious delusional character of many of the campaign’s claims, this phenomenon has been remarkably successful in the last few years in defeating local land-use planning proposals around the United States, in passing anti-sustainability laws in several US states, and, as we shall see, convincing the Republican party to accept its paranoid assumptions.
According to the Tampa Bay Times, the anti-Agenda 21 campaign was successful in getting the Republican National Committee to approve a resolution calling for a formal stance against Agenda 21 in the 2012 GOP platform and denouncing the U.N. accord as “a comprehensive plan of extreme environmentalism, social engineering, and global political control” that is being “covertly pushed into local communities.” (Jamison, 2012)
And so if there is any question about the power of this campaign, it is remarkable that one of the two major American political parties has uncritically adopted the claims of the anti-Agenda 21 campaign despite the fact that, as we shall see, the edifice of this campaign has been constructed of delusional, inaccurate, and demonstratively falsifiable ideas about Agenda 21.
Across the country, activists with ties to the Tea Party are railing against all sorts of local and state efforts to control sprawl and conserve energy. They brand government action for things like expanding public transportation routes and preserving open space as part of a United Nations led conspiracy to deny property rights and herd citizens toward cities.
They are showing up at planning meetings to denounce bike lanes on public streets and smart meters on home appliances — efforts they equate to a big-government blueprint against individual rights.
In Maine, the Tea Party-backed Republican governor canceled a project to ease congestion along the Route 1 corridor after protesters complained it was part of the United Nations plot. Similar opposition helped doom a high-speed train line in Florida. And more than a dozen cities, towns and counties, under new pressure, have cut off financing for a program that offers expertise on how to measure and cut carbon emissions.
Alabama became the first state to prohibit government participation in Agenda 21. The Alabama law bars the state or any of its subdivisions from adopting or implementing policy actions that “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, adopted by the United Nations.”
Although the Alabama law is pretty vague in that it bars action without “due process of law,” as one observer notes, no doubt every proposal for smart growth, high density housing, heritage preservation, wetlands or forest protection, shoreline preservation, or environmental protection will now be bogged down in Alabama. (Alter, 2012)
A bill passed both houses of the Missouri legislature recently and as of this writing was awaiting the Governor’s signature. The Missouri Bill provides:
Neither the state of Missouri nor any political subdivision shall adopt or implement policy recommendations that 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, adopted by the United Nations in 1992 at its Conference on Environment and Development.
A bill has been introduced in Kansas that provides:
No public funds may be used, either directly or indirectly, to promote, support, mandate, require, order, incentivize, advocate, plan for, participate in or implement sustainable development. (Huffington Post)
This bill has potential remarkable future consequences, since every kind of land use plan, environmental regulation, or transportation plan could be understood to be “sustainable development.”
“a touchstone of a larger theme that equates environmentalism with totalitarianism and the loss of individual freedom. For a growing cast of far-right hardliners, Agenda 21 is a sort of Trojan horse, a totalitarian scheme with a green environmental mask, lying in wait to destroy America as we know it.’
In many places throughout the United States, the anti-Agenda 21 has been successful in thwarting local and regional land use planning. For instance, in February, 2013 the West Cornwall Township, Pennsylvania supervisors passed a resolution opposing Cornwall-Lebanon Regional Comprehensive Plan, a joint effort of the townships of North Lebanon, South Lebanon, North Cornwall and West Cornwall as well as Cornwall Borough. (Lebanon Daily News)
The West Cornwall Township resolution is attached a Appendix A.
In December of 2012, North Londonderry Township withdrew from its regional comprehensive plan that it had created with partners South Londonderry Township and Palmyra Borough.
And so, Agenda 21 is being used by activists in the United States as the basis for opposing land use and economic development planning, environmental regulation, and transportation planning. Tea Party activists have recently changed their political focus from the federal government to a new perhaps more insidious target: local planning and zoning commissions, which activists claim are carrying out a global conspiracy to trample American liberties and force citizens into Orwellian high-density living zones. Anti-Agenda 21 activists see Agenda 21 behind everything from a septic tank inspection law in Florida, a plan in Maine to reduce traffic on Route 1, and the creation of the bike sharing programs in Colorado and as a covert attempt to create United Nations dominated communities.
The activists frequently make the absurd claim that any land use plan that includes some environmental protection elements is a step in a stealth UN Agenda 21 plot even though most engaged in planning at the local level have never heard of Agenda 21, environmental goals have been included in land use planning long before Agenda 21 was created, and most citizens desire to protect local air, water, and natural resources, reduce traffic congestion, provide public transportation, and protect wetlands and fisheries to maintain the quality of life without any regard to what Agenda 21 says. The anti-Agenda 21 campaign argues that all of these local planning derived outcomes should be opposed because they are the manifestation of a UN plot.
We now look at specific claims made by the Anti-Agenda 21 campaign, evaluate them to determine their veracity, and identify the tactics of the Anti-Agenda 21 campaign that can be deduced from these claims.
III. Specific Claims
Claim 1. Agenda 21 is a United Nations Program that Implements Extreme Environmentalism, Social Engineering, and Global Political Control. (West Cornwall Township Resolution)
Agenda 21 is a non-binding, voluntarily action plan agreed to by the international community in 1992 to implement the concept of sustainable development. Although the term sustainable development has no precise definition, those who attempt to define it often quote the definition from the 1987 Brundtland Commission which said that sustainable development is “development that meets the needs of the present generation without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.”
Many observers have commented on the fact that this is a notoriously vague definition that gives no clear guidance on how to resolve conflicts between economic development and environmental protection goals.
Agenda 21 is comprised of 40 chapters that are divided into the following sections:
1. Program of Action for Sustainable Development
2. Social and Economic Dimensions
3. Conservation And Management of Resources For Development
4. Strengthening the Role of Major Groups, and.
5. Means of Implementation
Chapters relating to environmental protection are in section 3 and include separate chapters on the atmosphere, land use planning and land resources, deforestation, fragile ecosystems, sustainable agriculture and rural development, biological diversity, biotehnology, oceans and seas, freshwater, toxic chemicals, hazardous wastes, solid wastes and sewage, and radioactive wastes.
The contents of these chapters were for the most part developed by examining best practices on these issues that existed around the world in the early1990s. In fact, many of the policies in these chapters were based on existing law and policies in the United States. The chapter on the atmosphere is an exception to this because it called for control of atmospheric greenhouse gases to prevent climate change and the United States did not have laws and regulations on greenhouse gas emission when Agenda 21 was agreed to in 1992. However, the call for control of greenhouse gas emissions in Agenda 21 is much less precise than the obligations to adopt policies and practices to prevent the threat of climate change that the George H.W. Bush administration had agreed to when it negotiated and Congress ratified the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change in 1992. And so Agenda 21 added nothing to US obligations on climate change.
The environmental policies listed in the above chapters were understood to constitute simply a menu of options to be considered by nations, not binding directives. In this regard William Reilly, US EPA administrator during the George H. W. Bush administration, said during the 1992 Rio conference which adopted Agenda 21 that:
Agenda 21 is not a binding agreement, it is an action plan. It is more a menu of options than a directive. No country could simultaneously undertake all the programs set out in the document. Each country must set its own priorities among the many issues addressed in Agenda 21. (Reilly, 1992)
Because the environmental provisions of Agenda 21 contained in the above chapters were for the most part based on existing US law as of 1992 or promises that the United States had agreed to under ratified international treaties, it is absurd to conclude that Agenda 21 calls for the implementation of extreme environmentalism. Moreover these chapters are mere recommendations for consideration by governments around the world, not rules that governments must accept. The provisions in these chapters are neither binding on governments, nor has there ever been a review by the United Nations of US law to see if it is consistent with Agenda 21. Even more tellingly Agenda 21 expressly incorporates the Rio Declaration which says in relevant part:
Nations have in accordance with the Charter of the United Nations and the principles of international law the sovereign right to exploit their own resources pursuant to their own environmental and development policies. (Rio Declaration, Principle 2)
And so rather than undermining national sovereignty, Agenda 21 reaffirms it and acknowledges that nations should develop their own policies based upon their own interests to resolve potential conflicts between environmental protection and economic development goals.
Agenda 21 is not binding on the United States in three ways. First, it is not a treaty, the only kind of legal document that can bind nations. Unlike a treaty, the United States has never attempted to ratify it because it was always understood to be a non-binding set of recommendations that nations should consider or reject according to their own visions of appropriate environmental protection and economic development needs. Second, Agenda 21 was never intended to obligate nations to implement its recommendations comprehensively. Its contents were understood to be only a menu of options for consideration by governments, a fact that is clear from a reading of the entirety if the text. Third, Agenda 21 never created an enforcement mechanism or any process for the UN to review national laws and policies to compare what has been done at the national level in response to Agenda 21.
At yearly meetings on the Commission of Sustainable Development (CSD) at the United Nations, an organization created by Agenda 21, nations self-reported on what they were doing in regard to the general subject of specific Agenda 21 chapters, not on the specific provisions of Agenda 21. And so the United States usually reported on what already doing under US law on matters that were relevant to the subject matter of Agenda 21s chapters. That is, the United States reported on programs and policies that the United States had independently without regard to Agenda 21 obligations.
From 1995 through 1998, I held the position of Program Manager for United Nations Organizations at the US EPA Office of International Environmental Policy. In this position I had the lead staff responsibility for the US EPA to compile reports on programs managed by EPA that were submitted to the UN CSD. In my tenure, no programs or policies were reported on that had been enacted by the United States to comply with Agenda 21. In fact, during my tenure at EPA there was no one in the US government that had any responsibility to review US law and policy in regard to the specific provisions of Agenda 21 to determine how US law or policy needed to be upgraded to conform to Agenda 21.
The US simply never took Agenda 21 seriously, a fact that was a disappointment to many environmental NGOs that attended meetings of the UN CSD. After the adoption of Agenda 21 in 1992, the European Union frequently tried to strengthen Agenda 21’s vague language by amending several chapters to include numerical targets and timetables. The US always fought these proposals and succeeded in preventing Agenda 21 from including quantitative goals. (Even if quantitative goals had been injected into Agenda 21, they would still not be binding on the United States.)
The United States understood that it had no binding obligations under Agenda 21 to develop any new programs and that the body of US law was for the most part equal to or more demanding than recommendations in the Agenda 21’s environmental chapters. The Clinton administration, as the Bush administration before it, saw Agenda 21 as only a menu of best practices, not a list of obligations. The chief value of Agenda 21 for the Clinton administration was that it provided guidance for developing countries on how to upgrade clearly inadequate laws and policies relating to environmental protection and economic development controversies. In fact many mainstream US environmental NGOs were uninterested in Agenda 21 because they saw it as document mostly of importance to developing countries. As a result the large US environmental groups did not even participate in most discussions about Agenda 21 at the UN CSD, they believed that they had more important environmental issues to work on. Of course, some US environmental NGOs were greatly disappointed that the Clinton administration took no interest in upgrading US law and policy on the subject matter of Agenda 21 chapters. To do this the US government would need to work with Congress, and the Clinton administration had no appetite for this. The Clinton administration was engaged attempting to upgrade US law and policy on climate change but they never saw Agenda 21 relevant to this effort. As we have seen, the first Bush administration had agreed to and had ratified the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change under which international negotiations on climate change would proceed.
Since most of the environmental provisions in Agenda 21 were based upon preexisting United States law and policy, the United States consistently reported to the United Nations on matters under existing US law that preceded Agenda 21.
Opponents of land-use planning in the United States that are connected to the anti-Agenda 21 campaign frequently claim that because United States law and policy now contain provisions similar to provisions in Agenda 21, this proves the claim that the United States has been implementing Agenda 21. Such an argument completely ignores the fact that the United States and other developed countries have been adopting environmental law and regulations since the late 1960s, decades before Agenda 21 existed and the fact that the US has adopted environmental law is absolutely no evidence of the influence of Agenda 21 .
There is absolutely no factual basis for the claim that United States environmental policy was created in response to provisions of Agenda 21 and such a claim is demonstratively false.
The claim that nations have a duty to comply with the provisions of Agenda 21 is flatly contradicted by the language of the 1992 Rio Declaration which is expressly incorporated into Agenda 21 and which says:
States shall enact effective environmental legislation. Environmental standards, management objectives, and priorities should reflect the environmental and development context to which they apply. Standards applied by some countries may be inappropriate and of unwarranted economic cost to other countries, particularly in developing countries. (Rio Declaration, Principle 11)
And so, so all nations understood that they were not bound to change their laws in accordance with the provisions of Agenda 21.
What was arguably new about Agenda 21 for most governments was the call that environmental and economic development decision-making be integrated. Agenda 21 was premised on the notion that some economic development policies that fail to take into consideration impacts on the environment will harm legitimate environmental protection objectives and environmental policies that fail to consider legitimate economic development needs will frustrate the attainment of legitimate economic aspirations. It is simply not true that Agenda 21 calls for environmental considerations to take precedence over economic development needs. In fact, a large motivating factor for the adoption of Agenda 21 was the fear of developing countries whose most important priority was getting their people out of grinding poverty that environmental laws of most interest to rich developed nations would limit their ability to proceed with economic development. Because Agenda 21 valued economic development on the same plane as environmental protection, many developing nations saw Agenda 21 as protecting their right to pursue economic development. Conversely in the United States, many environmental activists were suspicious of Agenda 21 for putting economic development on the same level as environmental protection. They were afraid that Agenda 21 put too much value in economic development.
Yet Agenda 21 does encourage decision-makers at all governmental scales to consider at the same time environmental protection and economic development needs in decision-making. Because integrated decision-making allows nations to pursue both economic development aspirations and environmental protection goals, it is a way of preventing governments from unknowingly undermining these goals by focusing on only one of them. Most policy makers agree this is a good thing. If, for instance, a project is proposed to limit the use of forest resources, governments should take into consideration the legitimate economic needs of those who rely upon the forest resources for subsistence. Also, of course, economic development projects could adversely affect legitimate environmental protection goals. Therefore economic development projects should consider environmental protection impacts. And so, sustainable development is understood to be a call for the integration of environmental, economic, and social considerations into government decision making. It is simply untruthful to claim the Agenda 21 elevates environmental protection goals over economic development needs.
The following diagram captures the idea well:
Where the scope of proposed environmental, economic, or social policies conflict with legitimate environmental, economic, or social goals, the concept of sustainable development encourages decision-makers to identify these potential conflicts and work democratically with citizen groups to find solutions that achieve environmental, economic and social goals to the maximum extent possible. As this chart depicts, only when there is a potential conflict among environmental, economic, or social goals is integrated decision-making necessary. And so for the vast number of economic policies, integrated decision-making has no effect. As we shall see when we examine ethical issues raised by these matters, this idea of integrated decision-making provides no clear guidance about how to resolve conflicts among environmental, economic, and social goals. Under Agenda 21, this is left to governments to resolve working ideally with multi-stakeholder groups democratically.
The claim that Agenda 21 is a call for international control of local government decision-making is directly contradicted by the text of Agenda 21. Section 10.6 (e) of Agenda 21 expressly calls for policy making to be accomplished at the lowest level of public authority consistent with the effective action and a locally driven approach. In addition, many other provisions of Agenda 21 specifically call for governments to make decisions at the appropriate level. (see, for example, Agenda 21 section 10.6). And so, rather than Agenda 21 establishing a “top-down”United Nations driven set of rules for imposition of radical environmental policies on nations and local governments, Agenda 21 is actually a call for a “bottom-up” stakeholder driven process that integrates environmental and economic development concerns into decision-making which should take place at the lowest possible scale consistent with the scale of the problem. Most environmental problems can be solved at the local level, others require cooperation at the regional or global level. For instance, wetlands protection can usually be dealt with at the local level, protection of water basins require cooperation among all communities sharing the basin, and problems like protection of the ozone layer, acidification of oceans, and climate change require cooperation at the global scale. Agenda 21 calls for solutions at the lowest level consistent with the scale of the problem.
Rather than being opposed to economic development, Agenda 21 actually calls for the strengthening the business sector’s participation in integrated environmental and economic development decisions. In fact there is an entire chapter in Agenda 21, chapter 30, which calls for the strengthening of the business sectors participation in decision-making.
In light of the above, assertions that Agenda 21 implements Marxist/socialist theories that would abolish private ownership of property is both absurd and flatly contradicted throughout the text of Agenda 21. In fact, Agenda 21 also expressly calls for greater use of “more effective and widespread use of economic and market-oriented tools.” (Agenda 21, Sec. 8.30)
Thus it is simply either a lie or reckless disregard for the truth to claim that Agenda 21 entails a “top-down” Marxist plan to abolish private sector involvement in the economy. In fact, in many places, as we have seen Agenda 21 recognizes the crucial importance of the private sector in economic development. Furthermore business organizations were regularly consulted by the United States when it responded to Agenda 21 issues and the American business community consistently agreed with positions taken by the United States on Agenda 21 issues, at least in this writer’s experience. In fact the US government often agreed with positions of the US businesses on matters about which environmental NGOs disagreed. One example was when US environmental NGOs and European countries proposed that a code of conduct for international corporations be adopted by the UN CSD. This idea was strongly opposed by American corporations and the US government on the Clinton Administration successfully prevented the UN from pursuing this idea. his greatly disappointed US environment NGOs. Similarly in 1997 the US government supported the views of the US business community while refusing to support the positions of environmental NGOs and European countries when the European Union proposed that the UN CSD adopt targets to reduce unsustainable consumption by specific percentages. The United States strongly opposed this idea at the urging of the US business community and successfully prevented this idea from going forward in the UN despite strong pleas to the US government from the US NGO community to agree to consumption targets.
The anti-Agenda 21 campaign continues to make the false claim that because President Clinton established the Presidents Council On Sustainable Development (PCSD), an organization which met from June of 1993 to June of 1999, the United States has implemented Agenda 21 throughout the United States. (For an in depth review of the purpose, accomplishments, and failures of the PCSD, see Dernbach, Learning from the President;s Council on Sustainable Development: The Need for Real National Strategy) The PCSD was created by Executive Order of President Clinton to give advice to the US government about how to move toward sustainability.
The membership of the PCSD was made up of roughly equal numbers of individuals from industry, government, and NGOs and was chaired by Ray Anderson, Chairman and CEO of Interface, Inc., a carpet manufacturer, and Jonathan Lash, President of the World Resources Institute. Included among the PCSD members of were Enron, BP Oil, Dow Chemical, and General Motors.
From 1993 to 1999, the PCSD delivered three reports to President Clinton. These reports included a broad array of policy recommendations intended to promote US domestic sustainability. Although the PCSD produced guidance on steps for achieving sustainable development at both domestic and international levels, the Clinton administration chose not to move to implement the PCSD’s recommendations. (McFarlane, Development Policy in the First Two Years of the Bush Administration)
Included in PCSD’s recommendations was a visions statement which included the following goal:
To achieve our vision of sustainable development, some things
must grow—jobs, productivity, wages, capital and savings,
profits, information, knowledge, and education—and others—
pollution, waste, and poverty—must not.
This is hardly the vision of a radical socialist agenda. In addition, the PCSD’s recommendations are replete with many express acknowledgements of respect for the power the market and private decision-making. It is simply not a reasonable interpretation of the work of the PCSD to conclude that it recommended the transformation of American society to a socialist future. Furthermore the PCSD was established as an advisory committee. It did not have any statutory authority of its own, nor was it located within an agency that had any statutory authority. If the US government choose to ignore its recommendations, nothing would come of them. In fact, that is what happened to the PCSD.
The last major event in the PCSD’s life was a national town meeting in Detroit in May of 1999. After the Detroit meeting, the PCSD shut down and as we have noted the Clinton administration took no steps to implement the PCSD’s recommendations. The George W. Bush administration completely ignored the recommendations of the PCSD.
And so nothing meaningful came out of the PCSD. Therefore, there is simply no basis for concluding that the PCSD led to the implementation of a radical environmental agenda in the United States. The claim that the PCSD’s work is evidence of the continuing UN’s covert implementation of Agenda 21 is not just misleading and false, it is a staggering example of reckless disregard for the truth given the unwillingness of both the Clinton and George W. Bush administration to take any steps to implement the PCSD recommendations. The evidence proffered by the anti-Agenda 21 campaign in support of the fact that the PCSDs recommendations have been implemented is the existence of environmental law and regulation at the federal, state and local level throughout United States. However there is no evidence that existing US law and regulation on environmental matters had anything to do either with Agenda 21 or the work of the PCSD.
Claim 2 . The United Nations has covertly pushed Agenda 21 into local communities throughout United States of America through the international Council of Local Environmental Initiatives and through policies such as ” Smart Growth,” “Wildlands Projects”, “Resilient Cities”, “Regional Visioning Projects” and others with similar obscure names. (West Cornwall Township Resolution)
The anti-Agenda 21 campaign frequently claims that Agenda 21 is being covertly implemented through organizations that have been created to implement Agenda 21 while disguising their intentions by changing their names to organizations with the names such as the “International Council on Local Environmental Initiatives (ICLEI),” ” Smart Growth,” “Wildlands Projects,” “Resilient Cities,” and “Regional Visioning Projects.” In making these claims the anti-Agenda 21 campaign is explicitly arguing that those engaged in these programs are doing so to implement Agenda 21. That is these organizations are pursuing their goals because of the Agenda 21, not because they independently see benefits from sound growth, responsible land-use or transportation planning, or the creation of bike lanes for reasons other than Agenda 21.
The chapter in Agenda 21 on local authorities, Chapter 28, is only slightly longer than one page. It contains no prescriptions in regard to the content of local sustainability programs. This chapter simply says that each local authority should enter into a dialogue with its citizens, local organizations, and private enterprises and adopt a local Agenda 21. There are simply no minimum conditions for what constitutes a local Agenda 21. The clear objective of this chapter is that communities determine the content of local Agenda 21s through collaborative examination of their own needs for appropriate environmental, economic, and social policies. Given this it is absurd to conclude that the contents of any local sustainability program were formed by Agenda 21.
Those engaged in the anti-Agenda 21 campaign are unable to identify a link between these organizations and Agenda 21 or the United Nations other than claiming that these organizations are working on subject matter which is also covered in Agenda 21. No one in the United Nations reviews local sustainability plans to determine if they are minimally consistent with Agenda 21. There is simply no formal institutional connection between the United Nations and local governments except for the fact that the UN keeps some track of local sustainability programs and occasionally convenes meetings to allow local communities to learn from each other about how to construct local sustainability programs. The United Nations does not review or pass on the acceptability of these programs. Moreover, much of the land use, transportation, and energy planning that is under attack by the anti-Agenda 21 program has not been conducted by these organizations, they simply are the product of local government planning processes led by staff that often never heard of Agenda 21 nor ever worked with organizations such as ICLEI. Yet, even in the cases where local land use plans have been produced by local planning organizations working with local stakeholder groups rather than the named organizations, the anti-Agenda 21 argues that these plans are part of a United Nations plot.
The only evidence that these named organizations are covertly pursuing the implementation of Agenda 21 proffered by the anti-Agenda 21 campaign is that these organizations are doing work similar in content to the focus of several Agenda 21 chapters. Yet such an argument completely ignores the possibility that those working for these organizations are pursuing the organization’s goals because they believe that responsible planning is worthy of pursuit on its own terms because of the ability of communities to implement a vision of the future derived in planning processes. The anti-Agenda 21 campaign offers no proof that people working for these organizations have been motivated by the desire to implement Agenda 21. Given that, as we have seen, that most of the environmental provisions of Agenda 21 were based upon environmental laws and policies that existed before Agenda 21 came into existence it is preposterous to assume the people working for these organizations have been motivated primarily by the provisions of Agenda 21.
There is simply no evidence that people engaged in these organizations are taking orders from, report to, or are responding to wishes of United Nations. Even if they were, given that Agenda 21 is a menu of options, not a set of rules, local governments are completely free under Agenda 21 to determine which environmental and economic issues will be taken into consideration in their local planning.
However, this does not stop the anti-Agenda 21 campaign from attacking local planning on the basis that it is part of an UN Marxist plot to destroy private property.
Claim 3. Agenda 21 and sustainable development views the American way of life of private property ownership, single-family homes, private automobile ownership, individual travel choices, privately owned farms, and human existence as all being destructive of the environment. (West Cornwall Township Resolution)
Embedded in this claim are two assertions about Agenda 21 that are directly contradicted by the text of Agenda 21. One is the claim that Agenda 21 encourages the destruction of property rights. The second is the claim that Agenda 21 elevates environment protection goals over the interests of people. These two claims are very frequently made by the anti-Agenda 21 campaign yet directly contradicted by Agenda 21.
Section 8.18 of Agenda 21 provides that governments and legislators should establish judicial and administrative procedures for legal redress and remedy of actions affecting environment and development that may affect rights. Agenda 21 section 10.5 expressly says that property rights should be taken into account in land use decisions. And so, not only is there no support for the claim that Agenda 21 encourages the elimination of property rights, as we have seen Agenda 21 says the exact opposite.
Rather than elevating environmental protection over human interests, Agenda 21 expressly incorporates principal one of the Rio Declaration that says that human beings are at the center concern for sustainable development. And so, the idea that Agenda 21 makes human interests subservient to environment protection goals is directly contradicted by the text of Agenda 21. Although it is true that Agenda 21 encourages people to live in harmony with nature, Agenda 21 does not discourage the use of natural resources to meet human needs except to the extent that it encourages decision-makers to consider how the overuse of natural resources will undermine the quality of life for present and future generations. Even in this case, human interests are the basis for concern about the environment. Also, local governments are completely free to decide which issues it will consider in land use planning.
And as we have seen above, Agenda 21 also incorporates principle two of the Rio Declaration that expressly says that nations have the sovereign right to exploit their own resources pursuant to their own environmental and development policies. This provisions make nations sovereign over natural resources, not the Unite Nations while reaffirming national sovereignty. Once again, the anti-Agenda 21 campaign is making claims that are demonstratively false.
Claim 4. Under Agenda 21, social justice is described as the right and opportunity of the people around the world to benefit equally from the resources afforded us by society and the environment which would be accomplished by socialist/communist global redistribution of property and wealth. (West Cornwall Township Resolution).
As we have seen, Agenda 21 expressly encourages property rights to be honored and for governments to establish civil procedures to redress the unlawful taking of property rights. The absurd notion that agenda 21 calls for the redistribution of wealth according to socialist/communist goals is nowhere be found in Agenda 21 and as we have seen Agenda 21 expressly calls for the strengthening of the private sector participation in decision-making in many places including an entire chapter of Agenda 21, Chapter 30.
Agenda 21 does call for more foreign aid from developed countries to assist poor developing countries with poverty alleviation. This however is simply a call for more foreign aid, not a request for redistribution of wealth pursuant to some socialist/communist theory. Chapter 33 of Agenda 21 calls for developed nations to provide 0.7% of GDP for foreign aid to poor developing countries. The United States, however, made it clear when it signed Agenda 21 in 1992 by making a special statement on the issue that it did not agree with this goal and was not in any way bound by it. This disclaimer was originally made by the George H.W Bush administration and was strongly and frequently repeated in the Clinton administration during meetings of the United Nations Commission on Sustainable Development. In fact, when I was on the US delegation in 1997, when several developing nations criticized the United States for being in last place among developed countries in percentage of GDP devoted to foreign aid, with only 0. 1 % of US GDP devoted to foreign aid compared to 10 times as much in some European countries, the Clinton not administration strongly repeated its position that the US rejected the 0.7% of GDP goal. It further said that the principle way to help developing nations economically was to help them them to attract private sector investment.
And so, the claim that Agenda 21 will lead to a Marxist/communist redistribution of private resources is another staggering delusional claim made by the anti-Agenda 21 campaign.
III. Conclusion to this First in a Series on the anti-Agenda 21 Campaign.
So far we have seen that four claims repeatedly made by the anti-Agenda 21 campaign are so demonstratively false, misleading, inaccurate about Agenda 21 that they can only be explained as the result of paranoid conspiracy theory about the United Nations or by a reckless disregard for the truth. Yet, we have seen that this delusional phenomenon has been successful in undermining local and regional planning and amazingly convincing the Republican party to accept and adopt in their party platform claims that are contradicted by the very document on which the claims are based.
Later entries in this series will continue the examination of specific claims made by the anti-Agenda 21 campaign, deduce from all these claims the tactics that have been deployed by the anti-Agenda 21 campaign and subject these tactics to an ethical analysis. In a later blog we will also examine who appears to be behind this disturbing development in US affairs.
Reilly, William, 1992, Questions and Answers on UNCED Issues, March 29, 1992 (Copy of this in possession of author)
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 http://www.acoel.org/post/2013/03/27/AGENDA-21-A-GUIDE-FOR-THE-PERPLEXED-.aspx
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.